The idea for writing about teaching children to cook came from Corey, daughter #3, who works for a housewares store that sells a great deal of cooking equipment and she is very aware of how ignorant many cooks can be. She is also known as the clerk with the answers. And if she doesn't know the answer she calls her Mom.
So I began to ponder how I came by the knowledge of cooking that I do have. Who taught me about cooking and how to cook. My first cooking event which I can remember is that of making my first cake at the age of about seven. I didn't really make the cake, but I had on an apron, and I was standing on a chair stirring what was probably a boxed cake mix. But never mind how humble the task was, I think I probably felt pretty proud of my efforts, because the next morning I found the cake in the kitchen and I was in the process of taking it upstairs to show my brothers when they met me on the stair landing. We all sat down on the landing to enjoy the cake with our bare hands. Well when our mother discovered what we were doing she was furious, because she was meant to be taking that cake to a party later that day. I can't actually remember being taught to cook by my mother after that. But that's not to say it didn't happen.
Someone who made a big impression on me and my cooking was my grandmother Nana. She was an excellent cook and was actually rather passionate about cooking. When I was young I would visit her for about two weeks every summer. She never let me cook in her kitchen, but she would have me stand right at the edge of the kitchen and she would tell me things about cooking. For example, while making and angel food cake she made sure that I understood how to fold the beaten egg whites into the rest of the ingredients. Or while making fresh lemonade she demonstrated how to roll the lemons before juicing them. Some mornings she would put on her hat and gloves and get her large wicker basket and we would walk to the grocers, where she would tell me about what she was buying and why she chose the produce she did. She particularly impressed on me the value of buying the best ingredients one could get.
When I was a teen-ager Nana gave me two cookbooks: The Gourmet Cookbook, and Larousse Gastronomique. Without a doubt both of these books had a big influence on my attitude about cooking. I was also very familiar with my mother’s cookbooks, which were (1) Betty Crocker, (2) The Fanny Farmer Cookbook, and (3) the Good Housekeeping Cookbook (which I didn't like). To this day I am particularly fond of the Betty Crocker Cookbook as well as the Betty Crocker Cookie Cookbook, and before they republished the Betty Crocker Cookbook in 1998 I managed to find vintage copies for each of my daughters.
My mother might not have been into "teaching" me how to cook, but she was always glad to let me cook. I've talked with many women whose mothers wouldn't even let them in the kitchen. With Betty Crocker and Fanny Farmer as my guides, I made lots of cookies, cakes, and breads. And with six brothers all that baking was gobbled right up. Cakes were a common item at our house because there were so many birthdays. I liked making them from scratch with fluffy white frosting. Because the cakes were eaten so quickly I could use royal icing, though I knew that it didn't look good the next day. I loved Thanksgiving, and somewhere along the line it became my job to make the stuffing and to do up the candied yams and sweet potatoes. And a job I did often, but didn't really like, was peeling potatoes. I knew what size to cut them to, and that they were to be rinsed and covered with cold water before being placed on the stove. I made spaghetti sauce because I thought my mother's sauce was not very good. She made it with tomato soup. My mother made excellent well rounded meals all from scratch, but aside from seeing the outcome, I didn't participate in making them aside from the potatoes and spaghetti sauce.
So it would seem that aside from a few good cooking lessons from my grandmother I was mostly self taught. But if I hadn’t been given a chance to work in the kitchen I wouldn’t have learned much at all. So how did it go for my daughters? They can all cook, each with her own special area of expertise. I asked them if they learned much about cooking from me and they assured me they learned a lot. I know that I didn’t “give them cooking lessons”, so what did I do? It would seem that some of how they learned was by watching, then by being given the task with a few tips thrown in. Little things like being told that a cake is probably done soon after you can smell it. Annie said that I would “walk her through it”, teaching the proper ways to do things along the way.
I remember when the girls were about middle school age I was really busy trying to get a dress sewn when I suddenly remember that I needed a dessert for that evening. I told the girls they were going to have to make it for me, and I just called the instructions to them from the dinning room. It was strawberry short cake and they did a wonderful job with it. On another occasion, when they were about 13, 14, and 15, I got home from school at about 3:30 and told them we had to have a great dinner ready by 6:30 because I had invited one of my professors to dinner. We all got to work and managed to make a spaghetti dinner with fresh made bread, green salad, and chocolate cake. It took the effort of all of us to get the dinner ready on time. Our only miss-haps were two of us putting the cayenne in the spaghetti sauce, and the vanilla was forgotten in the chocolate cake. I would bet that I had Corey on the bread, Annie working on the sauce, and Sarah doing the cake, while I was busy on all of it. The girls knew that I wasn’t ever going to leave them totally on their own.
For Thanksgiving we all make a pie, and I also like to hand out different non-pie tasks to each one. Corey does bread, Annie loves to stuff and cook the turkey, and Sarah is great at making the orzo and salad. I’ll confess that I am still the one who makes up the pie dough, but they roll out their own pie crusts. I’m sure they can probably make the dough, it’s just easier if I make it in a big batch. I think that giving them responsibility for preparing some of the food for a significant event helps give them confidence in what they can do. They can most likely produce a big Thanksgiving dinner all on their own now, with no help from me.
I’m currently in the process of teaching my grand-daughter Emily how to cook. She is a very enthusiastic little cook, and has been ever since she could climb up on a chair, which was at about 1 ½ years old. When she wants to help I make sure I come up with some task she can do, or at least pretend to do. She is very good at greasing pans and putting in the parchment paper. And of course she loves to mix and stir and dump in the ingredients, and she even tries breaking an egg now and again, though so far she’s not too good at that. When she was quite young, as soon as she heard be starting to make something in the kitchen, she would come running, saying “Baby try!” I’m trying to give her as much hands-on experience as I can manage. She is currently anxiously awaiting an opportunity to decorate a cake. She’s already decided that it will be pink.
Emily making chocolate cake.
Emily helping to make cinnamon rolls.
Emily helping make dinner.
Emily learning to punch down the bread dough.
Emily learning how to roll out a pie crust.
Emily putting the plums into the plum dimple cake.
Emily learning how to knead bread dough.
Emily making biscotti.
Emily learning how to grate nutmeg.
I'd love to hear how other Daring Bakers learned to cook, and how you are teaching your children to cook. Just as it so surprising to look at all the tremendously varying things that the Daring Bakers can do with a recipe, so also should be all the varying ways the were taught and teach.