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Cookbooks Are Summer Reading’s Secret Weapon

Keep young readers learning straight through vacation with the best cookbooks for kids (which are often just the best, period).

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Summer is glorious, and we love it. Totally. But real talk, fellow parents, guardians, and caregivers of all kinds: for us, the season is not all hammocks and mojitos. Keeping vacay’ing kids busy, safe, and healthy can be an odyssey. Camp drop-offs. Playdates. Sunscreen. Fortnite and YouTube gatekeeping. It’s a lot!

Meanwhile, what’s going on in their growing brains? We’ve all read spooky stories about summer learning loss. Research into the specifics varies, but a broad consensus points to summertime declines in reading and math, specifically. Some worry kids lose months of progress, and the phenomenon appears to hit lower-income kids especially hard

Fortunately, an antidote is at hand: reading. One study suggests that giving free books to kids at the beginning of summer boosts their learning skills when school resumes. (How awesome are books? Other researchers conclude that just owning books helps kids’ educational attainment.)

And to help kids keep reading, we recommend an overlooked tool: cookbooks. No disrespect to novels, graphic novels, and nonfiction tomes, but sometimes more mouth-watering material can help lure younger readers to the page. A great cookbook engages the imagination in a multisensory way, teaching lessons about practical science and culture while prompting kids to keep turning the page.

I saw this power first-hand—in a situation that also taught me something about how kids really want to engage with reading. When my daughter was in second grade, her teacher told me that she was falling behind in reading. I—well, I panicked. Her class had transitioned from picture books to chapter books, and she wasn’t keen on giving up all the pictures. (Who could blame her?) To remedy this, I invited her to write a cookbook with me. Her eyes lit up, and off we went.

I bought a bunch of kid-oriented cookbooks for inspiration, but her interest in them was noticeably fleeting. They were too cutesy. Bryce and I had been cooking together for years, and she was used to making and eating “grown-up” food. She wasn’t interested in being talked down to on the page, either.

Then my copy of Mindy Segal’s (adult) cookbook Cookie Love arrived, and Bryce became acutely focused on it. She took it to bed with her and dog-eared all the recipes she wanted to make, walking me through all of her favorite pages each night for weeks. She did the same with other adult cookbooks, which helped her transition to chapter books at school and at home. By offering her a challenge and letting her follow her curiosity, I helped Bryce feel empowered. She charted her own path to aptitude.

[Looking for summer projects to engage your kids’ brains? Check out these 10 ideas.]

I’ll always be grateful to Mindy Segal for turning my kid into a reader, and even more of an advanced cook at the age of 7. What’s more, that experience inspired the creation of Little Sous. If you’re curious, it was her Brownie Krinkle cookie recipe that started it all. (Keep reading.)

Looking for tips on starting your kids’ culinary library? This New York Times list leans toward books conceived for kids, but does a nice job bridging kid-friendly approaches with more sophisticated content. (This Epicurious list overlaps a bit with the Times selection, but is worth a look to hear more about Alice Waters’ insta-classic Fanny at Chez Panisse.) A list from New York Magazine spans very young to older kids ready to rock, say, a trendy Thai recipe.

Finally, you can always turn ‘em loose in our deep well of kid-friendly recipes. This is, after all, what we’re here for.

The Little Sous Kitchen Academy box teaches kids to become creative, confident cooks. Check out our subscription options—and get ready for some hands-on family fun!

Brownie Krinkles

Adapted, with kid-friendly directions, from Cookie Love by Mindy Segal—a key formative influence on Little Sous!

 

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Ingredients:

  • 4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
  • 4 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt flakes
  • ½ cup canola or sunflower oil
  • 1 ¾ cups cane sugar
  • 1 cup confectioners' sugar, sifted (for coating)

Steps:

  1. Step 1

    In a heat-proof bowl, add the chocolate. Heat in the microwave for 30 seconds, then remove and stir. Repeat this process until the chocolate has melted. (If using a glass bowl, use oven mitts to take the bowl out of the microwave.)

    Little  Sous Task: This part was adapted from the original recipe that calls for the chocolate to be melted over a double broiler. Tempering chocolate in the microwave works great and is faster/safer for kids. Make sure your child is tall enough to be able to remove the bowl safely from the microwave, and use oven mitts in case the bowl heats up.  

  2. Step 2

    Crack the eggs into a bowl and add the vanilla.

    Little Sous Task: This is a great task for kids! Be prepared to fish a shell out of the bowl. 

  3. Step 3

    In a separate bowl, add the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, kosher salt and sea salt flakes. Whisk all the ingredients until they’re mixed together.

    Little Sous Task: measuring the ingredients gives kids a lesson in math.

  4. Step 4

    In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or separate bowl to be used with a hand mixer) mix the oil and sugar on low speed for about 1 minute. Next, add the melted chocolate to the bowl and mix to combine (about 30 seconds.)

    Little Sous Task: let your kiddo man the mixer, making sure to talk about always keeping hands away from the bowl. They’ll have fun adjusting the speed and watching food science in action.

  5. Step 5

    Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula. On medium speed, slowly add the eggs and vanilla. Turn off the mixer, and scrape the sides of the bowl again. Mix for about 30 seconds more, then turn the mixer off.

  6. Step 6

    Add the dry ingredients that were whisked together all at once, and then mix together until they just combine. This will only take about 30 seconds. When the mixer is off, use your hands to bring the dough together, leaving it still in the bowl. Cover it with plastic wrap and put in in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes (or even overnight) until the dough is firm.

    Little Sous Task: clean hands!

  7. Step 7

    With the help of an adult, pre-heat the oven to 350° F, and line a baking sheet with some parchment paper. Put the confectioners sugar in a bowl. Using an ice cream scoop (1 ½ tablespoon sized), scoop the dough and roll it with your hands into a ball. Put the balls into the bowl with the confectioners sugar and roll them around until they’re fully coated. The dough will look like snowballs!

    Little Sous Task: using an ice cream scoop ensures that each cookie is portioned the same, and will cook in the same amount of time. This method enables you and your kitchen helper to go forth with confidence.

  8. Step 8

    Evenly space the balls on the cookie sheet, and add a pinch more of confectioners sugar to the tops. With your adult helper, put them in the oven and bake for 8 minutes. Then again with your adult helper, rotate the pan in the oven and bake them for an additional 3-4 minutes. Let them cool for 2-3 minutes and then transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough!