A Pro Food Writer Teaches Baking to Kids—and Learns A Lot, Too.
Letting them do everything is the whole point.
When I see my roster every year, filled with lots of kids I already know from the neighborhood, my husband and I joke that I should just teach it out of my home kitchen. It’s a volunteer job on my part, and it would certainly be easier than packing up a carload of stuff and hauling it over to the bare-bones home-ec classroom in my kids’ public school. But truth be told, things are very different in a classroom setting.
For one thing, I can’t be a control freak like I am at home. In my kitchen, we make one dish, and all the kids act under my watchful eye. For the most part, disasters are averted before they begin. No, let’s not pour out that whole quart of cream, Ms. 3-Year-Old. No, I think that looks like a lot more than the 1 teaspoon of salt required, Mr. 3rd Grader. But in class, the whole point is for the kids to do everything—Mom measuring out the flour and letting them dump it in is not going to cut it. And I can’t be in every place at once (despite having a second parent as a faithful assistant), so it means that sometimes things do go haywire. But I think we’ve all learned a lot—me, and the kids—and those lessons are worth sharing even if you probably won’t find yourself baking with eight kids and a single oven in just an hour.
Kids don’t mind failing. The first time I taught chocolate chip cookies, I divided the kids into two teams based on their preferences. One group was Team Thin and Crispy, the other was Team Tall and Cakey. Armed with two slightly different recipes, they set to work, and we talked about the variation in the ingredients and why they would tweak the resulting cookies.
When the cookies came out of the oven, to our surprise, the first team had produced thick cookies, and the second, flat ones—that’s right; the results had switched completely.
What happened? I’ll never know for sure. In the chaos of two teams throwing cookies together, you can bet I wasn’t double-checking that the cups of flour were loosely packed and leveled off, and that it was baking soda, not baking powder that went in. But as I looked around the room, I could see that I was the only one who seemed mildly disappointed. The kids apparently found this to be a fascinating twist in their baking class—and besides, they were waiting to sample the cookies right from the oven. They didn’t care when cookies spaced too closely together turned into a huge mono-cookie and didn’t bake properly—more ooey-gooey center for them.
Kids will rise to the occasion. All told, we have about an hour and twenty minutes to bake. (It’s supposed to be an hour, but I can drag out the clean-up just long enough to wait for a tray of something that went into the oven late.) We are constantly finishing what we have to do by the skin of our teeth. But I found, much like with adults, if the kids have more to do, the better they do with all of it. They know that I’m not just humoring them with busy work, and they get it all done. On meringue day, once the cookies went into the oven, a little mischief set in—all there was to do was wait until a batch was ready, which meant kids were peeking into the storage closet, group trips to the bathroom, fussing with the classroom decorations, etc.
Contrast that with cupcake day. Every year, I worry about the agenda: chocolate and vanilla mini cupcakes, plus chocolate and vanilla icing. Everything from scratch. We theoretically finish with four different kinds of cupcake, once you mix-and match. Every year, it seems impossible afresh—like this year, when we got started 10 minutes late due to an elevator SNAFU and a locked classroom door. But instead, as soon as those cupcakes went in the oven, the kids washed their bowls and set to work making frosting. Once the frosting was done, it went into piping bags and was ready to go. We finished with those 4 kinds of cupcakes, and the kids felt on top of the world to have results to take home and share.
Elementary school kids already have conflicting feelings about food, particularly treats. This is perhaps not a newsflash for most readers. A report released in 2015 from Common Sense Media, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting children as they learn to navigate social media, stated that it’s quite common for children as young as six to believe that they should be thinner. However, watching it play out in a class devoted to baking is another matter entirely.
There was the session when one super-fit kid made a show of doing pushups right in the classroom to mitigate his extra calories—directly in front of the girl who I knew was watching her weight, who was blushing madly. I felt at a loss for how to respond, and, given that I was the lone grown-up in the room, my own silence was deafening. I ended up choking out some ill-prepared sentiment to the tune of, “We’re not here to exercise or to worry about calories; baking is about making something wonderful and enjoying eating it.” But it felt like an inadequate response to a huge, huge issue.
What would I say, now that I’ve had time to think about it? The truth is, I still haven’t fully digested this one. Except that I wish that part were different. I wish kids could go to baking class and not worry about sampling the result. That feels almost like entrapment, and it’s not fair to put kids in that position. Then again, maybe this is one of those things where we adults feel our kids’ trials a little too acutely. Maybe I was getting a glimpse into something that’s running through their everyday lives, and I just hadn’t been aware of it. Which is why I raise the point, parents. Let’s be aware. There are lots of things revealed when you spend time in the kitchen with your kids—it’s on us to create those opportunities.