This week marked the end of Carnevale, and the beginning of Lent. Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, and the day before – Shrove Tuesday – is the last day of Carnevale. In Italian it is called Martedi Grasso – Fat Tuesday – like Mardi Gras. In Australia, we know it as Pancake Tuesday. The origin of these names is the tradition of feasting on that day to use up foods that are not allowed during the Lenten fast – things like butter, sugar and eggs.
Cooking food with children at kinder is about involving them in the process. Our choice to make Australian pancakes is partly a nod to that tradition, but also partly due to practicalities. Pancakes are one of the easier things to make and cook in class.
I call them ‘fritelle’ in the Green Group program. I don’t know what pancakes are called in Italy, or whether they even eat them. But in the part of Italy I know best ‘fritelle’ are the Carnevale speciality. There, they are a kind of small donut, and are deep fried. Pancakes are also small and fried, so I figure ‘fritelle’ is a fair enough translation. But pan frying in an electric frying pan is much safer, and is something I am prepared to undertake in class.
We gathered as a whole group to make the pancake batter – burro, farina, uova, latte, zucchero e un pizzico di sale. The children took it in turns to add a spoonful of flour and stir the ingredients together. I had some keen volunteers to break the eggs, but I decided to do that myself rather than turn it into frittata by adding 13 eggs.
Another useful property of the pancake recipe is that it is very forgiving. I needed to be able to offer gluten and dairy free pancakes, and substitute ingredients work well. I had White Wings gluten-free self-raising flour, Nuttelex buttery margarine, and ricemilk. As it happened, I did not need to go dairy-free on the day, so I went with butter and cow’s milk. I made the pancakes fairly rich, with a bit of sugar, and plenty of butter and egg, so they were tasty enough to eat plain.
We cooked the fritelle around lunch time. While the children ate their lunch, I took children aside one at a time to cook a pancake with me. By doing it with one child at a time, I felt better able to control the risk, while still giving each child the maximum opportunity to be actively involved. The children poured a ladle of batter into the pan, watched the pancake for bubbles forming on top and told me when it was time to turn it, flipped it over with a spatula, counted to 20 while it cooked on the other side, and turned it out onto their plate.
Doing it one child at a time was lengthy, so it was important that the other children were not just waiting. They were engaged with eating their lunch, packing up and moving off to play. At the same time, they were in the room while it was happening, and were able to participate vicariously while others did it first. This can be important for children who are cautious about trying new things.
There is a lot of good learning to be had in an experience like this. Children are directly involved in doing something that is often done for them*. They are involved in making healthy food. They witness ingredients changing state from solid to liquid to solid. It is a memorable experience, with cultural resonance. It introduces new language in both Italian and English.
But the component I particularly noticed this time was the impact of my decision to work with each child individually to cook their pancake. I read something last year about the value of warm individual interactions with educators, where children can feel competent and appreciated. My initial motivation in setting it up as an individual activity was simply to provide close supervision around a hot frying pan. But I soon noticed it was providing a context for me to have an extended, supportive interaction with each child. And perhaps that was, in the end, the most valuable part of the whole exercise.
*These reflect various aspects of the Early Years Learning Framework including agency, wellbeing, science, memory, risk, cultural competence, language.
The next instalment of our activities with herbs was pizza with rosemary topping – pizza bianca al rosmarino.
I like to cook with yeast with my classes. It is such as great science experience, seeing the dough rise. The kids can knead the dough as much as they like – and that is a pleasure in itself.
This is a simple dough of granulated yeast, olive oil, strong white flour, salt and water. It is called pizza bianca (white pizza) because it is made without tomato. The topping is rosemary, salt and olive oil.
Our classes are less than 4 hours at the moment, and it can be hard to complete a complex activity in a day. So for this, we made the dough during our afternoon session, and then made up the pizzette the next morning. I also find it good cooking with yeast in winter in our centre, because we have heating in the floor. We can put the dough on the floor, and be sure it will rise.
