Stirring up Fun
The Rewards of Cooking with Kids

by local writer and Charlottesville mom Mary Rose Serafini

The plantation owner’s elegant house, a deep gingerbread brown with colorful trim, is a stark contrast to the graham cracker tan stables and out-buildings. The house overlooks a blue raspberry Fruit Roll-Up river cutting through the banks of dark brown cookie-crumb dirt. A pretzel fence contains the grazing cracker animals. Flax, as thin as angel hair pasta, grows in bun-dles in the field.

My daughter Caprice’s southern plantation project for her fourth grade social studies class was one school project she didn’t mind spending her en-tire weekend creating. As the weeks passed with the students’ projects lining the walls of the classroom, the air filled with the scent of ginger. The only problem Caprice had was keeping the boys from eating her homework!

When Caprice told me about her assignment, I immediately thought of a gingerbread plantation at the same time that she said it aloud. While I was surprised we both had the same idea, it was understandable that she would think of creating with food. Caprice has a long history of using food as her medium. When she was 4 years old and wanted to bake something, I gave her a box of Bisquick. Al-though I guided her toward the proper consistency, she selected and added the liquids and flavoring. The beauty of Bisquick is that it’s hard to produce a disaster. Her green peanut butter bread was indeed edible, although a bit more appropriate for St. Patrick’s Day.

Through the years, baking has dominated playtime when my daughter has a friend over. They have not only baked the typical cakes, cookies, and brownies, but also soft pretzels, petit fours, and 10-inch Easter Bunny heads. In third grade, her friends Holly and Lauren helped make a computer screen and keyboard from cake and icing, complete with an edible mouse attached with a string of licorice. They gave it to their computer teacher, who was so impressed she kept it for weeks. I always wondered if the computer’s eventual demise was due to a real mouse.

Caprice’s friend helped her with a sixth grade business-class project. The girls created personalized mono-gram-shaped cookies with icing accentuating the initials. They drew and cut custom-made stencils with the “customer’s” initials linked together to form one 3” x 6” cookie. After rolling the dough, they held their cardboard stencils firmly in place and cut around the edges. It was a tedious process, but one that thoroughly engrossed them.

Birthdays incorporate food-related activities. One of Caprice’s preschool birthday parties included decorating graham cracker gingerbread houses. I was amazed to see five little children spend an hour carefully adorning their individual houses, not even sneaking a bite of candy.

On her seventh birthday, a winter theme party, the guests built igloos. Us-ing a cardboard bowl, I cut out a door and glued it upside down on a foil cov-ered cardboard base. I created a blue pond using sugar syrup. Basically it was homemade lollipop. I now know it is much easier to use fruit roll-ups. The kids smeared marshmallow crème over the bowl and placed miniature marsh-mallows all around for the snow blocks. They accessorized with little pen-guin erasers. Each child had their own igloo to take home as one of their party favors.

For her 10th birthday, my daughter did not want a traditional birthday cake. Instead, I premade seven-inch star cookies the girls decorated using various colored icings and a variety of sprinkles. They had fun making their own pretty cookies and eating them afterwards.

The past couple years, we have started the tradition of constructing a two-room holiday gingerbread house. This year’s rests on a two-foot square foam board, complete with candy cane sleighs, marshmallow snowmen, decorated trees, and a NECCO Wafer sidewalk. We are purists. Everything except the base is food. Some instructions indicate creating a structure from foam board first, and then attaching the gingerbread cookies to the board. This is not necessary. Royal icing dries like cement, creating a sturdy struc-ture from just the cookie walls and roof. It is so strong that when Caprice finally decided to discard her gingerbread plantation, even stomping on it with all her weight didn’t completely demolish the structure.

Cooking is basically a matter of following directions. If you are hesitant, start with Bisquick or mixes for cake, cookies, bread or piz-za dough. Then venture out to simple recipes, which are plentiful. When I searched the bookstore five years ago for a children’s cookbook, the choices were slim. Today there is a shelf full of books from which to choose. Check out the sidebar for some suggestions.

For the computer-savvy, many Web sites are available. A kids cooking club offering reci-pes, cooking kits, and a newsletter can be found at www.kidscook.com. Searches on keywords such as “kids recipes” or “children cooking” result in a wealth of information.

