Dough playa

Andreae Prozesky rolls in the dough.

Anyone who has ever tried to organise a half-dozen pre-school-aged children into any kind of structured activity knows that it’s practically impossible. As my mother would say, it’s like nailing Jell-O to a wall. Or like stuffing a squid into a snowsuit. Something like that. So when I threw a fourth birthday party for my daughter, I figured I would save my sanity and keep the planning to a minimum. Taking a cue from the pre-school teachers and moms I admire most, I taped a plastic tablecloth to my living room floor, plunked the party-dress-clad girls around its borders, and let them go mad with a big pile of fresh, home-made playdough.

Now, of course, this isn’t food, strictly speaking. It’s made of food ingredients, though. They’re just in terribly unpalatable proportions. It’s cooked on a stove, you can knead it and roll it like real dough, and I imagine that each of us has, at one far-distant time or another, eaten it.

I have aunts and near-aunts who can whip off a batch of playdough in less time than it takes to boil the kettle for tea. They all use versions of the same recipe, which was very much au courant in the 1970s but which has pretty much faded from memory now. Perhaps that’s because the commercial version has gotten so much cheaper, or perhaps it’s because parents don’t spend as much time in the kitchen as they used to. But home-made playdough is such a wonderful thing. It smells great, though not in the way that store-bought stuff does. You have control over your colours, and children love control. You can know for sure that the stuff your youngster is squishing in her sweet little hands didn’t come from some dodgy overseas toy-company sweatshop. And you feel a great sense of accomplishment as you press your still-warm, brilliantly-coloured dough in your hand, knowing that ten minutes ago you were playdoughless.

The recipe for playdough will test your faith. First of all, you make the stuff by dumping your dry ingredients and your wet ingredients into a pot and cooking them all together. This is counterintuitive, even a little painful, for anyone who does a lot of baking, where the wet ingredients are gently added to the dry ones and stirred just until the lumps are gone. Or for anyone who’s used to making sauces by cooking flour and oil together and then whisking in some liquid ingredients, stirring continuously until it all thickens. No, playdough wants to be slopped together with no care for protocol. When it’s half-cooked, it looks an absolute mess. You’ll be convinced that you’ve ruined it. If you happen to have promised your daughter five different colours of playdough and it’s eight in the morning on the day of her party, and you have a thunderous hangover, and you have no plan B if the playdough thing doesn’t turn out, and you have no car to get out to a store and pick some fancy brand-name playdough up if worse comes to worst, and this is the first time you’ve ever had a kiddie party and you’re beginning to freak out a wee bit, then you just have to take a deep breath and soldier on. It will work. Give it ninety seconds.

And if you’re reading this and saying, “yes, but I don’t have any children, and I don’t know any children, and quite honestly I find children repellent,” then perhaps you need to spend some time in your kitchen making a batch of playdough for yourself. It’s remarkably therapeutic. During my daughter’s party, the moms seemed to enjoy playing with the playdough as much as the children did. Perhaps more. I’ve broken it out for nostalgic adults several times since the birthday party. It’s very hard to resist. With the gift-giving season fast approaching, maybe you could make playdough for all your childhood friends. Then you can get together and have your own party.

Stovetop Playdough

1 cup all-purpose white flour
1/2 cup table salt
2 tablespoons cream of tartar
1 cup water
2 teaspoons food colouring (that’s one full squeezy-bottle, but trust me, it’ll be worth it)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Combine the dry ingredients in a medium saucepan. Mix wet ingredients and add them to the dry ones. Stir them all together over medium heat until it all comes together in a dry-ish glob in the middle of the pot. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead a few times (wait a minute for it to cool down.) Store in a plastic container.

I’ve been told that you can use Kool-Aid for the colour, too: use one small packet, the kind to which you’re supposed to add your own sugar, per batch. Don’t put the sugar in, though. This is a good way to get pinks and purples, and it smells nice. It does not, however, taste nice.

Since you asked: cream of tartar is the common name for potassium bitartrate, or potassium hydrogen tartrate. It’s an acid that comes from the skins of grapes, and is a by-product of winemaking. Its most common use is in beating egg whites for meringue; the acidity helps stabilise the egg. It is also an ingredient in baking powder. You can buy it in the spice section of any grocery store. I buy the little Spice Barn packets because they’re cheap (and a local company!) As far as I know, it never goes bad. Apparently, there is potassium bitartrate in some 7,000-year-old wine casks in present-day Iran. The wine is long gone.

Send your questions, comments, and playfully doughy suggestions to