Kitchen Literacy: Fall Treats

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

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

Ingredients:

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)

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350º F.
  2. 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.
  3. When the pumpkin is all cleaned inside and out, brush the inside of pumpkin with melted butter and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of sugar.
  4. Place pumpkin on baking pan and bake in oven for 20 minutes.
  5. 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.  
  6. In a medium bowl, place bread cubes and walnuts.  Pour milk mixture on top. Let stand 5 minutes.
  7. In a small bowl, beat eggs.  Mix in raisins, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.
  8. Gradually stir the egg mixture into the bread mixture, until well incorporated.
  9. 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. 

APPLE PIGS

How to Make an Apple Pig:

You need:

8 toothpicks

1 apple

1 marshmallow

4 raisins

Directions:

  • 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.
  • Enjoy!

Finding Paris

A Paris State of Mind

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.

Paris Metro

Standing on the platform –

Gleaming white tiles,

Everything clean and fresh

Even though we are underground.

It is a busy time in the morning,

The train screeches in –

I take a step back,

My father urges us into

A packed car and motions us

To get off again and then on again.

I get lost in the confusion.

They are on the train,

I am on the platform,

The doors slide shut.

My mother’s face is agony,

My sister’s face is amusement,

My father’s face is serious,

His hands motioning,

Wait for the next train!

Get off the next stop!

We will wait for you!

The train pulls out

Taking my family away.

The platform is empty now.

Just one lone American teenager.

I sit on a bench and lean

Against the cool tiles

I look at the bright billboards

I imagine myself in a new life

What would it be like

To stay in Paris?

I can see myself at school

Becoming fluent in French

Creating a new life.

The places I’d go,

The food I’d eat,

The person I was meant to be.

I hear a low, slow rumble

The next train arrives

Pushes the daydream

Out of my mind

I step aboard.

Memory is Hunger

Memory is hunger. When I read this recently, I paused, I underlined it, I wrote notes beside it in pencil. I’ve been concentrating on Hemingway this summer, and this quote came from his memoir, A Moveable Feast, about his time in Paris in the 1920s with his first wife, Hadley.   It is Hadley who says these words as they reminisce about shared experiences: “There are so many sorts of hunger.  In the spring there are more. But that’s gone now.  Memory is hunger.”

This summer, during this COVID crisis, my sister, cousin, and aunt often have running text dialogues that start in the morning and span into the afternoon, since we have not seen each other in months. These conversations always begin with a memory.  Often about our childhoods.  Often about my grandfather, Charlie.  The memory starts simply with one of us stating, “I remember thus and so.” Then each of us takes turns filling in details.  Most of the time, I read their descriptions one after the other, after the other, responding last.  Being the youngest, I find that their memories trigger my own, and I’m able to paint a more sumptuous picture of those times with him. 

Charlie had a large yard with a huge cherry tree, a grape arbor, a small garden, and several fig trees.  As with everything, he took meticulous care of these treasures.  Often when I’d visit in the summer, Charlie would be sitting in the shade.  A low table would be set before him with a fat watermelon, a platter, and a knife.  He would cut thick wedges and offer them to us as we sat to join him and talk.  Cherries, concord grapes, fresh figs, melons – all these remind me of Charlie and influence the way I cook and eat. All of these bring me comfort.  Summer would not be summer without these.

Indeed, both of my grandfathers kept gardens.  My Grandpa Tony had an amazing green thumb.  He had an apple tree on which he grafted a pear branch so that he could have two fruits on one tree.  I always thought he was magic. On his postage stamp-sized garden, he grew corn, tomatoes, squash, beans, cucumbers, spinach, lettuce, and all manner of herbs: rosemary, mint, oregano, and basil.  It is the basil that triggers the most memories for me.  Every time I smell basil, Tony’s face comes into my mind.  The smell of basil makes me smile, and I am home again. Ah…Tony! There he is bending to pick the ripest tomatoes, snapping off some long beans, taking a basil leaf and rubbing it gently, holding his hand up to my nose. “Smell,” he commands, and it all comes flooding back.

This summer, my 94-year-old father (Tony’s son) and I have weekly phone conversations.  We talk about his health, bad news, good books, but it is food that dominates our conversations.  My father does not keep a garden, but he still lives by himself and cooks his own meals.  In fact, he cooks for his housekeeper, his guitar teacher, and his young neighbors.  As much as he loves to read and write, I think he loves cooking more.  He is always inventing new recipes. Some of my most joyous memories of my father are our conversations about food. I want to write a cookbook with him where we start with basic ingredients like chickpeas and black olives. Then each of us would make recipes from these simple ingredients and see how diverse and inventive our meals could be. 

