Persimmons are a new fruit to me. I began eating them only two years ago. They were not widely available in grocery stores. They are seasonal and show up in the produce aisle for a few short weeks in winter. They are rare and expensive. I treat myself anyway much like I treat myself to my childhood favorites – figs and pomegranates.
I have had to learn how to know when they are at their peak ripeness. I’ve tasted a few before their prime, which left a fuzzy taste on. My tongue. But their color – their color gives me hope for spring and brightens my mood.
Persimmons first came from Asia. There are many varieties and colors ranging from yellow to chocolate brown. The variety I enjoy is Hachiya, which is flame-orange and heart-shaped. Persimmons are now grown all over the world: Asia, Spain, Israel, Azerbaijan, Australia and in Florida and California in the United States.
Every year, I look forward to the winter, to the change of season. But when the leaves fall, and the trees are bare, and cold sets in, I begin to feel a distinct loneliness. Nature had gone to sleep but I’m still wandering in the wilderness. I just doesn’t seem right to me. I take precautions for the winter gloom not to settle into my spirit. Candles, twinkling lights, trips to the garden store to see greenery and bright berries – all these help to lift my mood. But the persimmon is uniquely responsible for bringing springtime back to me. I smell, taste, and swallow, and something inside me brightens and grows.
Persimmons in Winter
The winter sky
Holds no color.
Cloudless and icy gray,
It is a blank canvas
For the bare branches
That crisscross and rise up
In the frozen air
Stitching the sky
With sharp lines and angles,
A sketch of the woodlands
In black and white.
There is no sound,
No smell, no color -
The air is empty.
The trees stand in solitude,
Perfect peaceful desolation.
In my black woolen coat
Hat, scarf, and mittens,
I walk the wide expanse of the meadow
Where all traces of green
Have leeched back
Into the soil till spring.
Cold stones and ice clods
Crunch under my feet.
Most animals have gone to hibernate,
Birds dip through the air
In quick silence,
A lone crow calls out
With his broken voice.
This winter loneliness
Seeps into my exposed skin
And settles there.
I walk back home
To find some respite from the cold,
To embrace some color.
A small bowl of persimmons
Sits on my kitchen table.
Their flame-like hue
Draws me close and warms me.
I touch their waxy skins
And immediately feel their warmth.
They are ripe and ready,
I choose one to enjoy.
Peel and cut in thick rounds.
In the center of each
Is an eight-petaled flower.
For this brief moment,
I return to spring.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! For years, I would bake Irish soda bread and read leprechaun stories with my young students. There is nothing like the smell of fresh-baked bread while listening to fanciful tales. We also used to make our own butter to go with the bread. I would put a little heavy cream in empty baby food jars. Each of my students had a jar to shake, shake, shake. The magic butter was their own to use and then bring home with a few extra slices of bread to share with their families.
Since COVID, we can’t bake at school anymore. I miss baking with children the most. I cannot wait till it is a legally sanctioned activity again. I hadn’t tried Irish soda bread at home because I have Celiac Disease and need to eat gluten-free. I thought there was no use in trying to make bread myself. I thought it would turn out terribly. I was wrong!
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! Enjoy some soda bread and snuggle down with a good leprechaun legend.
Gluten-Free Irish Soda Bread
1 ½ cups buttermilk
1 large egg
4 tablespoons melted butter, divided
3 cups gluten-free all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1/3 cup golden raisins
1/3 cup currants
1 Tablespoon caraway seeds
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Whisk buttermilk, egg and 3 tablespoons melted butter in a medium bowl.
Place flour, baking powder, baking soda, caraway seeds, currants, raisins, and salt in a large bowl. Mix on low speed to combine. Increase speed to medium and slowly add the buttermilk mixture until a soft dough forms. Let the dough rest for 10 minutes.
Brush the remaining 1 tablespoon butter over the base and sides of an 8-inch cast iron skillet.
Dust hands with flour and form the dough into a ball. Press the dough into the prepared pan.
Use a sharp knife to score a deep “X” in the top of the dough.
Bake until lightly browned and hollow-sounding when tapped on the bottom, 30 to 40 minutes.
Remove from the pan and let cool on a rack for at least 30 minutes.
Books to Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day
Jamie O’Rourke and the Big Potato by Tomie DePaola
Fiona’s Luck by Teresa Bateman
Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland by Tomie DePaola
Tim O’Toole and the Wee Folk by Gerald McDermott
A Fine St. Patrick’s Day by Susan Wojciechowski
How to Catch a Leprechaun by Adam Wallace
That’s What Leprechauns Do by Emily Arnold McCully
When I was a kid, my favorite treat was fruit, and my favorite fruit was apples. I loved trying new varieties. I loved to cut them in boat-shaped wedges, rounded triangles, and circular disks. The disks always revealed a star. I thought apples were magical.
