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Baking up a tradition with children
Tips to make time in the kitchen fun and easy
Using the shortbread cookie dough recipe, home cooks can bake up a variety of cookies including, from top, almond shortbread drop cookies, raspberry almond shortbread thumbprints and chocolate thumbprints.

For almond shortbread cookie dough and chocolate thumbprint cookies, click here.

As you read this, I’m most likely happily immersed in a world of flour spills, sprinkle dumps and misplaced frosting smears. Translation: baking Christmas cookies with a 3-year-old.

My daughter and I started this three-generation tradition last year; and yes, 2-year-olds really can “help” bake cookies.

Think about your own childhood. If cookies weren’t the first thing you baked with your mom (or dad), they were probably the most frequent reason behind any hands-on project in the kitchen.

But like anything, there’s a good way to bake with kids, and there’s a better way.

I turned to a few experts — instructors who teach kids’ cooking classes — for their advice on making a cookie-baking project with kids the best experience it can be (for everyone).

Here are their tips:

* Have everything ready ahead before you call in the kiddos, advised Caroline Burkert of Kids Can Cook in Elm Grove, Wis. Ingredients out, equipment on the counter.

For her classes, she has cookies baked ahead so the kids sample first.

“To taste what they’re going to make is a big encouragement to them,” she said.

* Pace yourself.

If attention spans are short, do one tray with the kids and finish the rest later yourself. Or spread it out over a couple of days, suggested Nancy Kopperud, owner of The Petite Chef kids’ cooking school, which moved from Oconomowoc to Dousman, Wis.

She suggests phases: “one for decorated cookies that are the messiest, another for simpler drop cookies.”

* Contain the mess.

Kopperud gives each child a large baking sheet with sides (like a jellyroll pan) as their personal work space for decorating cookies. Just put a damp dish towel underneath to help keep it in place.

And wooden Popsicle sticks, she said, work great for kids as frosting spreaders.

* Consider the child’s age. But don’t discount the littlest ones!

“Really, every step of the way kids can be involved, whether it’s cracking eggs or measuring ingredients,” Kopperud said.

Or dumping in what you’ve measured. Or pushing the button on the mixer.

That said, “Work fast,” Burkert said. “Don’t make it too involved.”

* Consider your recipe choices. Cut-out cookies are a natural.

“Any sort of tool you can incorporate makes it more fun for them,” Kopperud said. Working with a cookie press “is like packing it with Play-Doh,” she said.

* Cookies that need to be shaped by hand are also winners.

“That’s what kids like to do,” Burkert said, “to get in there and handle the dough.”

* But stick to foolproof recipes, advised Laura Verage, which is what she does when doing kids’ baking parties through her Colgate, Wis., business, Cookies from Scratch.

“This is not the time to try something new,” she said.

* With older kids, especially, dig beneath the recipe.

“I like to do cookies that have some history,” Kopperud said. “Bring the story into it.”

For example, if she does a cookie with anise, she’ll explain it’s an old German tradition.

* Don’t micromanage — park your perfectionism at the kitchen door.

“That’s a mistake,” Kopperud said of hovering parents. “I see that a lot. It’s important to let the kids make their own masterpiece.”

* Finally, believe that it’s worth the extra effort, time and mess.

“Learning baking fundamentals is something you carry with you forever,” Verage said.

Nancy J. Stohs is food editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Email her at nstohs