Usually, my summers consist of traveling north to New England and Canada. Always, they consist of finding and trying new foods.  Last summer in Montreal, I found so many wonderful places: gluten free bakeries, cafes, and tea shops (The Art of Cookies and Ming Tao Xuan). I miss traveling and making new food discoveries. So besides concentrating on Hemingway, I have been concentrating on many memorable meals for myself and my husband – always starting with simple, fresh ingredients. Here are three recipes inspired by three simple summer fruits: figs, watermelon, and apricots.

Fresh Fig, Ricotta, & Honey Toast

 Ingredients:

4 slices of your favorite bread

½ cup part-skim ricotta cheese

2 fresh figs sliced lengthwise

2 teaspoons honey

Directions:

  1. Toast bread.
  2. Spread ricotta cheese on toasted bread.
  3. Top with sliced figs.
  4. Drizzle with honey.

Note: The figs I use in this recipe and which are the most popular where I shop are Brown Turkey figs.  They are brownish-purple in color. Choose soft, plump fig with bent stems.

Watermelon Summer Salad

Ingredients:

¼ cup fresh Basil

4 cups Watermelon, scooped into 1-inch balls

¼ cup olive oil

2 teaspoons lime juice

1 cup Ricotta Salata, crumbled

1 ½ tsp salt

Directions:

  1. With a melon baller scoop watermelon into 1-inch balls.
  2. Place basil leaves on top of each other and roll tightly into a log. Slice lengthwise into thin ribbons.
  3. Combine basil slices and watermelon in a large bowl.
  4. Mix lime juice, olive oil and salt together in a small bowl
  5. Pour over watermelon and basil. Toss to combine.
  6. Chill salad before serving, at least 30 minutes.

Note: Ricotta Salata differs from ricotta in that it is a hard cheese from Sicily.  It has the consistency of feta cheese, but with a milder, creamy texture and a nutty taste.

Apricot Crisp

Ingredients:

4 cups apricots, coarsely chopped 

2 Tbsp granulated sugar

¾ cup light brown sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

¾ cup old fashioned oats

¾ cup almond flour

½ cup sliced almonds

½ cup cold unsalted butter, diced into small cubes

pinch of salt

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.  Butter square baking dish.
  2. In a mixing bowl, add chopped apricots and granulated sugar. Stir to combine, then transfer to prepared baking dish.
  3. In a separate mixing bowl, add topping ingredients (brown sugar, cinnamon, oats, almond flour, sliced almonds, salt, and diced cold butter).  Use a pastry cutter to cut the butter into the oat mixture.
  4. Spread topping over apricots in baking dish, and gently pat to even it out.  
  5. Bake 40-50 minutes, until golden brown and bubbly.
  6. Serve warm, top with ice cream if desired, and enjoy!

Note: One summer in Rome, while staying with friends, I took total advantage of their apricot tree, which happily supplied me with a surfeit of this golden fruit.

The Art of Cookies

For our 30th anniversary five years ago, my husband and I returned to our honeymoon site – Montreal. Since that time, we make sure we return to Montreal every summer, sometimes twice a summer.  My husband found a wonderful boutique hotel in Old Montreal – Georges Marciano’s L’Hotel. Marciano, the founder and designer of Guess? Jeans, created this lovely hotel, which houses some of his vast collection of Modern art.

The first time we arrived at L’Hotel, to our delight, we noticed a cafe right next door – Cookies Stefanie. Since I am a foodie with Celiac, Cookie Stefanie was an amazing find for me because it is an exclusively Gluten Free bakery and cafe. In the past five years, I think I have sampled almost every item they have to offer: cakes, cupcakes, cookies, muffins, all kinds of grilled cheese sandwiches, savory soups, tartines, and fresh salads.  There are also biscotti ice cream sandwiches, pan chocolate, and carrot cake. Each are so delicious that I cannot tell you what is my favorite one.  However, they do make a tiny treat, which I favored this summer.  It’s a chocolate covered cherry.  The cherry is surrounded in a moist chocolate cake and then wrapped in a creamy chocolate ganache.  It is small, so I don’t feel too guilty, and it is so rich that it definitely satisfies my sweet tooth.  Many an afternoon I could be found retreating to Cookie Stefanie for a cup of tea and a delectable treat.  I cannot describe well enough the happiness I feel when I enter this gleaming white and pretty pink cafe.  My eyes feast on all the glorious desserts and because they are gluten free.  I can have my pick!

