Things didn't start well when we discovered we were one egg short of the recipe. "Doesn't matter, mummy," said my three-year-old brightly as she plunged her hands into the ground almonds. We were two ounces short of almonds – did that cancel out the missing egg? – and we had the wrong sort of chocolate. We hadn't even begun to bake and already I was feeling stressed.
Tip one for baking with young children: check your ingredients first.
I decided to put the poor start behind us. Mixing the butter and sugar was great fun, although the end product was far from the "fluffy" texture recommended in the recipe. "Lovely thick custard," decided my daughter.
Tip two: don't worry if your cake diverges from the book.
We had great success with the egg whites. My daughter operated the whisk by herself and marvelled at how they gradually transformed into a thick bubble bath-like substance. My one-year-old, banging around with a wooden spoon and mixing bowl on the floor, now wanted in on the action. This is where things got tricky. He was assigned a cupboard of plastic cups and plates to "tidy" while my daughter got busy tasting the cake mix and I struggled to fit the base in to the bottom of the cake tin. Soon the kitchen was an assault course of plastic and my son had emptied the cupboard of poppy seeds and icing sugar.
Tip three: begin baking when babies are napping.
The cake went into the oven. My daughter licked the mixing bowls. My son played with a poppy seed mountain. The cake rose beautifully, and then sank, but an enthusiastic application of chocolate icing meant that no one cared.
In fact, this seems to be the secret of successful baking with children. Sue Palmer, education expert and author of Toxic Childhood, says the most important thing is to relax and enjoy the experience rather than getting hung up on doing things perfectly. "Parents have to be very patient and just appreciate spending time with the kids," says Palmer, who says cooking is a great way to learn life skills and maintain social interaction. "We are so used to rushing about and getting things done as quickly as possible, but it's important to make that adjustment and get into the right mindset, so you can both enjoy it."
Annabel Karmel, children's cooking guru and author of the bestselling Complete Baby And Toddler Meal Planner, is evangelical when it comes to getting children busy in the kitchen. And, surprisingly for the author of beautifully illustrated cook books, she says parents shouldn't worry about trying to match her recipes ounce for ounce. "Don't worry if it doesn't look like the picture in the book, just let them get on with it," says Karmel, who is a mother of three children. "Don't be tempted to leap in and take over."
She recommends starting off with simple recipes that can be done and dusted within half an hour to accommodate short attention spans. But the babysitting stops there.
"There are so many jobs even very small children can do," she insists, listing grating cheese, peeling potatoes, rolling out dough, podding peas and mixing salad dressing. "If you teach young children the skills, they grow up knowing how to be safe and sensible in the kitchen. They are much more intelligent and capable than people give them credit for."
Christmas is the perfect time to have some kitchen fun. Home-made mince-pies and festive cookies make perfect treats for parties (and can be healthier than shop-bought varieties) not to mention treasured gifts for doting relatives. A baking session is also an ideal indoor activity now that the weather is cold and the afternoons are dark. If you're seeking some inspiration, why not try out these simple fun recipes to get your little ones in the festive mood?
STAINED GLASS WINDOW BISCUITS
(makes about 25 biscuits)
350g/12 oz plain flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp salt
100g (4 oz) butter
175g (6 oz) soft brown sugar
4 tbsp golden syrup
Several different colours of fruit-flavoured boiled sweets
Pre-heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4. Mix the flour, bicarbonate of soda, ginger and salt into a bowl. Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs, then stir in the sugar.
Beat together the egg and golden syrup. Mix into the flour mixture to make a smooth dough, kneading lightly with your hands.
Crush the sweets in their wrappers using a rolling pin. Sprinkle flour on a clean work surface and roll out the dough until about 1/2cm (1/4in) thick, then cut into shapes using a selection of Christmas cookie cutters. Transfer to lined baking sheets.
Cut out shapes in the centre of each biscuit, making sure you leave a good edge all around the biscuit. Completely fill the hole in each biscuit with crushed boiled sweets.
Make a hole at the top of each biscuit using a drinking straw so that you will be able to thread a ribbon through it later. Bake for around 11-12 minutes or until they turn golden brown.
While the biscuits are still warm, check the holes are still there, otherwise push a straw through again.
Do not remove the biscuits from the baking tray until they have cooled, as the melted boiled sweets still need to become hard. Once the sweets have hardened, use a palette knife to gently lift the biscuits on to a wire rack to finish cooling.
You can decorate the biscuits with piped white icing. Thread ribbons through the holes to make loops for hanging on the Christmas tree.
RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED BAKED POTATO
4 medium baking potatoes (around 225g each)
A little vegetable oil
Half of a medium-sized butternut squash (around 300g)
1 tsp Dijon mustard
40g fresh, grated parmesan cheese
2 tbsp milk
40g grated cheddar cheese
Cherry tomatoes, twirly crisps, peas for eyes
Preheat the oven to 190C/370F/Gas Mark 5. Prick the potatoes in several places, place on a baking tray and brush with oil. Bake for 60-75 minutes or until they are feel soft.
While the potatoes are cooling, cut the butternut squash in half, then scoop out the seeds. Place the squash half into a baking dish, skin side down. Melt 20g of the butter and brush it over the squash, then bake it in the oven for about 40 minutes or until tender.
When cool enough to handle, cut the tops off the potatoes and scoop out the flesh. Scoop the flesh of the cooked butternut squash from its skin and mash together with the baked potato flesh, mustard, parmesan, milk and remaining butter. Season with salt and pepper. Put the mixture back into the potato shells and top with the grated cheddar. Meanwhile, preheat the grill on its hottest setting. Place the potatoes on a baking tray or suitable dish and grill for a few minutes until the cheese is bubbling and golden.
Add twirly crisps for antlers, peas for eyes and cherry tomatoes for the nose.
The recipes and pictures came from Annabel Karmel's 'Family Cookbook Winter and Christmas 2009' (Dennis Publishing, £5.99)