A plan for romance: Have cookies on hand.

The teens took a sudden interest in learning how to bake Valentine's Day treats.

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    TASTY TREATS: Heart-shaped cookies, topped with white icing and red and green tulips fashioned from gel, make the perfect Valentine's Day dessert.
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When I started baking in the seventh grade, Robert Meconi – the cutest boy on the block – began stopping by. Looking back, I suspect he smelled the cookies from the street, where he and his friends threw a football around, and couldn't resist them. But that's not what I thought at the time.

I was sure he was there to visit me, and the cookies were just an excuse.

When he tapped on the kitchen window, I shoved it open to look at his eyes without the blur of glass – eyes that were the color of dark chocolate and distracted me from the task at hand.

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"Tell him to go away when you're baking," my mother said. "You need to focus."

She was right. Too many botched batches of goodies had come out of the oven lacking one ingredient or another. When I looked up at him and then back at the recipe, I often forgot where I was.

Even so, I wasn't about to discourage him. Every time he came around, I'd plunk handfuls of cookies into a brown paper bag and twist the top before giving it to him, determined to prolong the moment.

When my mom came into the room, she'd often ask, "Where are all the cookies?"

If the open kitchen window with its flounce of curtain gave it away, she didn't say. She may have just been happy that I liked to bake.

Because she encouraged creativity and let me experiment in the kitchen, I've enjoyed a lifetime of baking and have come to see how it brings people together.

People who may otherwise feel awkward around one another or have little in common seem to do better when treats are involved. I saw this when my family moved from San Francisco to Toronto.

During our first year here, the wind flung our large trampoline over the fence into the neighbor's yard, ice storms trapped us in the house, and geese made themselves at home in our swimming pool.

On top of it all, I was homesick.

Then, just when I started getting used to Canada, my daughter, Emily, became a teenager.

Soon, odd characters started showing up at my kitchen table. Girls, mostly, with pierced noses, streaks of red in their hair, and bored expressions on their faces.

Something had to be done.

"Why don't you girls bake some cookies?" I suggested more than once.

But not one of them had the slightest interest.

They preferred, instead, to sit at the kitchen table gorging on pretzels and popcorn and anything I had baked that week.

Then, one afternoon, everything changed. The girls showed up after school when I was decorating Valentine cookies and crowded around me.

"I can't believe those cookies!" one of them said. "How do you make them?"

I jumped at this opportunity.

"It looks a lot harder than it is," I said. "Come here, and I'll show you."

I brought a plate of undecorated cookies to the kitchen table and they surrounded me, disconnecting from their iPods and scraping chairs across the floor.

Spearmint gum and drugstore cologne mixed with the smell of frosting and the sound of laughter.

When I showed them the technique I'd come up with for painting tulips on the cookies, they caught on fast. Not only that, they thought of more designs than I ever could have imagined.

Since then, the baking lessons have continued. They now know how to separate eggs, test cookies for doneness, and toast nuts in the microwave.

And, of course, I've shown them the fine art of wrapping a few cookies in a paper bag and twisting the top just so.

Someday, they may have a boy at their window. Or they may not. But if they do, they'll never be able to say I didn't give them a plan.

Sweetheart Cookies

1 cup butter

2/3 cup sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

Royal Icing (recipe below)

Assorted tubes of gel icing (from the supermarket)

In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the egg and vanilla. In another bowl, mix the flour and salt together and gradually stir into the butter mixture. Shape into two balls and wrap in foil. Refrigerate for 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Roll out the dough on a lightly floured board and cut with small heart-shape cookie cutters. Place cookies on a greased baking sheet and bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until slightly colored. Cool to room temperature.

Make the Royal Icing and put it in a pastry bag. Out line the cookies and then fill in with frosting. To make the tulips, use decorator gel. Pipe five red dots on each cookie, and then pipe a green dot under each red one. With a toothpick, pull the red icing into tulip shapes, and then pull the green icing into leaf shapes.

Royal Icing

2 cups confectioners' sugar

1-1/2 tablespoons meringue powder (available in supermarkets, craft stores, or cake-decorating shops)

2-1/2 to 3 tablespoons water

Mix all ingredients together and beat with an electric mixer on high for 8 minutes.

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