cooking with kids

The Birthday Menu

by Caroline

The one day a year I am very happy to take orders from my kids is on their birthdays, when they know they can order up a day of special meals, culminating in whatever birthday cake they like.

Ben’s birthday today falls on a school day, so I have no say over his lunch, but I’m mixing up waffle batter for breakfast. Then for dinner at home, the boy has requested homemade sushi and a lemon layer cake for dessert.

The layer cake is one I haven’t made since a friend’s baby shower four years ago, but it’s a classic 1-2-3-4 cake that’s a good one to have in the repertoire. I’m using the Martha Stewart recipe for a lemon version, with The Joy of Cooking’s lemon curd filling (because it uses whole eggs rather than the just-yolks version Martha suggests) and a lemon cream cheese frosting. And then, because my boy loves candied citrus peel, I’ve made candied lemon peel to decorate the top. Ben, claiming birthday boy prerogative, is not assisting with the baking (even I don’t bake my own birthday cake), but his younger brother volunteered as an enthusiastic sous chef, and wound up pretty much handling the project on his own. He just needed me to read the recipe:

I don’t think I’ll leave the baking entirely to him anytime soon; after all, it feels like a privilege to bake something delicious for my favorite nine-year-old.

Sugar on Snow, Literally

by Caroline

I am a big fan of letting the kids experiment in the kitchen to discover what tastes good to them. Ben, for example, went through a period of snacking on sun-dried tomatoes and graham crackers — a snack I never would have thought to offer the child but kept him happy for countless afternoons. At home, my boys have a pretty well-stocked pantry to explore, with a nice variety of nuts and dried fruit, as well as a good supply of fresh fruit, yogurt, and other snacking ingredients, and it’s always interesting for me to see what they come up with.

When we are traveling, though, our supplies are necessarily more limited. So it was the other afternoon in Lake Tahoe, where we spent some of the boys’ winter break. Eli was snacky and also, after a full morning in a ski lesson, a little tired. He needed something mellow and fun to do as much as he needed something to eat. So, I looked out on the balcony at the quickly-accumulating snow and asked him if he wanted to eat some of that. “Really, Mama? I can eat the snow?” “Sure,” I reminded him; “We can make sugar on snow like we do at Granddad’s, we just don’t have syrup.”

So, I thought about Lisa’s Hawaiian shave ice treats and we improvised with the ingredients at hand.

First, snow sprinkled with cocoa mix:

Surprisingly, not a huge hit.

Then we tried snow with raspberry jam heated into a syrup:

I liked it, but Eli didn’t.

Finally, the winner: snow drizzled with honey!

It’s not, of course, the most power-packed nutritional snack; ultimately the activity was more important here than the appetite. It was fun and easy and the boy was in charge: a winner in my book.

Cooking under deadline

by Lisa

Since 2009 Pete Wells has been writing a column in the NY Times magazine about cooking with his family. This past Sunday, he wrote his final column.

In it, he confesses that he never really figured out how to cook dinner after working full time–and get it on the table in time for his young children to enjoy it.  It’s an honest column about the dilemma many parents face. If you don’t work full-time, chances are you have volunteer obligations, a sick child, or after-school activities and car pools to run.   It’s certainly next to impossible to involve the kids on a weeknight if there’s homework and sports or just some much needed playing to be done. It can be downright hard to get a homecooked meal on the table.

I work mostly from home, so I’ve written about how prepping at lunch time, or in a quick few minutes after school can make the evening run much smoother. But lately, my book launch has brought a million moving parts to my life, and I’ve been scrambling up to the very last minute I have before picking the kids up from school, supervising homework, gettin them to their activities. I’m exhausted at the end of the day. I have a freezer full of food and a refrigerator full of fresh produce, and yet, I have little energy or time to cook. It’s almost like having a newborn:  if I have to do one more thing (i.e. prepare food) I just might fall apart. But still, we still have to eat, so I’ve gotten by on very easy things like fast pasta, easy fish tacos, a few more dinners out on weekends. And last night…I took a page from Wells’ wish list (healthier frozen food that goes from freezer to oven to table) and pulled out the frozen breaded tilapia filets. The kids had fish sandwiches and fries and a big side of steamed romanesco.  Kory & I had a pot pie that I had made the day before from a frozen pie crust and the leftovers from Sunday’s roast.