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Here are some other wonderful eateries in Montreal, which I have enjoyed.  I cannot wait to return next summer to seek out more sumptuous treasures!

Gluten Free Dining Options in Montreal:

I am so happy that Stefanie created this wonderful place!  I wish she’d bring her talent to New York City!
This cafe is located in the open-air market – Marche Jean Talon in Little Italy.  They make buckwheat crepes, which are gluten-free in all imaginable flavors both sweet and savory.
Great gluten free croissants and eclairs!  Really!
Amazing sweet potato gnocchi, quinoa fritters, and other wonderful delights. It is a Vegan cafe too.
Fresh and creative salads in a pretty light-filled cafe.
Love this teahouse!  A respite of CALM!
The BEST gluten-free pizza crust I have every eaten and I’ve eaten lots of pizza!  Their pasta is also perfect!
Great risotto!

 

Ming Tao Xuan or How to Relax in Old Montreal

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”          – C.S. Lewis

This summer I was fortunate to spend a week in Old Montreal, one of the most beautiful places in the northern hemisphere: cobblestone streets, majestic Notre Dame Cathedral, quaint shops and restaurants nestled on the St. Lawrence harbor.  It is really a delight for the senses.  My husband and I walked all over the city exploring all the different neighborhoods in Montreal. For me, Old Montreal is a respite from the world, a solace for my busy soul.   We’ve taken many trips to Montreal in the past five year, and so I’ve come to know this historic part of the city well.  I love exploring all the shops, tasting culinary specialties at the various restaurants and cafe, but the place I go to treat myself, to take a mindful breath in my day is Ming Tao Xuan Tea House on the corner of Rue de Brésoles and Rue Saint Sulpice in the shadow of Notre Dame Basilica.

Pushing open the heavy glass door, I am immediately transported to a realm of beauty and quietude.  It is a small space filled with wood and glass.  There are floor to ceiling cabinets filled with teapots of all shapes and sizes: iron, clay, and porcelain. Huge colorful porcelain urns sit atop the cabinets like peaceful, sleeping sentinels. There are only four tables in the tea house.  They are study, square, and ornately carved. I take a seat at one table in the back of the room near the small marble fountain. I look out the window at the crowds and city traffic, but cannot hear a sound.  This is truly a sanctuary.

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The proprietor comes to greet me,  a distinguished gentleman with dark-rimmed glasses.  He hands me a thick, celadon-colored menu.  The food offerings take up one page while the next twenty pages are filled with teas of every color, aroma, and taste imaginable.  I become a bit overwhelmed by the choices, but finally choose one that I think will sooth my stress away.  After sipping and savoring, I meditate on this beautiful place and write a poem to commemorate this moment.

 

Ming Tao Xuan

Glass and dark wood,

The sound of trickling water,

People whispering tales

Around heavy square tables

Carved with flowers and serpents.

I take a respite here –

Set down my bones, and books,

and heavy backpack.

A tall, old man in dark-rimmed glasses

Brings me a thick, celadon-colored menu,

Six items: mango salad, tofu envelope, steamed buns,

Chicken skewers, cookies, and cheese cake.

And pages and pages and pages of tea:

Black, green, red, yellow –

There is such a thing as yellow tea?

Yes – aromatic buckwheat.

I choose the tofu envelope

And the Jasmine Pearl tea,

Because if I had had a daughter

Jasmine Pearl would have been

A beautiful name for her –

Jasmine Pearl – lavender and green,

Delicate and sweet.

 

The waiter returns unrolling

A red rattan mat,

Places the teak tray on top,

Arranges the tiny porcelain tea set:

The tiny teapot with a lid

Etched with a bamboo design,

The rounded pitcher with the graceful handle,

And a small white bowl from which to sip.

He prepares the tea,

Allowing the buds to open,

Pouring the first cup

And emptying the water through

The slats of the teak tray.

Now it is ready,

Now it is time for me

To sample and savor,

Relieve my mind,

Release my imagination,

Among the iron, clay, and porcelain teapots

of the Ming Tao Xuan Tea House.

 

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