My mother was a very good mother. Her three children turned out rather nicely, if I do say so myself. We all have good teeth and write prompt thank-you notes and not one of us has spent the night in jail, well, not recently. And the thing was, my mother couldn't bake.
I bring this all up because of the cupcakes. I love to cook, but baking is chemistry and, had it not been for my math-major boyfriend, I would have failed chemistry. Unlike cooking, you can't play with a dish once the thing is in the oven, which you can't say about a stew. Plus, it has to look good.
In that regard, baking is the trophy wife of gastronomy.
I have precisely one dessert in my repertoire, an almost flourless chocolate cake that I pilfered from my Great-Aunt Nancy. It never fails to please because it is made with copious amounts of butter and premium chocolate.
But that's not what my daughter wants. She wants cupcakes and, after years of judicious eating, decides the ones at the local bakery aren't good enough for her classmates. No, we are going to have to make them.
As it's against my philosophical construct to prepare anything from a box, I find a Gourmet recipe on the Web and some excellent Scharffen Berger cocoa powder on a colleague's desk. Of the latter, my daughter remarks, "Perhaps that's too good for my class," thereby revealing the basic paradox of contemporary parenting. You're never right.
Perfect Mother Syndrome, the more pervasive PMS, can strike when you least expect it. The affliction is characterized by a rampant desire to appear as if you're doing a better job than you actually are. It's fueled by copious amounts of caffeine and aerobic activities, to say nothing of mind-numbing amounts of driving.
One year my daughter was in a class where each and every mother looked like a supermodel, even first thing in the morning, except they were all doctors and lawyers who ran 10Ks, sat on charitable boards, and staffed every school committee while turning out exquisite baked goods. Plus, they could sew, which is entirely unfair, but were so nice you couldn't possibly dislike them.
Many days, I can't get to the gym, most recently because I'm making cupcakes, which sort of contributes to the problem, thereby completing a vicious cycle of inadequacy.
So I'm making the cupcakes, while I'm cooking the dinner while answering questions about homework and whether the only pair of pants one child will wear is clean and noticing some yucky bugs on the floor and - you know what? - I realize I'm not doing a perfect job at any of this.
I recently read an article about Hillary Clinton and her Wellesley College cohorts. "When Hillary had the class reunion at the White House, there were 325 of us there," a classmate recalled. "I turned to someone and said 'I think there are 324 of us here who feel like failures,' and she said, 'No, I think there are 325 of us who feel like failures.' "
And this from a woman with a good cookie recipe.
So we make the cupcakes, chocolate cake and vanilla buttercream icing just like my daughter wants, with plenty of sprinkles on top. They smell terrific, if I do say so myself, but I don't taste them, because that's the other problem with baking - you can't test the product without ruining the whole visual presentation.
On the way to school, my daughter says, "You know, they don't really look good."
If I didn't love her so much, I would be furious, considering military school or something, that is, if they take 11-year-olds, but the thing is she's right. They look sort of sloppy and sad.
"Never mind, I bet they taste great," she says, smiling. "I'm so glad we did this, Mommy."
Every time she says Mommy, even though she's said it a million times, I melt like so much Scharffen Berger chocolate. I know that in a matter of seconds she's going to think it's so not cool to call me that.
And this weekend, my daughter and her not-perfect mother might tackle shortbread. I figure this baking business, like so much of life, is all about practice.