We got by.  Tonight, I’m making this fish soup, from homemade broth, also made on Sunday from that Sunday Roast Chicken (which makes 3 meals total from one bird). It sounds fancy and tastes fantastic, but it takes only about 15 minutes to cook and much less time than that to prep.

I know this will pass, and I also know that I am not the only one who faces this issue–whether all the time or just periodically. Like Pete Wells, we’d love to know what you do when you’re truly too busy to cook, and eating out is not an option.

Turn-the-Corner Tofu Salad

by Caroline

Ben was sick. He lay on the couch, with neither an appetite nor a fever nor any other symptoms. It was starting to get worrisome, the lack of symptoms. At least when a child is sneezing or vomiting you have a general idea of how to make them feel better and when they might turn the corner. He’d missed two and a half days of school, and I was just starting to think I should consider calling the doctor when he got up off the couch, pulled a couple books off the kitchen bookshelf, and took them back to his cozy spot under the blanket, now paging through his Spatulatta cookbook, showing more energy than he had in days.

“Can we make this, Mama?” he asked. And without even knowing what recipe he was looking at, maybe Stained Glass Cookies or Extra-E-Z Fudge, I said yes, we can make that. And we did, and we will again because it is a) delicious; b) healthy; c) quick; d) easy enough for even a sick kid to make. We added a carrot and some black sesame seeds (Ben is wild about sesame seeds) to the recipe, but otherwise followed it as written. Here’s how you can make it, too:

3″ piece fresh ginger
1 carrot (optional)
10 oz tofu
2 scallions, sliced in rounds
2 T soy sauce
sesame seeds of any color, to taste (optional)

Peel the skin from the ginger and grate with a microplane or the small side of a box grater. Peel the carrot and grate with the large side of the box grater. Slice the tofu into 1″ cubes and place in a serving dish. Sprinkle the sesame seeds, carrot, ginger, and scallions over the tofu, drizzle with soy sauce and serve.

Valentine’s Hearts

by Caroline

In years past, I have made heart-shaped chocolate sandwich cookies, I have made heart-shaped brownie ice cream sandwiches, and even homemade Ring Dings (or Ding Dongs, depending on whether your family bought Hostess or Drake’s Cakes). Last year, apparently not so much in the mood for sweets, I made a bright pink beet pasta for Valentine’s Day. This year, with a kid at home — not quite sick but not quite well– taking a midwinter personal day off from school, I wanted to make a Valentine’s treat that involved him. I had a vague recollection of a stained glass cookie, and Ben’s the one who found the recipe in his Spatulatta cookbook. And because we already had a supply of pomegranate-tangerine lollipops (long story) available for crushing, we didn’t even need to go to the store!

12 T (one and a half sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 c granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 t vanilla
2 1/2 c all-purpose flour
1 t baking powder
1 t salt
clear red hard candies, like Life Savers, crushed

First, enlist a willing young helper to crush the candies. Stick them in a big ziploc bag and use a rolling pin or a can of beans for pounding:

He is *definitely* going to school on Friday

They're rather pretty when smashed, aren't they?

Next, beat together the butter and sugar until pale, add the eggs one at a time, and then mix in the vanilla. Now add the flour, baking powder and salt, and mix until well blended. Form two discs of dough, wrap well and refrigerate for about an hour.

Toward the end of the hour, preheat the oven to 375. Line two cookie sheets with parchment.

Sprinkle a work surface with a bit of flour and, working with one disc of dough at a time, roll out to 1/8″ thick. Cut out large hearts and put them on a cookie sheet, then cut out small hearts from the middle of each large heart. If you are lucky, you’ll have another willing helper to do this part for you:


Fill the heart-shaped hole with crushed candies:

Sprinkle the small hearts with colored sugars, or simply bake them with the large hearts and frost them (or not) after they have baked and cooled.
Bake the cookies 7-9 minutes, until lightly browned.

Let the cookies cool completely on the cookie sheet before removing them to a rack, or else when you lift the cookies, your candy hearts will remain behind!

sweets for my sweets