Then my mom introduced me to the pomegranate, which we called a Chinese apple back then. Pomegranates were actually native to Iran and Northern India. They were so exotic to me. I soon learned that you did not bite into the skin of a pomegranate. It had to be peeled starting from its petals, stripped in pieces, exposing, not white flesh, but rather sparking ruby and garnet seeds. The juice stained my fingers, lips, and chin. What a wonderfully beautiful, messy fruit.
Because they were expensive, my mom judiciously meted out when I could have the luscious pomegranate. She would wait for them to go on sale. When they were ninety-nine cents, we could buy one and share it. I used to head right to the produce aisle when I went grocery shopping with my mom. I’d run ahead and find the wooden crate in the center of the fruit section. If the sign said: 99¢, then I would take my time to choose the biggest, roundest pomegranate. I’d hold two, one in each hand, weighing them by their heft. Once chosen, I’d bring it back to my mom’s cart smiling. I had found my precious treasure, and I couldn’t wait to get it home.
When we got home, my mother washed the leathery red skin, dried it off, and handed it to me in a large shallow bowl with plenty of paper towels. I would meticulously peel the skin and the yellow-white membrane. I loved exploring each section of the pomegranate and pulling out groups of seeds. This adventure in eating was also a close scientific observation. Held up to the light, the seeds were translucent, the membrane was imprinted with the image of the seeds it encased, the skin looked almost hand-painted in shades of red that ran from blush to deep crimson. What a glorious fruit! Only God could create such a thing.
Later, I learned that it was the pomegranate that was the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. I empathized with Eve. The pomegranate was hard to resist. As I opened each membraned section, plucked the seeds, and placed them in a bowl. I played a little counting game with myself. Pomegranates are supposed to contain 613 seeds, which relates to the 613 commandments in the Torah. Six hundred thirteen – what a large number, but I set out to count each one. I never counted exactly 613, but I got close – 598… 605… 586. One fruit with hundreds of seeds that must be the reason why the pomegranate symbolizes fertility, life, immortality, and wisdom.
As a child, the Greek myth of Demeter and her daughter, Persephone captured my imagination. I was born in April, so I loved the idea of spring being personified. The drama of Persephone being taken to the Underworld by Hades made me sit up and pay attention. Zeus warned Persephone not to eat anything while in the Underworld, but being an impetuous youth, she tasted a few pomegranate seeds. This event explains why Persephone finally returns to Demeter, who was in such despair losing her child that she made winter descend on the land. Since she didn’t eat all of the fruit, only a few seeds, Persephone was allowed to return every year, just like springtime.
A few days ago, I found myself all grown up and in the produce aisle. I spied the familiar wooden crate. Pomegranates were piled high. They were much larger than I had ever seen. They were as big as grapefruits, instead of navel oranges. I reached out to select one. Then I noticed the price – $4.95. I frowned and pulled my hand back. I stopped and paused to gaze upon the lovely Fruit. “My mother would yell at me,” I thought to myself. But my mother is in heaven now, and I think she would approve in the end. She was the one whose mantra to me was “Be good to yourself.” So I carefully selected the largest fruit with just the right amount of mottling. It was a beautiful object. I would bring it home, write about it, photograph it, and then taste it. Well worth the four dollars and ninety-five cents.
January and February are long stretches in the world of teaching. The frigid, gray days of the northeast make these teaching times even longer. When I had a classroom to myself, I always found ways to celebrate with kids to brighten up these dismal days. The celebrations always centered around stories and usually included art and cooking. We chanted Maurice Sendak’s “Chicken Soup and Rice” and then made a big steaming pot together. We read snowmen stories, stacked fat marshmallows on top of a large cookie, and decorated the marshmallows with icing and candies to create jolly snow fellows. We read about Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday and made pancakes for breakfast with gallons of maple syrup. It is these activities that students have come back to tell me about the impact they had made on their learning lives. It is the food and fun they remember. It is the stories they do not forget.
This week, I wanted to bring some food festivity into our 2nd grade classes, but due to COVID, we can no longer cook together. I wondered if I connected poetry and food, it would have the same fun factor, even if we didn’t get to make or eat anything. The first thing I did was to tell the girls that we would be talking about my two favorite subjects: poetry and food. Then I drew a diagram with the words Poetry and Food. I asked several students to define poetry and name the foods they loved. Everyone was engaged.
