When adults invite children into the kitchen to cook, they provide memorable experiences. When the recipe is connected to literature, children become more involved in reading as a form of enjoyment. They are intrigued by the comforting, adventurous, and magical qualities food has in these stories. Children feel a great sense of accomplishment as they open the oven door and see the results of their efforts. They gain a sense of pride in knowing that they could take a few simple items and create something wonderful to eat. Children enjoy being kitchen magicians. They can take a few ordinary items, mix them together, put it in an oven, and out comes a sweet treat – some magic! In a way, writing and reading are like cooking: letters are mixed together to make words, words become a story, and the story creates a magical world. Cooking sparks children’ imaginations and develops in them a love of literature, which lasts throughout their lives.
I began cooking with children in my classroom over forty years ago as an extension activity to the literature we were reading. While in the kitchen, the children naturally began to talk about the story, commenting on the illustrations and extending the story with their own imaginative sequels. The first few excursions into the kitchen with children, made me realize the importance cooking activities have on the development of lifelong readers. Together, the reading and cooking, led children to use their imaginations to question and find their own solutions. As active participants, the children increased their interest in reading, writing, talking, and in learning as a whole.
As the children became more familiar with mixing and pouring, they began to experiment. For example, if someone didn’t want raisins in the muffins, we’d substitute the raisins with walnuts. At snack time, they began to concoct their own juices, combining apple and orange juices. The ultimate lesson in experimentation was something I call Monster Cake. The name of the activity came when I read Nancy Winslow Parker’s book, Love from Aunt Betty. Unlike Charlie, the main character, this monster cake activity has no recipe from which to work. The children have to use their reasoning powers to decide what to put in the cake. I have been baking Monster Cakes for many years with children from as little as three to as old as sixteen. Every cake has been delicious with the exception of one. That one time, a child wanted to put a quarter cup of salt into the cake. Since we were preparing two cakes, I encouraged him to experiment. The cake came out beautifully. It was golden and gleaming. Then it was time to taste it. The children learned an important lesson: Not even birds will eat a cake made with a quarter cup of salt! Although this monster cake was inedible, it was the most memorable cake I have ever baked with a group of children. Baking Monster Cake gives children permission to use their own ideas, observe the results, and alter the ingredients. They have truly invented something all their own, something unique. The best thing about it is that they can write down the recipe and use it again and again.
Another wonderful cooking experience during the fall is making Pumpkin Shell Pudding. Mix up a fragrant bowl of bread pudding, and then baking that pudding in a pumpkin shell. Children love scooping out the pumpkin goo, collecting baking the seeds, and then stuffing the pumpkin with cinnamon-sugar dusted bread pudding. As the pudding bakes, it time to take a break and do some fall reading. Three of my favorite fall books are Harvest Home by Jane Yolen, Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller, and The Ugly Pumpkin by Dave Horowitz. When it come out of the oven, it smells delicious and looks magical. After the pumpkin cools for a bit, take a large knife and slice it as you would a cake. The pumpkin is lovely smooth consistently and the bread pudding sticks to the pumpkin and adds to its sweetness.
A simple treat to make with children is inspired by the book, Apple Pigs by Ruth Orbach. The story is written in verse and tells of an old apple tree that is not very well cared for. A young girl takes care of the tree and the tree responds to her kindness with a bounty of apples. Lots and lots of apples! There is a recipe from the books on how to make apple pigs. I created my own version with children over the years. It is a simple and quick activity which children remember and love to replicate at home.
It is true that cooking gives children experience in following directions, measuring, relating events in a sequential order, and working cooperatively in a group, but most importantly, cooking gives children the opportunity to talk with each other and to think creatively. While cooking, a natural conversation develops and children begin to share their ideas, predicting what will happen as they mix in each ingredient. In this kind of relaxed atmosphere, children are encouraged to take risks, which is essential for learning to take place.
KITCHEN LITERACY RECIPES
Monster cake is a cake without a recipe. Children decide what to put into the cake and an adult writes down the recipe as the cake is made. This activity is great fun and children love having control over what goes into their cakes. When using this idea with a large number of children, you might want to split up into groups with each group making a different type of monster cake. This way, the children can compare the cakes and learn how different ingredients can change the cakes.
Since the cakes have no recipe, an adult will have to determine when cakes are done. Place cakes in a preheated 350º F oven and start checking after 30 minutes. When toothpick placed in center of cake come out clean, cake is ready. Be sure to record the time on your recipe so that you can re-make the recipe if desired.
Pumpkin Shell Pudding
One 4-5 lb. Baking pumpkin 2 cups stale white bread (cubed)
2 Tbsp. Melted butter 3 eggs
1/3 cup plus 2 Tbsp. Sugar 2/3 cup golden raisins
2 cups milk 1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 cup butter 2tsp. cinnamon
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped (optional) 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
Whipped cream (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350º F.
- A child can help wash and dry the pumpkin. An adult needs to cut a hole around stem like you would if you were making a jack-o-lantern. Then children can take turns scooping out seeds with a spoon.
- When the pumpkin is all cleaned inside and out, brush the inside of pumpkin with melted butter and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of sugar.
- Place pumpkin on baking pan and bake in oven for 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, an adult should heat milk in a medium saucepan to scalding (not boiling). Then add 1/4 cup butter and 1/3 cup sugar.
- In a medium bowl, place bread cubes and walnuts. Pour milk mixture on top. Let stand 5 minutes.
- In a small bowl, beat eggs. Mix in raisins, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.
- Gradually stir the egg mixture into the bread mixture, until well incorporated.
- Pour bread pudding into pumpkin shell and bake in oven for one and half to one and three-quarter hours. Let stand for at least 10 minutes before serving. Slice into wedges. May be served with whipped cream on top.
How to Make an Apple Pig:
- Use 1 apple as the pig’s body
- Add 4 toothpicks for legs
- On the blossom end of the apple, attach1 marshmallow snout with 2 toothpicks
- Add 2 raisins to the marshmallow for nostrils
- Add 2 raisin eyes
- The stem is the pig’s tail.