For instance, an Internet search on Halloween foods produces many in-teresting choices. I suggested one of my favorite ideas for Caprice’s fifth-grade Halloween party. Start with a new kitty litter box and pooper scooper, washing both well. Crumbled yellow cake lightly mixed with vanilla pudding makes for gently used litter. Small tootsie rolls slightly softened in the micro-wave serve as believable items one would find to scoop in a litter box. Ca-price was appalled at my suggestion. I guess it could have caused some terse phone calls from irate parents. However, I still think it fits the Halloween tradition to freak out your guests.

After all these projects, grocery shopping serves a dual purpose. Thick, long pretzels start to look like a log cabin. Raw popcorn con-jures images of a cobblestone street. Gummy dolphins and frogs are now tucked away for a summer scene. Sticks of gum for a diving board and more blue Fruit Roll-Ups for a pool are ideas waiting to come to life.

You might read about using cooking as a learning activity. Yes, Caprice learned firsthand about fractions, measures, equivalence, and doubling or halving recipes. Along the way she learned how much flour to use when roll-ing the dough, the proper consistency for bread dough, cookie dough, and cake batters. However, all of this knowledge was absorbed through the prima-ry focus of making something with her own hands that she could then eat and enjoy. As she has reached her early teens, she confidently chooses recipes to make independently.

Children love to get their hands into things. Baking is a low cost activity that can fill an afternoon with creative fun. Kids of all ages enjoy measuring, mixing, and forming the dough. There is a sense of ac-complishment to eat something you made with your own hands. As my daughter has gotten older, she and her friends clean up the kitchen after-wards as well, an added bonus for me. I encourage every family to let their budding chef stir up some fun!

Mary Rose loves cooking with her daughter here in Charlottesville as well as writing. You can read more of her work in Albemarle Magazine.

Cookbooks - Child-Style

Owning your own special cookbook provides a great motivator to cook. Look for the following characteristics when selecting a cookbook for your child:

Construction:

- Spiral bound books are best because the book will stay open on its own.
- Slick, heavy pages make for easy cleaning, especially if it is for a younger child

The Look:

- Colorful pages are a must. Funny or zany illustrations add to the fun.
- Photographs of the finished product provide great incentive to select the recipe. Some books even photograph each step of the process.

General Content

- At the beginning of the book there should be general cooking and mea-suring advice, definitions of basic cooking term, and safety consider-ations.
- Writing style appropriate for a child will help draw them into reading the book.

Recipe Content:

- In general, recipes should contain more than 3 ingredients so it is inter-esting enough to make. However, watch for books with a long list of ingredients in danger of losing the child’s interest.
- The recipes should contain common ingredients. There are a few chil-dren’s cookbooks with recipes calling for whole vanilla bean or mascar-pone cheese. Not exactly items you will find in your cupboard.
- Nutritional information for each recipe is a bonus.

Caprice’s Cookbook Recommendations:

Who knows better than a child which cookbooks are best? Below are Caprice’s reviews of her favorite cookbooks.

“Kids Cooking: A Very Slightly Messy Manual” by the editors of Klutz Press. “My favorite recipe in this book is the Non-Yukky Vegetables. This caught my eye because, as a normal kid, I had to eat my vegetables whether or not I liked them. I figured any way to make them better has got to be worth trying.”

“Betty Crocker’s Kids Cook!” by Betty Crocker “The best parts about this book are the pictures and titles of the recipes. There is a set of monsters for each section of the book that does something with the food based on the title. For example, Lazy-Day Lasagna has a picture of the monster asleep with her head in the bowl of sauce. Another is the Puddle-Of-Fudge Cake where the cake is in a kiddie pool and the monster is wearing scuba gear sliding down a water slide. This keeps me interested in the book to make the recipes over and over.”

“Electric Bread: A Bread Machine Activity Book for Kids” by Innovative Cooking Enterprises (I.C.E., Inc.) “One of the reasons I bought this book was because of the interesting facts included for each recipe, things such as where the recipe originated and how to alter the ingredients to make it better. It also includes quotes from one of the children who helped make the book about how they like the recipe and their special addition.”

Mary Rose Serafini has published in Albemarle Magazine. She lives locally with her husband and daughter. Cooking together is a hobby the entire family enjoys. .

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