On a chilly Friday as the sun negotiates the cloudy afternoon sky, I walk to the Jewish Community Center (JCC) on the Upper West Side of New York City to bake holiday cookies with a group of strangers for homeless and underserved seniors.
Security is heavy at the door as I hand over my cell phone and keys, open my purse for inspection of the contents and walk through an X-ray machine. I take the elevator down to the building’s sub-basement and enter a smallish room called the Patti Gelman Culinary Arts Center where four baking stations await us.
The walls are lined with two ovens, a commercial refrigerator, a gigantic range and dozens of cabinets and shelves that contain cooking paraphernalia. In the center of the room is an enormous island with a range where we'll be working. The instructor, Jennifer Abadi, a cookbook author of Too Good to Passover and A Fistful of Lentils, and an assistant stand a few feet away. They pour measures of spices, baking powder, baking soda and vanilla into small glass containers, lay out sticks of butter, eggs and fill stainless steel bowls with flour, sugar and bittersweet chocolate. At each station, there is a Kitchen Aid mixer, recipe sheets, aprons, rolling pins, freezer bags, parchment paper, plastic wrap and aluminum foil, glass jars, nuts and dried fruit.
Ten of us show up to bake that day. To keep the cooks from licking spoons and fingers, our hunger is abated with a few nibbles of mixed nuts. Someone brings cups of coffee from an upstairs coffee bar. Before baking begins, I seize an opportunity to take photographs on my smartphone.
I am in a group with “Molly” and “Bob,” both of whom immediately tell me that they are fabulous cooks. I’m not sure what that means, except I become a bit intimidated about working with the likes of Martha Stewart and Marcus Samuelsson. We go to the sink to wash our hands. Back at our station, Bob takes over as he mutters incredulously that he is “working toward total efficiency in the kitchen.” I am not quite sure what that means either, but I assume I will find out soon enough.
The steps to baking our recipes involve making the dough, refrigerating it and placing it on parchment-paper-lined baking sheets. Before we begin, the instructor encourages us to take a moment to appreciate why we’re doing this. “We are baking as an act of generosity and kindness,” she reminds us. I wonder why she felt inclined to offer us this message, but I think she might have picked up on the fact that some of us were taking this volunteer baking gig a bit too seriously.
Bob again asserts his authority. I’m feeling more uncomfortable about doing a volunteer project with a such bossy character, the kind I avoid at all costs in other circumstances. I step back. I am not about to get competitive over a batch of oatmeal raisin cookies and chocolate brownies, especially since I know I’m a good baker and don’t need to be the top dog. I can play the role of a good soldier.
He assigns Molly and I tasks in what he decides will be an assembly-like line—measurer, creamer, scraper, scooper. Bob instructs me to cream the butter and sugars in the Kitchen Aid mixer. He shows me how to use it efficiently. “Slow down,” he commands. I smile but under my breath am thinking “…are you kidding me?” Then he takes my hand gingerly into his own and shows me how to fold in the other ingredients. Bob is quick to point out that we need a flat whisk to mix the dry ingredients together and proceeds to show us how to wield the whisk with the snap of the wrist. I didn’t know in advance I’d be attending Bob’s cooking school—a bonus! However, I decide that I can always learn more. Soon each of us is massaging butter into a fluffy mass while elbow deep in flour.
Despite working with a culinary know-it-all, small talk about our families and kids starts to give us a chance to get to know one another before the conversation turns to weightier matters like the economy, anti-Semitism and politics. Molly, who has never married, is a retired social worker. Bob, who owns an importing business that he handed down to his daughter, is smart and interesting. What bothers me is that he has put us in the role of his underlings; we’re the nurses and he’s the surgeon. He yells for the whisk, vanilla, right mixing spoon and scraper. I jokingly say, “Yes, doctor.”
