What’s the draw of brightly-colored frostings and cutesy sprinkles?

Let’s talk about those wonderful, colorful little sugar cookies sold in supermarkets, coated with 1/4″ of frosting and covered in seasonally-color-coordinated sprinkles.  Also, the teeny, ‘two-bite’ brownies and muffins and carrot cakes which beckon to us from inside their sterile plastic clam shells stacked neatly on the baking racks near the deli.

What exactly is their draw?  I’m asking because I’m frustrated–and I’m also completely addicted to them.  If it’s got any color frosting on it, I’m intrigued.  Add the incredible lure of non-pareils, jimmies, sprinkles, colored sugars, cinnamon red hots, teeny marzipan fruits and even those little edible silver balls that look like BBs, and I’m purchasing the item in question.

But the weird thing about store-bought baked goods that are decorated in frostings and gewgaws is that they are usually devoid of taste.  I just bought some festive little cupcakes from my favorite supermarket (Super Target, duh), which easily expressed half their bulk in red and white frosting and little red, white and blue star-shaped sprinkles.  The frosting was sweet, as expected, and the little stars were kind of tough as well as kind of sweet.  The cake of the cupcake was dry and somewhat coarse, as if the batter had been beaten too long, or maybe had too much flour.

I contrasted these festive little tarts with the banana bread muffins I’d just made earlier that day, and was struck by the difference in taste and quality.  My banana bread muffins were really wonderful, moist, sweet and just the right texture–springy and chewy but not tough or dry at all.  The muffins were hugely better than the little cupcakes, so why didn’t I want them rather than those sad, tarted-up little pretenders?

Is their draw solely in the cosmetic appeal of the frosting and sprinkles?  Spraying air freshener and Pledge around your home makes it smell better, but it doesn’t actually clean anything.  And I know women who ‘frost themselves’ with makeup and hair treatments, and men who ‘frost themselves’ with sporty automobiles and cologne, but they don’t actually taste any better once you metaphorically bite into them either.

Is it because food made by someone else has an air of mystery and is thus more appealing?  My friend Karen says that her husband makes her the BEST peanut butter sandwiches.  She can stand right alongside him and make the same sandwich that he does, and his will taste better.

As a prep cook in my teenage years, I’ve experienced this.  All day long I worked with food, all different kinds of food.  At that time I was obsessed with corned beef, and could probably eat a whole roast by myself if given the opportunity.  But part of my duties as a prep cook was to roast all the meats used for sandwiches and salads that day, and frequently I’d chuck two or three corned beefs (beeves?)  into the oven along with turkeys, chickens, and whatever else we were serving later on.

After roasting and cooling, I’d slice the meats and package them appropriately.  And after handling all that meat every day, it didn’t take long before corned beef in its ‘unrefined’ state lost its draw for me.  BUT if one of the up-front cooks made me a sammich of corned beef and spinach or romaine lettuce on a croissaint with a side of those wonderfully crispy plank fries, well, then I could be persuaded to eat!

I think that having someone else (ANYone else!) fuss over our food makes it more appealing, even if it doesn’t actually taste any different.  Cooking or baking for someone else is a way to nurture them and show caring, and the more time and effort that goes into the dish, the more appreciation we have for it.  An obviously homemade peanut butter cookie with crosshatches in its crispy top from a fork always tastes better than a bar cookie made from a similar recipe.

I guess we can conclude that “caring” is the super-secret special ingredient in home-made food.  Doesn’t it feel good to do something nice for someone you care about?  So go ahead and indulge someone today by making them something special!  Here’s a cute trick for creating little nummies that look special without spending a whole lot of time on them:  Use packaged brownie mix, prepared frosting and sprinkles to create frosted brownie cookies.  You end up with something that feels very celebratory and indulgent without the effort and fuss that would accompany, say, cut-out cookies.  Enjoy!

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