This class named lots of sweet treats, but when I asked another class earlier in the week, they came up with a very diverse list: eel rolls, kimchi, adobo, soufflé, crepes, dumplings…. I was surprised that their eclectic palates. In the past, students would shout out: pizza, mac and cheese, hot dogs, chocolate, cupcakes. It was wonderful to hear the ideas of adventurous young gourmets. I wrote all their ideas about favorite foods on the board so they could have a reference as they began to build their poems.
Next, we brainstormed action words that one might use in making their favorite recipe. Words like bake, mix, shake, and blend quickly came to mind. Again, I wrote all the students’ contributions on the board. The action words would make their poems come alive.
Finally, we brainstormed words that described how foods taste. Words like sweet, sour, salty, crunchy were shouted out happily. The board became filled with lots of tasty words and a couple of words that were just the opposite of delicious! They loved the word moldy, and I hoped someone would write a revolting recipe, but that did not happen – yet.
Now that the students were primed with lots of words, we were ready to tackle poetry mentor texts. I read some examples to them. We talked about the sound, shape, and rhythm. I reminded them that poems were constructed not to go across the page like a story, but to flow like a stream down the page. I shared a poem I had written first. Then I showed them some poems other students had written.
Before I set them off to write, we wrote a quick poem together. We talked about different ways of arranging the words on the page.
The girls were now eager to write. They took up their pencils and began to construct their poems. No one hesitated. The images of cotton candy, salty pretzels, steaming soup, and luscious cupcakes filled the air. Here are some of the young poets creations.
It was February turning to March and the bright and motivated 5th grader, Hadley, whom I have been teaching privately for the last three years suddenly became dull and bored. Nothing could spark her interest. Her normal bookworm self was now not interested in any book in any genre. Her penchant for writing was also gone. All her academic energy and engagement was zapped. Week after week this winter, I stared a cross my screen into the face of a girl who did not want to do a single thing except quietly stare at me and say, “No.” So, I got out my secret weapon, poetry, and that worked for a while. She created a wonderful assortment of poems and made a digital book. Then one day, I introduced another poem and that dull stare came back onto her face. She was listless, passively sitting, responding to me with one-word answers. I knew I had to figure out another idea but what? We normally read a short nonfiction current event passage each week to gain insights into the world around us and to get ideas about what we might want to read, writer, or research next. I timidly suggested we read a nonfiction article I found about Japanese Fruit Sandos (sandwiches). Food! I often resort to poetry and food to engage students and usually it works! It did this time too!
I went to my trusted nonfiction resource, Newsela, and found an article in the Arts section titled, “Sweeten Your Springtime with Japanese Fruit Sandos.” I had never heard of fruit sandwiches before. They were so surprising and beautiful that I thought they might be just the idea to stir Hadley out of her doldrum. At our next session, we took turns reading the article aloud. I watched Hadley’s face intently. She was as intrigued as I was when I first read the passage. The article briefly explained the origins of the fruit sando and then gave a recipe. “Oh, we should make these!” Hadley shouted to me from across her zoom screen. And then a wisp of sadness came across her face because she knew we couldn’t get together to cook. I asked her in a cheery voice, “Do you want to see a video of them being made?” and she readily answered, “YES!” I shared my screen and showed her a YouTube channel I found called Emmymade. Emmy had a 17-minute video called “FRUIT SANDO – Japanese Fruit Sandwich Recipe Test.” Emmy’s presentation was upbeat and funny, a perfect video to engage an eleven- year-old girl. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdZxLetJSZg
At our following session, Hadley wrote her own fruit sando recipe. And as luck would have it, COVID restrictions were being eased, I had gotten the vaccine, and I would be able to see Hadley again in person in a couple of weeks. Hadley’s curiosity had returned, she started a new fantasy series, she began writing and illustrating a story to enter into a contest, and most importantly she started smiling, laughing, and asking questions AGAIN. The Hadley I knew had returned!
Last week, I gathered together all the ingredients for Hadley’s fruit sando and went to her house for our first face-to-face session since the fall. We constructed sandwiches on her back porch, which conveniently connects to her kitchen. Though Emmy used Texas Toast for her bread, I found a French Toast loaf that was cut in thick slices. You might also use brioche bread cut thickly or throw caution to the wind and use pound cake! We used canned whipped cream because of time constraints, but the sandwiches will hold together better with fresh whipped cream. Hadley and I also brainstormed about other fillings: Nutella, peanut butter, and marshmallow fluff. The varieties are endless so that these sandwiches can appeal to any palette, even the finickiest of eaters!
