Teaching children to cook from scratch

Scripps Howard News Service

Every summer we have several older kids who want to spend time at our school. They like the swimming and the field trips. They like the atmosphere and the independent study we offer our older children. These kids always help with the younger kids and the animals, and they do a lot of chores.

It's kind of nostalgic to have them there, and they do help out a lot. Ben is back after 10 years. Madison and Lindsey have been with us for seven years.

Older kids have to have something real to do when there is no swimming and the field trip hasn't started. After a few weeks of making every conceivable and wearable piece of jewelry and working on the garden and the pet room, it was decided that this year they wanted to learn to cook.

I gave them each a giant colored cookbook, and they spent a couple of hours oohing and ahhing over cookies and candy and cakes. I felt blessed they weren't after squab under glass or perhaps whale in black butter.

"You guys need to know how to walk into a kitchen, gather your ingredients and weapons and cook. None of this place-and-press tile stuff. No ready-mades; no off-to-the-store-to-buy-things wild goose chases. We're after on-the-spot baking. Let's start with something you can sink your teeth into _ chocolate-chip cookies."

Leaving the images at the kitchen door, we washed, scrubbed down the counters, preheated the oven and stood facing one another.

"You can always cook if you understand what food is supposed to do."

After a few minutes on the properties of different flours as the foundation of many foods, including cookies, we moved to sugars and the baking balance between sugar and flour. The kids found it interesting that different combinations result in types of cookies, cakes, pie dough or even bread. It was definitely scientific.

We talked about eggs, different fats and oils, salt and, last, baking powder. "Just think of it as kitchen gunpowder. Without gunpowder, the cookies won't fly."

I explained that baking soda is different from powder. Soda's claim to fame is dispersal, a little like medicine.

We talked about plain dough and the possibilities of plain dough: "You can roll it, cut it, drop it, ball it up and thumbprint it and bake it whole or in sections. You can add nuts, raisins, chocolate chips, coconut, peanut butter, candy or all of the above. You can even quadzillion the recipe and make it in a washtub and distribute it to your whole neighborhood."

They decided on plain chocolate chips. We dotted the cookie sheets and popped them into the oven. We talked about oven temperatures.

Next step? Go write down everything we did, because tomorrow, you're solo. I want enough cookies for a picnic and a snack.

The next day, under moderate supervision, two of them made cookies. And every day that week, another two made them. It was a race to delicious.

These kids will be able to make cookies, a cake and a pie. They will make pizzas, salads and dips. Cooking is not only fun for kids, it's a craft they need to understand.

Cooking is cheaper and more nutritious if you do it from scratch, and that's the idea they will take away with them forever.

(Judy Lyden operates a pre-school in Evansville, Ind. Write to her c/o The Evansville Courier, P.O. Box 268, Evansville, IN 47702, or e-mail her at jlyden(at)evansville.net.)