The great thing about spending time with small kids is that they come up with all sorts of ideas for activities that we, as grown ups, probably would not have thought of. Last weekend, our youngest son, aged 8, mentioned that he would like to make cola from scratch. Other than lemonade, I don’t believe I have ever made a soft drink from scratch. Making cola would definitely be an interesting challenge.
Mr Pict decided to take the lead on this project since I was so busy. He googled and found a recipe, he took the littlest Pictling to the store to gather the ingredients, and then they set to making it. The mixture of citrus zest and juice and spices smelled wonderful as they cooked. It made me think of mulled wine on winter nights but I admit to cynicism about whether it would end up tasting remotely like cola.
Once the syrup was made, it was added to a glass and topped up with seltzer water. Our youngest son obviously got to be the first to taste it. He sipped and declared it was delicious. It actually was really tasty. It did not taste like cola in the way that Coke or Pepsi taste like cola but it did remind me of those glass bottles of old-fashioned cola you can find in places that also sell drinks like dandelion and burdock or sarsaparilla. The older brothers also approved. The experiment was a success.
One of our Summer “pot luck” activities involves each boy learning to bake a recipe of their choice.
The first to bake was my 9 year old and he chose to make banana bread. I probably make banana bread at least fortnightly. It is so simple and straightforward to make and it is impossible to fail at making banana bread – which is great since I am a pretty good cook but a pretty basic baker. I also like that banana bread uses up bananas that are so overripe and squishy that nobody is going to eat them so it prevents waste. I tend to make banana bread that contains either chunks of sticky date or chocolate chips but we had some surplus blueberries so my 9 year old decided to experiment with making banana and blueberry bread. It was pretty tasty and very sweet.
Next to bake was my seven year old. He elected to make Dulce de Leche chocolate cake from the Hungry Mum blog. Last time I made it, it was no chocolatey enough – though still delicious – but I have since got my hands on some better, more robust cocoa which made all the difference. My youngest did not have his patience tested making the actual dulce de leche: I already had one in reserve as I boil up several cans at once to speed baking up and then store them, labels off, ready for use. He was a great little pastry chef and followed the instructions given. His reward was getting to lick the spoons and bowl clean. We did end up overfilling the loaf tin but, since it was silicone, happily it expanded during cooking to accommodate the expanding cake batter. It was scrumptious and very sweet.
My 10 year old chose to make Tablet. Tablet – if you have not hear of it – is an incredibly sweet Scottish confection made from milk, sugar, and condensed milk. It is so sweet it makes teeth scream and gums cry. I do not, therefore, make it very often. However, I made some for my ten year old not so long ago as he was delivering a presentation to his class all about Greek mythology and decided that they should sample Tablet as a stand-in for Ambrosia. Imagine Zeus nibbling on Tablet?
Tablet is actually pretty simple to make. The real hassle is that it requires constant stirring for up to half an hour. The kids got fed up of stirring a pot of very hot sugary goop after approximately five minutes. This cooking stuff is hard labour, don’t you know!
It turned out we went a bit awry in our process (I said it was simple but apparently it is not foolproof) and probably let the sugar boil into too much of a syrup. The result was that when the tablet set it did so in a way that was still sticky rather than it becoming firm and smooth like fudge. Never mind. Since this batch could not be eaten as a bite size snack, we just had to turn it into dessert and serve it with vanilla ice cream.
Last but not least was my 13 year old son. Since he is older and a little more experienced, I selected a slightly more complicated recipe to work through with him. We made Browned Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies, a recipe I found on Cooking is My Sport. We found it a little challenging because I don’t own a mixer so we had to do everything by hand and the dough mixture became quite dense. He certainly worked his arm muscles stirring. I must admit that I was worried that we had allowed the butter to get too brown but my concern was unfounded as the finished cookies were absolutely divine. The flavour was incredible and they were just the perfect balance of chewy and crisp. I heartily recommend the recipe.
As I mentioned recently, my 9 year old loves to watch cooking challenge shows. That was why he recently convinced his Dad to eat a massive steak when we were on vacation as it was a challenge the restaurant ran. That was down to those competitive eating shows. He also watches shows where the contestants are given a box of random ingredients from which they have to concoct a superbly delicious and delectably presented meal. He asked if he and his brothers could have a try at doing the same thing. Who am I to stand in the way of culinary creativity? However, given they have limited experience in the kitchen, I decided it was best to steer clear of savoury ingredients for now and let them work on creating desserts.
What was a cooking challenge for them was a control freakery challenge for me.