Here are ten books to spark a budding cook’s interest:
Cooking Class Glob Feast!: 44 Recipes that Celebrate the World’s Cultures by Deanna F. Cook
Cook Anime: Eat Like Your Favorite Character – From Bento to Yakisoba by Diana Ault
Easy Peasy Japanese Dishes for Kids!: Easy but Yummy Japanese Meals Kids Can Help to Make by Heston Brown
Japanese Cooking for Kids by Kimberly Ono
Japanese Cooking Made Simple by Salina Press
Japanese Kids Cookbook: A Dedicated Selection of Japanese Recipes for Kids by Sarah Miller
Let’s Make Ramen!: A Comic Book Cookbook by Hugh Amano and Sarah Becan
Super Simple Cooking for Kids: Learn to Cook with 50 Fun and Easy Recipes for Breakfast, Snacks, Dinner, and More? By Jodi Danen
The Complete DIY Cookbook for Young Chefs: 100+ Simple Recipes for Making Absolutely Everything from Scratch by America’s Test Kitchen Kids
The Manga Cookbook: Japanese Bento Boxes, Main Dishes and More! by Chihiro Hattori
This past month, I have learned that inspiration for teaching and life can come from many places: a photograph of a curled up Dachshund, a simple quote from Shakespeare, a 2nd grader’s writing assessment, or an educational email with the subject line: Are we preparing students to be chefs or cooks?
This email came from A.J. Juliani, who has written many books about student empowerment, technology, and innovation. He is the Director of Learning and Innovation at Centennial School District in Pennsylvania and also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. Juliani believes that teachers and students should approach their work life chefs. He explains it this way:
When my brother passed away a few years ago, my thoughts turned to my own children. How could I help raise them to be chefs? How could I raise them to not follow the recipes of life, but instead make their own recipes for their life? But, it is not just my kids, it is all of our kids.
This is one thing I know for sure: every single one of us is not getting off this planet alive. And since this is the case, I believe we should be kind to ourselves and each other, and always put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Most importantly, we should follow our dreams and play. This is why I’m so glad that my work and my play are the same thing. Maybe I have always approached life like a chef: creating, improvising, putting things together that aren’t normally supposed to go together. To me, it makes life fun and interesting. And it’s worth it, even when I encounter mistakes. Or maybe especially when I encounter my mistakes. The mistakes make me grow and learn and try on new adventures.
This week, I was tasked with reading our students’ writing assessments. Wednesday night after dinner, tired with a cup of tea in my hand, I read this little gem from one of our 2nd graders:
I smiled when I read this passage. This student didn’t want to be pigeon-holed at the tender age of seven about what she would like to be when she grew up, so she created her own role. Nobody told her she couldn’t do that. She invented her own path. I was so pleased to see this, so happy that we were encouraging kids to think outside the box, to go beyond what lies behind them.
Reading about chef-scientists made think about all the times I’ve spent in the kitchen with children creating holiday foods, foods inspired by children’s books, and foods for the fun of it like the time I made hand-cranked watermelon ice with a rambunctious group of four-year-olds that required six cups of sugar. That recipe was the definition of SWEET!
My favorite times in the kitchen with kids were the times we created cakes using no recipes. The students had to create the recipe as we went along. I called this activity Monster Cake. I would put out a bunch of different ingredients and the children would decide which ingredients to use and how much to put in. A number of years ago, one little boy was adamant about putting a ¼ cup of salt into the cake batter. I allowed him to do that because we were making two batches and this way the children could all learn what happens to a cake with ¼ cup of salt in it. It actually was a beautiful cake, but it didn’t taste good. We crumbled it up and put it out for the birds, but even the birds and squirrels didn’t eat it! The other cake had 2 cups of chocolate chips in it and the chips sank to the bottom making a fudge layer. That cake we all ate with gusto!
While searching the web, I found that actually creating food without a recipe is now a cool and trendy thing. Some call it free-style baking. I love this idea. We should make our one trip on this beautiful planet sweet, spicy, comforting, and sometimes a bit surprising! I’m about to enter my kitchen now to make some Blustery Day Oatmeal cookies, a recipe I invented. Try them, if you dare!
