Parenting has changed in the past few decades. My mother didn't work while raising her first three children, finally going back when I was 4. She didn't have to worry about car seats or tummy time or how much television we watched.
And when she baked something for a school bake sale, she had plenty of time to make something from the typical wheelhouse — chocolate-chip cookies, brownies, pineapple upside-down cake — without ever worrying about nut allergies or gluten-free kids. My mother didn't think twice about what she bought at the grocery store — whether they had artificial flavors or preservatives. (Those things were modern and magical.) She also never had to ask herself the ridiculous question that often rings through my mind when faced with a baking project: What would Martha do?
Well, Martha definitely would not buy something at the grocery store, but times have changed. Parents work crazy hours, life is somehow faster, and a stray peanut could send someone to the emergency room. And sometimes you sign up for these things fully intending to bake something, but the day gets away from you.
Unfortunately for me, like the famous Ms. Stewart, I rarely take the easy way out. I have been known to torture myself with mile-long to-do lists, and short cuts just aren't my style. Because of this persistent (some might call it annoying) personality trait, I mainly gravitate toward recipes that rely on pantry and refrigerator staples. Buttermilk biscuits? Forget it. I'll scour my cookbooks or do an online search until I find a recipe that uses regular milk — and I'll stick with that recipe loyally.
Being a fairly regular baker, however, means I now have a few easy go-to recipes that are both simple and elegant — yet still adhere to my rule against last-minute trips to the grocery store for exotic ingredients. Those recipes include a knockout whoopie pie and a sophisticated spin on the ubiquitous cupcake, this one a moist banana cake gilded with honey-cinnamon frosting. Having the right recipes at hand means you can churn out show-stopping desserts in little more time than it takes to make cupcakes from a box or pick up something from the store.
Aside from the actual treats you make, bake-sale gurus know packaging and presentation are as essential to wowing customers and making them reach for their coin purses. Natasha Kobran of Frederick, Md., made coordinating labels and arranged everything on pretty platters and cake stands for the bake sale she recently organized. "People were saying that it looked like a fancy bake sale," she says, adding that selling coffee and iced tea went over well, too. "I brought in my own dishes so things wouldn't just be on paper plates."
She says the sweets that had a twist got the most buzz. "People are always into nostalgia, but people's food vocabulary is so much bigger than it was even five years ago," she says. "Now they sort of expect unusual ingredients. People have been exposed to more."
With my oldest child about to enter kindergarten next year, the bake sale years lie ahead of me like a virtual trip through Candy Land. Unlike flu shots, sleepless nights and the constant pleading of "why, why, why?" this is a part of their childhood I'm truly looking forward to.
However, even a perfectionist like me realizes that the dream sometimes withers in the face of the day to day, and that I'll always rely on recipes that look tough to make — but are actually a piece of cake.