Last week, I had the extreme pleasure of cooking with my Great-est niece and nephew, Lauren and Max. The question of what to make was easy, it had to be simple and memorable. My goal was for them to remember what we created together forever like my memories of cooking with my mother. Forever means to me that they will think of our afternoon when they eat any of the three things we made: butter, strawberry jam and cinnamon bread. Everyday food, so basic but rarely handmade anymore and if you want to interest kids in cooking you need to show them ‘food magic.’
We first started with activating or blooming the yeast- Not so interesting to them at first until I explained that yeast is a plant and like all plants it blooms in it’s own way. I didn’t have their attention yet, but I knew I would shortly. The yeast started to bubble and swell minutes after it came in contact with the sweetened warm water. They were watching-ish. I explained the process of bread making and my basic formula. How was I to explain gluten development to a 3 year old and 6 year old well enough for them to understand, much less care? I could hear the mantra repeatedly in my mind- DON’T TELL THEM, SHOW THEM. So, I did.
We added the liquid including the yeast to the flour/oats mixture and those small hands dove in without any prompting. I explained how cooking is visual and how important it was to watch minute by minute because magic happens instantly. As soon as I said that ‘fingers’ of dough started to form in bowl as they massage with their small hands. The gluten was forming, the magic was happening! Once the dough pulled away from the bowl, I dumped it out onto the floured granite counter-then the messy fun began.
Kneading, that is what turns dough into bread dough. They watched intensely as I showed how to knead the ball of dough. The oldest was first to push and pull the dough and Max, the youngest jumped in with both hands. They looked at each other and started to giggle. “Pat, pat, knead, knead,” interspersed with laughter as their little motivated hands worked the bread. Brenda, what makes the bread dough brown? “Molasses.” “What is molasses?” “I will tell you about molasses but first we need to taste it, I said.” Lauren tried it first, “yuck” then Max, “WOW, this is GOOD”. Lauren tried again, “it is good!” I had their full attention!
While they pat, patted and knead kneaded I crushed whole strawberries, added lemon juice and sugar to a heavy pot placing it on a low flame. “Anyone what to stir the sugar into the strawberry mixture, I asked?” My little cooks dressed in new aprons and chef’s hats ran with wooden spoons and perched on the kitchen stools. They stirred and sniffed the aroma wafting from the bubbling pot. They both were very careful but confident stirring a very hot pot so I turned around to form the bread dough into a rectangle. Those cute little hands turned their quickly stools around to help slather on the melted butter and cinnamon sugar with care. The 3 of us rolled the dough slowly together, pinched the seam the whole length and covered it with a towel to rise.
“Time to make butter!” “But the jam isn’t done,” Lauren explained. I know, I know! I thought about explaining that when you cook you have to work on several things at a time. No, I wasn’t explaining multitasking to a 3 and 6 year old. I envied their innocence. “We’ll go back to the jam, I promise.”
I filled 2 glass jars, one small and one a bit larger half full of heavy cream and tighten the lids. The rest I poured into the kitchen aid mixer, turning on to low just incase the butter making in the jar didn’t work out if they got tired of shaking the jars. But it did! The cream separated as quickly as I have ever seen before. More magic and the kitchen gods were smiling! “Look, Mommy it is separating, I have to keep shaking the jar.”
As the cream separated it became more yellow with each shake and they both noticed. It was treat time for my little cooks- I skimmed the foam off the softly boiling jam and ladled it into two small bowls - a little snack to keep their attention and energy up. “YUM, We want seconds!” they chanted in unison. I did this at least 3 more time, topping the last jam sample with a dollop of whipped cream from the mixer just before it turned to butter.
Everything was almost ready: The bread was ready to bake, the jam after tasting needed a touch more sugar, and touch more again. The jam jars and ladle were laid out next to the stove and the butter still had to be washed and salt. We were getting close; everyone was happy and no Band-aids were needed.
I ladled the first jar of hot jam and Lauren insisted that she could finish that while I showed Max how to wash butter in ice cold water. They were so fearless yet so careful in their actions it was such fun for me to cook with them and not have to worry at all. They were competent beyond their years.
The ‘ping’ of the oven timer went off: Two sweet little faces light up with a huge smile, “is it time for bread, jam and butter?” Indeed it was- they ate until they could eat no more!