I wrote about the wonders of baking gingerbread with children in my post last week. I started the post reminiscing about my father’s forays in the kitchen making Italian cookies from his childhood. One of my readers commented that the list of Italian cookies sounded like poetry. Since I spent the better part of my week writing list poems with 2nd graders, I thought I’d pause here to create a cookie list poem.
Holiday Cookies – Italian Style
Biscotti, twice baked, crunchy –
Chocolate, hazelnut, almond.
Torcetti, buttery twisted teardrops,
Pignoli, chewy almond goodness
Crowned with pine nuts,
Cuccidati soft dough stuffed with dark figs.
Brandy, raisin, nutmeg, and cinnamon,
Glazed with sugar icing and bright sprinkles.
Struffoli, deep fried golden balls dipped in honey,
Piled into festive wreath and tree shapes
Sticky sweetness; try to eat just one!
Giuggiulena, rolled into logs, cut into rectangles.
Sprinkled with sesames, baked until crisp,
My morning breakfast cookie.
Although I loved all these cookies and sneaked my fair share before dinner, or while I was reading before bedtime, the giuggiulena cookie was a staple in our house, no matter the holiday. After he perfected the recipe, my father started to experiment by adding different flavors – orange, almond, vanilla, lemon. The traditional cookie is flavored with anise, a slight licorice flavoring. Sometimes he did outrageous things like combined orange and almond. Once, he put in some cocoa in the dough. Though I do love all things chocolate, the giuggiulena began to take on an entirely different personality, and I begged my father to go back to the traditional cookie.
When my mother and aunt were young women, sesame seed were very hard to come by. Supermarkets did not carry sesame seeds in the large quantities needed to make the cookies. My mom, Vivian, and my Aunt Jo told us the story of how they went together to the local Italian bakery to get the sesames. The owner of the bakery would sell them to the neighborhood women at whole sale prices. I could just picture my mom and aunt as young women dressed in thick wool coats and sturdy boots trudging through the snowy streets to the baker’s. Once there, they had to go around to the back of the old, brick bakery where they would knock cautiously on the heavy wooden door. They would stamp their feet shaking off the cold, waiting for the door to open. Finally, they’d hear the bolt slide across. The door would open a crack. Vivian and Jo would whisper in unison, “Sesame!” The baker would shuffle into the deep recesses of the kitchen and bring back two small brown paper bags filled with sesame seeds and hand them to the two young women, who would pay him promptly. Then they would trudge back through the snowy streets to my grandfather’s kitchen to start making dozens and dozens of giuggiulenas. This story brought us such delight. My sister, cousin, and I would marvel the lengths our mothers would go to make these delicious treats.
I’m sure that it is my Italian heritage that instilled in me a love of food. It is the first thing I think of in the morning when I awake, and it’s the last thing I think of at night when I’m falling asleep. What will I eat? What have I eaten that was so delicious? Indeed, I spend quite a lot of my leisure time pouring over a good cookbook or two. It is my genre of choice when I want to relax and forget about the world. A few days ago, I returned to one of my old cookbooks, The Heart of the Plate by Mollie Katzen. The photographs and drawings are as exquisite as the recipes, and Mollie created all of them! I love flipping through the pages to find something unique I might try the next time I’m in the kitchen. This time, I was reminded of how wonderfully Katzen crafts her words. This is not just a step-by-step cookbook; it really is a work of art. Katzen carefully sifts and mixes her words so that they pop out at you from the page and make you pay attention. She describes her Cucumber-Melon-Peach Gazpacho this way: “Dappled like a summer fruit version of a Seurat painting, this refreshing hot-weather special might come out slightly different each time, depending on the colors and flavors of your melon and peach.” One can truly see the affect art has had on Katzen’s cooking. And I love her description of Forbidden Rice with Beluga Lentils and Mushrooms: “In this “fade into black” dish, tiny black lentils and minced mushrooms disappear into the shadows of the mysterious, nightlike grain. Depending on the ambient light and the angle, there may also be undertones of purple, dreamily nocturnal. The subtle, deep flavor of the finished dish echoes the soothing, dark theme, like a reveries of umami.” Wow, when I read that, I thought, “Mollie Katzen is a poet.” Who would have thought that cookbooks could hold such poetry? I laughed to myself, I guess that’s why I’m also attracted to cookbooks because they contain such bold description that stir one’s senses. I can’t wait to to discover the poetry waiting for me in the rest of my cookbook collection. And as luck would have it, Mollie made her own foray into the land of sesame. I was thrilled to see a recipe for Sesame Stars in her book, Vegetable Heaven. It is quite different from the giuggiulenas, but these crisp butter cookies flavored with tahini (ground sesame) will be a great accompaniment to my holiday giuggiulenas this year. I can’t wait to make them!