Phase 1 was to take them shopping for the ingredients. I promised myself that, aside from stopping them going crazily over budget, I would let them buy whatever ingredients for the box of options as they saw fit. It started really well. They chose some dried cranberries, prunes and dates – all things they have seen and helped me bake with. But then in the bakery aisle, they reached for a bright blue cake mix. I gulped and went to say something, almost reached out to snatch it from their mitts and place it back on the shelf, but I had a word with myself and let them plonk it into the trolley (cart). That blue cake mix seemed to taunt me from the bottom of the trolley. This was not going to be easy. Then they decided to pick some frosting. My youngest son, a total chocoholic, reached for a chocolate fudgey type one. “No,” I said. “I really don’t think that is going to go with the dried fruit you picked out.” My 13 year old tsked at me and reminded me that I had said I would neither guide them or interfere with their choices. OK. Lips sealed – but pursed – I let them continue. The chocolate fudge frosting was not selected. Instead they picked out a lemon frosting. I managed to say nothing. How is that for self-control? Then there were sprinkles and jelly (jello) and all sorts going into the trolley. Still I said nothing. We went through the checkout. I had not made them put back a single item. I gave myself a mental high five.
So then the challenge was theirs. They made up the cake mix according to the box instructions and made the jelly. Once that was all ready, all the ingredients they had selected at the store, plus a few things we had in the larder cupboards, were set out on the kitchen counter and I left them to it. I had to leave them to it because, you know, control freakery. About an hour later they ushered me into the kitchen to show me their creations. The kitchen was utter carnage. It felt like every mixing bowl, spoon, and spatula had been used. There were sprinkles all over the floor. All. Over. But their faces were beaming with delight and that was the important thing.
That evening, for dessert, Mr Pict and I got to taste test each of their random dessert creations. The sugar high was pretty intense and lemon frosting and blue sponge cake were an interesting combination as was biting into cake and squelching into a jelly layer. We were nevertheless entirely positive and encouraging in our critiques. The best part of this challenge was that the boys’ confidence in the kitchen had grown. By creating something edible without any adult guidance whatsoever they realised that they were capable of doing more in the kitchen than they thought they were.
Now they want to do a savoury food version. I might just have to retain some control over the ingredients for that one though.
Among the goals I set for myself in January was one regarding cooking. I set myself the challenge to cook at least one new recipe per week. I was tired of cooking the same couple of dozen meals over and over just to try and appease my kids and quell the meal time whines and rebellions. I operate an “eat it or starve” policy and tell my kids that I am no short order chef prepared to cook to their requests. But regardless the griping and groaning can become quite grating. After school hours are frenetic and frazzling as I oversee four kids doing homework while making the evening meal so to place said meal in front of kids and find a proportion of them protesting it is pretty dispiriting. As such, I had fallen into the trap of not challenging them too much with food. I was cooking from a repertoire of meals that satisfied the majority, knowing not all four would be satisfied each meal time. I enjoy cooking. I enjoy eating even more. I wanted more variety. The solution to my stuck-in-a-rut boredom was the challenge.
So far, with the exception of a couple of far too busy weeks, I have fulfilled the challenge. Most weeks I have tried and tested two new recipes. I pick friend’s brains, flick through recipe books, pin interesting looking options on Pinterest and pluck two possibilities (three if I have time to bake something sweet) to try out on my pack of little taste testers.
I am not going to lie about my rate of success. Many of my attempts have bombed with the kids. Meals Mr Pict and I have found delicious, the kids have complained about. There have been a few melodramatic gagging performances and a smattering of going to bed hungry but mainly just moaning. If more than 50% of the kids declare the meal to be horrid then those meals do not make it into my recipe file. I dust myself off and try a different recipe the following week. There have also been recipes I have tried that even I found too mediocre to be palatable. Some I have adapted to give them a stronger flavour punch and others have just been deleted from my memory. However, there have been enough comments along the lines of “You can make this again” to encourage me to keep trying and month on month my recipe file is getting chunkier. A few recipes – and not just the sweet ones – have become family favourites.
A side benefit is that the kids have become a little more sensitive to my feelings when responding to the new recipes. Dialogue about the success and failings of new recipes, suggestions as to how they might be tweaked to be improved, discussion as to precisely what makes them enjoy or reject a meal, has led to less yelps of “Why are you making us eat food this gross?” to the much more respectful and tolerable “I don’t think you should make this again” and “I would eat this again if it had more spice” and such like. Meal times, as a result, are generally becoming gradually more pleasant affairs. I still have to say “eat it or starve” too much for my liking but I accept it is all a process. I will keep ploughing onwards with my recipe testing challenge.