I quite often see articles in magazines or features on television about cooking with children but nine times out of ten “cooking” actually means “baking”. There is absolutely nothing wrong with baking with children – it’s great fun and they usually like eating what they have made but I can’t help thinking that, if that’s all we do, then we are missing a great opportunity.
My lovely daughters are grown and gone and perfectly capable of creating their own adventures with food – so I had to borrow some children from friends for this culinary experiment. Jack (10), Betsy (8) and Loren (8) are growing up in a home where cooking and baking are the norm and they often get to help but I wanted to go a step further and give them a free rein over what to cook and to allow them to do everything themselves.
Be warned – this is a potentially dangerous strategy! Firstly, getting three children to agree on what to cook can be problematic but as any squabbling happened at home it wasn’t so much a problem for me as for their parents (sorry). Secondly – you have to eat what they choose to cook – on this basis you might want to limit their choices slightly.
Jack, Betsy and Loren decided that they wanted to make Italian food, with dough balls to start, ravioli filled with a Bolognese sauce for the main course and 2 desserts – lemon tart for Jack and something chocolaty for the girls. Now that’s more carbs than most adults would choose to include in one meal and it’s never a good sign when most of the menu is brown and beige but add in some pesto and crudites to go with the dough balls, a great tomato sauce and a huge bowl of salad and it starts to look a little more balanced.
We also planned to sit down with their parents and eat their offerings together at the end of the day so all in all we were cooking for eight people – something many adults would baulk at. This also meant that the day included table setting and decorating and the production of place cards for everyone.
I decided that, in the interests of safety, hygiene and most importantly my sanity, it would probably be best if I allocated tasks as we went along, that way the kids could focus on one task at a time rather than racing ahead.
We made the desserts first – I was a little surprised that Jack chose lemon tart as I tend to think of it as an adult dessert – I was less surprised when I realised he would quite happily eat the lemons the way that you or I would eat an orange – he clearly likes the acidity. I was already being reminded not to make any assumptions about what children will and will not eat.
All the children wanted to have a go at rubbing in the butter for the pastry so we probably broke all the rules of sweet pastry making – it got too warm and decidedly overworked – but a good rest in the fridge before rolling did it the world of good and they produced some beautifully short pastry, so short that it crumbled a bit coming out of the tin. This may have affected the appearance of the tart but nothing was lost in terms of texture or flavour – they made great pastry. Betsy rolled it out and lined the tart tin whilst Jack made the filling but they all helped with the laborious process of zesting and juicing six lemons.
Throughout the day I was continually surprised by their ability and tenacity: Betsy already knew how to separate eggs, Loren handled the food mixer with aplomb and produced the fluffiest lightest egg whites and Jack showed off his mathematical skills as he calculated how much chocolate to use, and worked carefully with heat as he melted it. Between them a fantastic milk chocolate orange mousse was produced in no time at all.
Desserts done we started on the pasta and the Bolognese sauce. Ravioli can be tricky so we left the pasta a little thicker than normal to cope with the extra “handling”. They also don’t like to be filled with a wet sauce so we cooked the mince with finely chopped carrot, onion, garlic and celery for flavour and just added a hint of tomato with some puree. Once cooled, we stirred through a beaten egg to help bind the filling and keep it moist. We also made a classic tomato sauce to pour over the cooked ravioli.
When I say “we” I really mean “they”, which brings us to the issue of knives. I let the children do all the chopping and it seemed to work well. Loren was less confident and so worked slowly and carefully to peel and chop carrots into batons for crudite whilst Jack was very capable and at times a little over confident. They all had a tendency to gesticulate with a knife in their hand and my mantra of the day was “when you are not using the knife to chop, put it down” – they started saying it themselves after a while and they all left with their fingers intact! I don’t know the best time for children to start using sharp knives but if they don’t start sometime they will never learn – I guess you just have to trust your instincts.
The pasta making was great fun, if a little laborious, but they all persevered and took it in turns to feed in the dough and turn the handle. By this stage we had been cooking for over 4 hours and I suggested that they might prefer to make tagliatelle as it is easier and quicker but they wanted to carry on and they produced lovely neat, well sealed ravioli and none of them leaked when cooked.
Time was getting on so I handed Jack the recipe for the dough balls and he just got on with it. Betsy helped with the kneading and portioning (maths skills again) while Loren proved she could wash up too!
For me, the best part of the day was learning more about their individual personalities and watching them play to their strengths. Jack clearly likes a bit of danger and a lot of responsibility – he is the eldest and likes to show it so he took charge whenever there were knives or heat involved. Betsy is a butterfly; she wants to be involved in everything and if there is drama or artistic flair involved she is happy, watching her separate eggs was like watching a performance piece and no one was allowed to help her set the table or arrange the salad because she knew exactly how she wanted it to look. Loren doesn’t seek the limelight, she is happy to just get on completing her tasks with care and noticing everything; be it weighing accurately, giving something a stir or setting a timer. At the end of the day she couldn’t look at one thing and say “I did this” but nothing would have been completed without her.
Actually, I lied just then, the very best thing about the day was eating the desserts, the pasta was good, the dough balls a little heavy but helped by the zingy pesto but the desserts were sublime and everybody ate both.
Huge thanks to Chris and Lisa for lending me their children and bigger thanks too to the kids for coming and cooking in my kitchen and for making me laugh – lots.
If you are cooking with your kids take some risks – they are probably capable of more than you think. Let them plan, weigh, chop stir, bake, fry and follow recipes – before you know it they’ll be cooking without you and all you will have to do is eat and enjoy.
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