Seventh-grader Janet Sale had finished her dinner and her homework one recent Wednesday night when she remembered something she had been meaning to tell her mother all week:
"I have to make something for the bake sale tomorrow."
Never mind that Janet had known about the bake sale for about two months. With just a couple of hours until bedtime, it was time for quick action. After a fast trip to the grocery store for a cookie mix and a decorating kit, Janet set to work.
She finished baking and icing the pumpkin-shaped sugar cookies by 9 p.m. The next day, she put the cookies in plastic bags and took them to St. Pius X School in Towson for the monthly bake sale.
In this busy age of two-career couples and slick fund-raisers run by commercial companies, the all-American bake sale endures as a reliable moneymaker that is pure profit. It takes some arm-twisting of co-workers to sell the wrapping paper and overpriced candy, but set out a table of homemade brownies, cookies, crisp-rice treats and a decorated cake or two, and watch the money roll in.
You say your daughter didn't tell you until last night that there's a bake sale at school this morning? Join the club. That's no excuse to send her to school empty-handed.
Your job, as a parent, is to be prepared. Just as you keep colored pencils and glue sticks around for the occasional social studies project, you should avoid running out of chocolate chips and all-purpose flour in the cupboard.
Sally Sampson, author of "The Bake Sale Cookbook" (Simon & Schuster, 2000), gives a list of the essentials for the pantry and refrigerator that will keep you from sweating over last-minute baking. She also provides several easy recipes for cookies, bars, cakes and pies that are portable, easy to bag in individual portions and need no refrigeration.
So when you find out about a bake sale while tucking your child into bed, choose an easy recipe that infuses the house with the scent of vanilla. And dream sweetly as it lingers into the night.
"You can make cookie dough ahead of time and freeze it in logs, so that when you have that situation, you're ready to go," Sampson said. Even if you start the night before the event, she said, with a well-stocked pantry you can turn out something fabulous within an hour, and let it cool while you snooze between warm flannel sheets.
Resist the temptation to buy a boxed mix, Sampson said. "I don't know anything about those."
And commercially made goods are not necessarily timesavers.
"These recipes are so easy that by the time you drive to Dunkin' Donuts you could have made a batch of cookies," Sampson said. "If you can read, you can do these recipes."
The staples she advises to keep on hand are the kind of thing that will most likely already be in the pantries of most homes of those who do any kind of baking. Sampson recommends keeping enough eggs and unsalted butter on hand in the refrigerator. Lemons, peanut butter, sour cream and yogurt are also helpful.
For the cupboard, Sampson recommends not running out of all-purpose flour, cake flour, baking soda, baking powder, granulated sugar, brown sugar, confectioners' sugar, shredded and sweetened coconut, kosher salt, rolled oats, vanilla extract, vegetable shortening, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, poppy seeds and various forms of chocolate: milk chocolate, unsweetened squares, semisweet squares, semisweet chips, cocoa powder and white chocolate.
If you already have that stuff on hand, you can cut the trip to the grocery store and automatically save an hour, unless you need a specialty ingredient like butterscotch chips or molasses.
Suzanne Kuttas, a Columbia mother of two girls at Oakland Mills Middle School and Oakland Mills High School, said she's never been caught so short by a bake sale that she couldn't whip up something, even if it's a pan of brownies from a mix that she keeps on hand "just in case. But you get a lot of brownies at bake sales. A lot of brownies."
Still, she said, "anything chocolate" seems to sell. Crisp-rice treats are a perennial favorite that couldn't be easier to make.
"And banana bread," she said. "That's always a good one."
Kuttas bakes her banana bread into mini loaves, wraps them in plastic and ties a ribbon around them. It's an easy recipe if you have ripe bananas on the counter or in the freezer.
At St. Pius X, the parent group started the tradition of a monthly in-house bake sale decades ago as a way to raise extra discretionary money for each classroom teacher, said principal Geraldine Morrison. Every month, a different grade level takes charge of the sale, which usually brings in around $300. The proceeds can buy ice cream for a party, ease the cost of a field trip or buy instructional materials on which teachers otherwise spend their own money.
For the younger grades, mothers and fathers do the baking. But Hannah Dunevant of Rodgers Forge and her fellow seventh-graders do a lot of the work, fitting it in between studying for the math quiz and writing their English papers.