Mollie Katzen Cookbooks for Adults
Enchanted Broccoli Forest
Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Café
Still Life with Menu Cookbook
The Heart of the Plate
Vegetable Dishes I Can’t Live Without
Mollie Katzen Cookbooks for Children
1 1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose Flour
1 1/2 cups pastry flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2/3 cup light brown sugar
1 cup butter
2 large eggs, beaten
1 Tbsp of orange zest
2 tsp anise extract (you can also use almond, vanilla, or lemon)
1/2 cup milk (2% or whole)
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water for egg wash
2 cups sesame seeds (some people toast their sesames first, try it both ways)
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lightly grease 2 cookie sheets.
In a bowl, mix the flours, baking powder, and salt together, then add the light brown sugar and mix.
Add the butter and work it into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse corn meal.
Add the eggs, lemon zest and flavoring of your choice, then add the milk a little at a time and work the mixture until a ball of dough is formed.
Divide the dough into 4 pieces.
Roll each piece on a floured surface into a rope about 12 to 18 inches long and the thickness of your middle finger.
Cut the ropes into 2-inch pieces.
Roll in the sesame seeds, pressing them to adhere, and place on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat until you have used up all of the dough.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until nicely browned. Transfer to wire racks to cool.
Ahh… breathe in the sugar and spices, smell the vanilla. My memories of the winter holidays always take me back to the warm sunny kitchen of my childhood with my mom standing in front of the sink reaching for soapy dishes. My parents were both very good home cooks, and I loved watching them prepare meals. In fact, when I got to college and made meals for myself, my roommates would marvel, “How do you do that?” I was a bit surprised that they thought cooking was some type of magic trick; I shrugged my shoulders and responded, “I watched my parents cook.” Cooking was like brushing my teeth. I didn’t think about it as some kind of complicated skill that I couldn’t attain.
December always meant cookie baking time in my house and my father would experiment with making different shapes and flavors of Italian cookies: biscotti, torcetti, pignoli, cuccidati, strufoli, and the sesame studded giuggiulena. Just saying their names make me happy and hungry. Crowned with nuts or filled with figs, these cookies are the hallmark of my childhood Christmases.
When it came to holiday baking, my mom, sister, and I would lean toward more traditional American cookies: sugar, shortbread, and gingerbread. I loved those times spent in the kitchen mixing, pouring, cutting, and creating. My sister and I would stand opposite each other cutting out trays and trays of dough, invariably ending up with throwing some scraps of dough at each other and giggling, signaling to my mother that it was indeed time to clean up.
When I became a teacher and integrated cooking activities into my curriculum, I eagerly awaited the winter when I could make gingerbread everything with my students. It’s amazing to me that my former students often contact me to say that it was the cooking activities that they liked and remembered best. These activities, they tell me, made them feel connected to their classmates and made them feel successful. “I made that!” are three very important words. I think “I made that!” is the essence of being a fully creative and content human.
For the last several years, I created a gingerbread curriculum for our 1st grade students. We have made soft gingerbread cakes in gingerbread-shaped pans, both small and large. The soft cakes are an easier approach to making gingerbread if you are working very young children and you don’t have a lot of time.. They are able to scoop, pour and mix, but they do not have to do all that cutting. They can, however, still decorate their individual cake. We have also made the traditional gingerbread dough, and the children able to choose the type of cookie shapes to make – boys, girls, rabbits, stars, snowmen, etc. We would cut, bake, and decorate with each child able to taste a cookie and take home a little bag for her family. One year, the grade had students with many allergies so we made a batch of gingerbread-scented salt dough to cut and decorate. The children still had the experience of making and baking with the added pleasure that their gingerbread creation would last for years! Gingerbread baking always accompanies playing gingerbread board games, making gingerbread puppets, and decorating giant cardboard gingerbread houses. The children also read many great gingerbread stories. Every year, I find more and more creative versions, which keeps the ideas fresh. After reading lots of gingerbread stories, the children write their own version, which they read aloud to each other as we enjoy our gingerbread cookies.
With the holidays approaching, I encourage you to slow down and be mindful of the traditions you are creating whether at home or in the classroom. Relish the preparation and process. Taste the success. Know that kitchen memories are sweet and last a lifetime.
