The rite of baking the perfect cake

My hand mixer has been working overtime lately.

In preparation for holiday guests, I have sampled new recipes for muffins and cakes, experimented with butter cream and fudge frosting, and whipped up a new confection for my family at least once a day.

By the time the holidays were over, no one was in the mood for anything baked.

I have no reason other than cheapness for using a hand mixer instead of the stand type, which can cost a couple hundred dollars. But I am old-fashioned when it comes to the recipes themselves.

When searching for the perfect recipe for yellow butter cake with chocolate frosting, my husband puzzled over why I was bothering to mix the ingredients from scratch.

"You know who makes a really good yellow cake?" he said cheekily. "Betty Crocker." He was referring to boxed cake mix.

And while I agree that the boxed mixes generally turn out a moister, tastier cake than any that I have made thus far, I see the use of the mix as some sort of defeat. Surely I can do it better from scratch.

Besides, I envision a future in which there is no boxed cake mix (and, thank God, no canned frosting); yet there are -somehow, miraculously - available milk, butter, eggs, flour and sugar.

In anticipation of such a limited existence, it seems necessary that I should know how to prepare delicious baked goods without shortcuts.

Furthermore, I've found that, with most mixes, by the time you've added the eggs and oil and other ingredients not included in the box, you've really not saved yourself that many steps.

And that cake mix can only turn into a finite number of end products (usually just cake), while a few pantry staples - flour, sugar, shortening, and spices - can become an almost limitless list of tasty treats.

How satisfying it is to find a new recipe and realize that you already have everything you need to make it.

There's also the joy of sharing the process with my children. I am learning something alongside them, modeling the frustration of failure (although, even baking failures are seldom inedible) and the satisfaction of success.

At 2 and 4, they've both learned that the hand mixer represents the possibility of lickable snacks - a taste of chocolate butter cream frosting, perhaps.

The whirring of the beaters produces a Pavlovian reaction in which they come running, scrambling for a barstool so that they can see over the counter, and shouting, "Can I lick the beaters?" It's good there are two of them.

The kids also enjoy the other aspects of baking something from scratch: the measuring, the pouring, the sifting, the mixing. They fuss over whose turn it is to hold the mixer or add the sugar.

They scurry away in awed caution when I announce that I'm ready to open the oven, imagining a day when they will be trusted with such a grown-up task.

I think that's why I insist on finding the perfect recipe.

Sure, it would be easier to rely on boxed cake mix and be done with it, especially during the busy holiday season.

But there's something to be said for having real knowledge of something, for trying and failing, for achieving the rites of passage of your chosen skill.

I wouldn't dream of letting my kids use a calculator to take shortcuts on their math homework, which, thank God, is still a few years away. But how can I insist on math fundamentals if I'm taking shortcuts in the kitchen?

For now, it's January, and my hand mixer is enjoying some much-deserved time off. We're all sick of cake.

But at least we know how to make it.

And maybe Betty Crocker still does it better, but she had to learn somehow.