The energy in the room among our 10 bakers is palpable. Soft music is piped into the room over the din of mixers buzzing and timers ringing as people roll and pinch, stuff and fold. Arms tangle as people reach for the same ingredients. In one moment, I have to snake my arm under Molly’s to get to the vanilla and salt…using a boarding house reach. Soon, our oatmeal cookie dough is ready and rolled into a ball to be refrigerated.
Throughout the process, we leave behind massive piles of dirty dishes, bowls and kitchen utensils and a flour-strewn floor. No worry. Bob is there with paper towels to wipe the spills to keep our workspace as pristine as possible.
While the dough is in the refrigerator, we start making the brownies. We take the dough out 30 minutes later and struggle to scoop out balls using a small ice-cream scooper that doesn’t work well. “Don’t roll them with your hands,” Bob commands. “Flour in the dough gets tougher and harder the more you roll and mix it,” Bob instructs. He inspects the placement of the dough on each cookie sheet. “They’re too close to each other; they’ll run together when baking. You need to place them at least 1 inch apart,” he says. “Okay. Okay,” Molly and I say in unison. We finally complete this task and put the cookies in the oven.
It’s on to the brownies. Bob again assigns tasks as he stands over us shouting commands. We check our cookies in the oven, and I notice out of the corner of my eye, that Bob has taken it upon himself to pour the brownie mixture onto a cookie sheet that he is spreading carefully with a rubber spatula.
While the cookies and brownie-like desserts are baking, the group conversation bubbles, running from wines and food, cheese, fishing and novels, to politics and real estate. There is a good convivial buzz in the air as some of us exchange cards, emails and phone numbers. “Ping,” the first batches of cookies are finished. We remove them from the ovens and pop some in our mouths— “yum” someone intones—while we wait for the next batches to bake.
No matter how imperfect (sorry, Bob) the cookies look, all taste the same when we sit down to sample them while sipping our coffee. By the end of the session, we had made approximately 15 dozen chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin and snickerdoodle cookies and chocolate brownies, blondies and lemonies that would be handed out a few hours later at a nearby senior center with a holiday meal.
Here are a dozen tips to make group cooking fun, successful, less stressful and rewarding:
- Each participant should choose a task for which you seem best suited. Perhaps, someone is strong and likes to stir or is precise and enjoys measuring. It’s nice to ask rather than assign. This is a democratic volunteer endeavor, which our group leader, self-anointed, forgot.
- Insist on everyone washing hands and make it clear up front there is to be no licking of fingers, utensils or bowls. This is just good hygiene. And bring long your own hand sanitizer.
- Have a strategy for how to get the job done. Do it consecutively. First, second, third steps. But have fun and if you digress, so what!
- Be sure you set rules, so everyone feels they are an important part of the baking team.
- Try to pick up new techniques.
- Choose recipes that don’t require too many steps. Keep it simple. Again, it’s supposed to be fun and a bonding experience, not stressful.
- At most, make only two or three recipes and ones that require different methods—one uses the oven, another the microwave, one the stovetop and one that doesn’t require tons of counter space or cooking at all.
- If there are more than a couple of cooks, set up stations in advance with mixing bowls, utensils and necessary ingredients for each recipe.
- Print out and place each recipe at each station. Everyone should have their own to read.
- If you’re a neat freak, try to keep it less messy but clean up at the end without being intrusive and obnoxious. You are supposed to get your hands dirty. Bob would use a utensil and either wash it immediately or take a paper towel and place the used utensil on it to keep the counter clean. I thought to myself he must have stock in a fancy brand of paper products.
- Make it convivial. Don’t be so serious; laugh at your mistakes or mishaps; share jokes, cooking tales and favorite recipes. Politics and serious matters can wait for your close circle of friends.
- After baking, sample the results together and make good conversation with a cup of coffee or glass of wine. Have napkins and paper plates and plastic bags available for those who want to take some samples home. You will long remember the camaraderie shared rather than the specifics so loosen up and enjoy.