5 cups all-purpose flour
½ lb. butter or margarine, softened
1 Tablespoon ground ginger
1 Tablespoon cinnamon
1 Tablespoon cardamom
1 Tablespoon cloves
1 ½ cups sugar
1/2 Tablespoon baking soda
1 Tablespoon molasses
3/4 cups water
Measure the flour into a mixing bowl and set aside.
Combine butter and sugar in another large bowl and set aside.
In a saucepan, combine the water with the remaining ingredients, bring to a boil and pour over the butter and sugar. Stir until the sugar dissolves.
Add the flour one cup at a time, blending well with each addition. Store, well-covered, for several hours in the refrigerator.
Dough will be quite soft but will stiffen in the refrigerator.
Let come to room temperature. Then roll out on a lightly floured surface to 1/4” thickness.
Place in gingerbread shaped pan.
Bake at 375º for 15-17 minutes or until browned.
Let cool and decorate with icing and candy of your choice.
Favorite Old-Fashioned Gingerbread
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 cup molasses
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup hot water
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease and flour a 9-inch square pan.
In a large bowl, cream together the sugar and butter. Beat in the egg and mix in the molasses.
In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Blend into the creamed mixture. Stir in the hot water. Pour into the prepared pan.
Bake 1 hour in the preheated oven, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool in pan before serving.
Gingerbread Man Literature:
1. A Christmas Cookie Exchange by Sheri Wall
2. A Gingerbread Wonderland by Elise Rian Cunha
3. Can’t Catch Me! by John and Ann Hassett
4. Catch That Cookie by Hallie Dumand
5. Georgie the Gingerbread Fairy by Tim Bugbird
6. Gingerbread Christmas by Jan Brett
7. Gingerbread Cowboy by Janet Squires
8. Gingerbread Friends by Jan Brett
9. Gingerbread Mouse by Katy Bratun
10. Kolobok by Natasha Bochkov
(in 4 languages: Russian, Chinese, Spanish, & English)
11. Maisy Makes Gingerbread by Lucy Cousins
12. Senorita Gordita by Helen Ketteman
13. Snow Dude by Daniel Kirk
14. Stop That Pickle! by Peter Armour
15. Ten Tiny Gingerbread Men by Fhiona Galloway
16. The Cajun Cornbread Boy by Dianne De Las Casas
17. The Cajun Gingerbread Boy by Berthe Amoss
18. The Gingerbread Baby by Jan Brett
19. The Gingerbread Bear by Robert Dennis
20. The Gingerbread Boy by Richard Egielski
21. The Gingerbread Boy Who Didn’t Run Away by Vickie King
22. The Gingerbread Girl by Lisa Campbell Ernst
23. The Gingerbread Girl Goes Animal Crackers by Lisa Campbell Ernst
24. The Gingerbread Kid Goes to School by Joan Holub25. The Gingerbread Man by Paul Galdone
26. The Gingerbread Man 2: What Happened Next by Stephen Dixon
27. The Gingerbread Man on the Loose at Christmas by Laura Murray
28. The Gingerbread Man Loose on the Fire Truck by Laura Murray
29. The Gingerbread Man Loose at the Zoo by Laura Murray
30. The Gingerbread Pirates by Kristin Kladstrup
31. The Gingerbread Rabbit by Randall Jarrell
32. The Gurabia Man: The Armenian Version by Talent Dadia White
33. The Horribly Hungry Gingerbread Boy by Elisa Kleven
34. The Jalapeno Man by Debbie Leland
35. The Library Gingerbread Man by Dotti Enderle
36. The Matzo Ball Boy by Lisa Schulman
37. The Musubi Man: Hawai’i’s Gingerbread Man by Sandi Takayam
38. The Ninjabread Man by CJ Leigh
39. The Runaway Latkes by Leslie Kimmelman
40. The Runaway Pancake by Mairi Mackinnon
41. The Runaway Rice Cake by Ying Chang Compestine
42. The Runaway Tortilla by Eric A. Kimmel
43. The Runaway Wok by Ying Chang Compestine
44. The Sourdough Man: An Alaskan Folktale by Cherie Stihler
45. Three Pigs and a Gingerbread Man by Hilary Robinson
46. Tough Cookie: A Christmas Story by Edward Hemingway
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 Pumpkinby 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
This summer, not being able venture far away as I normally do, I have become very aware how important place is to my identity. My identity has been definitely shaped by being born, growing up, and aging in New Jersey. But it was also shaped by my travels throughout this country and abroad. The geography, natural resources, diverse people, food, and architecture have all impacted my sense of beauty and adventure. I’ve been missing that sense of adventure this summer, and so I’ve found that I have been traveling in my mind through reading books. For the past several weeks, I’ve been in Paris by way of Hemingway. First, I read his memoir of Paris in the 1920’s, Moveable Feast. After I finished the book, I was missing Paris so much that I found the novel, Paris Wife by Paula McLain, which is a fictionalized account of Hemingway’s time in Paris with his first wife, Hadley Richardson. What so intrigued me about this book is that the author describes the same events from Moveable Feast, but from Hadley’s perspective. It is clear that Paris in the 1920s shaped the identities of so many American writers and artists. As a young couple, Hem and Hadley moved to Paris so that Hem could concentrate on his writing. There, he met Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and countless others. I traveled along with the Hemingways through the Boulevard de Montparnasse, past the many cafes they frequented: La Closerie des Lilas, Le Dôme, Le Select, La Coupole, La Rotonde, and The Dingo Bar. I envision their tiny tenement apartment on the rue Cardinale Lemoin. I can see the brown water of the Seine, I can hear the music of the dance halls, I can smell the sawdust of the nearby lumber mill.
