The act of eating the evening meal as a family, not so long ago a mere fact of daily life and certainly not viewed as a special occasion, has become the subject of sociological research of late. For most working parents, the ever-expanding convenience-food culture has worked in tandem with increasing hours out of the home to endanger the dinner table, especially in America, where work is king, real wages have been stagnating or falling for decades, and meals are stuffed into the margins of a day. The simple phenomenon of sitting down at a table as a family to eat together is now credited with wide-ranging benefits, from discouraging eating disorders, to reducing the risk of drug abuse, to enhancing academic performance. Supporting evidence for such claims comes from a wide range of sources and, although I will be happy to supply those sources upon request, my intention here is not to verify or dispute them in substance. Rather, I will focus on what I consider to be a great activity for kids and parents to do together regardless of what follows: cook.
Oddly enough, the first thing I really remember learning how to cook was pate a choux, the French pastry used for profiteroles and eclairs. Getting the consistency of the dough right was a source of fascination for me and, of course, the results were rewarding. It’s not terribly unusual for kids to be interested in baking as a starting point and the reasons why are pretty obvious. Since anything baked at home will likely be better for your kids than store-bought goods due to the lack of processed foods or preservatives, that’s a fine place to begin. The first time my daughter and I made focaccia together, she was casually enthusiastic about the process of mixing, proofing and shaping the dough—but when the bread came out of the oven, she couldn’t believe she was eating something homemade. “Where did we GET this?” she kept asking. Now she knows what’s possible at home and loves to help make it.
- 1 Tbs. active dry yeast
- 1 1/4 cup warm water
- 3 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 1/2 cups all-purpose or bread flour
- 1 Tbs. coarse sea salt
- 1 Tbs. finely chopped fresh herbs (robust herbs are best—thyme and rosemary)
- 1 clove garlic, sliced thinly
Directions: Sprinkle yeast over 1/4 cup warm water in a large bowl and let stand 5 minutes or until foamy. Add remaining water and 2 Tbs. olive oil and stir. Combine with flour and knead in an electrc mixer on high for 5-7 minutes or by hand rather aggressively for the same time or until smooth and uniform—add flour if needed. Rub another large bowl with olive oil and turn out dough into the bowl. Cover with a clean cloth or plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 90 minutes. Punch down and shape into a 10-12” round—cover again and let rise another 90 minutes. Punch a dozen or so holes in the surface of the bread with your fingertips and sprinkle sea salt, herbs and garlic over the top of the bread. Bake at 400 degrees for 20-25 minutes and eat warm with extra olive oil for dipping—or make tomato, fontina and arugula sandwiches—or grill and rub with ripe tomato and top with basil and romano cheese...
One thing that’s nice about baking with kids is that there’s usually little or no knifework called for and you won’t have to explain why you get to flip the hot pan around and they can’t—a big source of frustration for my daughter when it comes to popcorn. Plus there’s the above-mentioned “magic”—the oven door opens and closes and out comes fresh bread.
Using a whisk (or fork) to beat up a mixture of something, preferably gooey, is a perennial favorite with the wee folk. So is cracking eggs to make an omelette, and even though it can end up messy, it’s a great opportunity to teach and reinforce good washing habits for both hands and produce.
- 3 eggs
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 Tbs. butter
- 1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
- 1 bunch spinach
- 1 Roma tomato
- 1 tsp. dried oregano
Directions: Beat the eggs with the salt. Wash all produce well, especially the spinach. Chop both tomato and spinach coarsely. Heat butter in a heavy skillet until foamy bubbles form and subside. Add eggs and begin beating immediately with a fork to keep in motion—you want curds to form, but not too fast. Keep swirling the egg around the pan and steadily lower heat to create a gently cooked layer on the bottom of the pan. Do not flip the eggs. Add cheese, spinach, tomato and oregano and remove from heat. Let stand one minute and roll out of the pan around the filling.
If you’re feeling ambitious, make these recipes together and serve for breakfast with grapefruit on the side. More on cooking with kids in future installments.