When exploring cities, I love waking up early and taking long sensory walks, getting a feel for the people and culture. Camera in hand, I focus my lens on the shop windows, the man sweeping the sidewalks, the young woman setting out trays of bakery treats, the pigeons swooping down on small crumbs scattered at the curb. I go down side streets, trying to find the secret places, the soul of the city. Many times, I’m surprised by the treasures I’ve found: a tiny shop with skeins of bright colored wool in the window; the brightly striped awning of a café, which serves a fragrant and rich mochaccino; the young, homeless family walking in slippers down the street with their daughter in tow, who is holding a large conch shell to her ear, which her father had retrieved from the garbage. These discoveries are what sustain me. They are times of uncovering raw beauty that keeps me to connected to my place in the world. I travel with a poet’s heart, always observing, always seeking the essence of the place to express its truth in that very moment.
Paris at 13
When I was thirteen years old (1969), I was able to travel to Paris with my family. When looking back, I remember the food first and foremost. We stayed in a six-story narrow pensione, which served continental breakfast every day: loaves of warm, crusty bread wrapped in white linen, glass jars of homemade thick strawberry jam, and strong steaming tea. And some mornings we had eggs – deux oeufs frit – the first French words I learned to say.
I remember the Paris attractions: the Eiffel Tower, The Arc de Triomphe, the Pantheon. I can see myself climbing the steps of Notre-Dame and Sacre-Coeur. I was astonished to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. It was exquisite – small and dark. And I remember the walking through the Tuileries, down the Champs-Élysées, through the neighborhoods and narrow winding cobblestone streets. I was mesmerized, walking slowly behind my family taking it all in like it was some lovely misty dream. I loved stopping into all the cafés: the long elaborate bars, the marble tabletops, the waiters in crisp white aprons, the blackboards with the daily menus etched in chalk. I tried everything – croissants, raclette, croque monsieur, coq au vin, pot-au-feu, and even escargot. But it was the simple meals that made a lasting impression. On our last night in Paris, we stopped at a small café, and I ordered jambon aux épinards, which was a small plate of cheesy creamed spinach with a paper-thin slice of ham on top. It was the most sumptuous thing I ever tasted. I could have eaten two more platefuls. I vowed to come back to Paris one day when I was all grown up. I have yet to go back. But I know that the Paris today cannot compare with the Paris of my memory.
Paris in Montreal
Though I have yet to return to Paris, my husband and I have ventured to Montreal every summer for the last six years. It was the place we also honeymooned thirty-six years ago. Montreal is our North American Paris. We have spent many a summer day walking the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal taking photographs, window shopping, and stopping to rest at sidewalk cafés. My favorite patisserie is Cookies Stefanie because all their treats are gluten-free, which means I can sample pain au chocolat, apple and maple muffins, and rich gâteaux, worry free. Another favorite spot on Rue Saint Sulpice is a lovely teahouse call Ming Tao, where the busy street life fades away with every steaming cup of tea.
One night, my husband and I stopped into a café on Rue McGill, and I coaxed him to try something new on the menu – halloumi, which we thought was fish and were surprised when the waitress set down our plates of farm-fresh sautéed vegetables topped with a firm square of grilled white cheese. We both had a good laugh together about that!
One of my favorite places to photograph is Jean Talon Farmer’s Market in Montreal’s Little Italy. It is filled with fresh produce, honey, cheeses, bread, and pastries. It also has a creperie, which I must indulge in every time we visit.