We gave each child a piece of dough to work, flatten into a pizza shape, sprinkle with salt and rosemary, and drizzle with oil. We put each of them on a separate piece of baking paper, and wrote the child’s name in pencil.
We cooked it in a hot oven, and the children ate them for lunch.
Our interest in rosemary got us thinking about spices in general.
We removed all the pine cones and insects and other things that had been our nature table, and replaced them with herbs and spices.
We harvested fresh herbs from the garden. We raided the centre kitchen for dried herbs and spices, then brought some from home, and finally went to the supermarket and stocked up.
We tried to include as many as possible of the herbs and spices in two forms, placed together for comparison. Fresh and dried herbs. Whole and ground spices.
At first we left the table without comment. Children came singly or in small groups and explored the colourful powders and interesting shapes. They soon started to sniff them as they noticed the aromas.
When we joined them to talk about the display, they made comments like
‘That smells like gingerbread.’
‘My Mum puts that on my porridge.’
They had differences of opinion about which ones smell good and which ones don’t.
At mat time, we talked about the display, and pointed out the different states and types. Being an Italian class, we also introduced the names of some herbs and spices in Italian (though we did not attempt to turn it into a vocabulary memorisation exercise). We discussed how to use them. We passed them around and smelt them. We talked about which parts of the plants they come from.
When we went outside, some children were interested in seeing the living plants in the garden.
We have kept the display out for several weeks now. We don’t put out all of them all the time. We swap them around a bit. Sometimes the aroma of one or another gets stronger – especially when something gets spilt as happens from time to time. We have added screw top jars so the children can choose individual spices to smell. (Just the commercial ones they are sold in.)
Spices are a treat for the senses – interesting to look at, rich in colour, aroma and flavour. We are also finding them a rich vein of ideas for learning activities.
We made ‘biscotti al rosmarino’ at kinder this week.
We asked the children to divide into two groups for this experience. They divided into two even groups themselves. At first the groups were 5 and 10. I was interested to see how they spontaneously started to volunteer to wait until tomorrow, until the groups were fairly even.
First they went out and collected some rosemary from the garden. The children cut up the rosemary with scissors. They combined the ingredients, taking turns to add and stir. Each child got a small amount of dough to roll into a ball. They pressed them down gently on the tray to flatten them.
The cooked biscuits filled our room with the scent of rosemary.
We ate some biscuits during class. Each child had to ask “Posso avere un biscotto al rosmarino.” We practised how to say it. They could not have a biscuit unless they asked for it in Italian. All the children did it.
There were plenty of biscuits. At home time, we offered a biscuit to the people who came to pick us up. The children had to say: “Vuoi un biscotto al rosmarino?” Most of them did that too.
And the biscuits were yum.
Melt butter. Cut rosemary fine. Combine flour and sugar, then add melted butter and eggs. Blend into a workable dough. Form into small balls, then flatten onto a baking tray covered with baking paper. Cook at 180° until the colour starts to change.
Salad greens are a great plant to grow with children.
In Melbourne they will grow all year round, though faster at some times than others. They are reliable. You can pick them a leaf at a time, so you get quick results. But they will also wait for next week if you have something else going on.
While lettuces will grow well from seed, it is easier for a beginner gardener to start with seedlings. I prefer to get a mixed punnet, with some red and some green. They all grow a bit differently, and there is variety on show in the garden and on the plate.
Cos and Iceberg lettuces are a bit harder to grow, because they need to grow fast and healthy to form a heart, and you can’t pick them until they are fully formed.
You can grow lettuces in a veggie patch, or on the edge of a bed of flowers, or in a corner of the lawn that you dig out for the season. You can also grow lettuces in a pot. A wide one is best. It does not need to be deep. If there is not much soil in your pot, it is a good idea to add some water crystals.
Like most vegetables, they need soil that is fairly rich in nutrients. Buying a bag of fresh potting mix is the easiest way to make sure your soil will give them what they need. If you are planting into the garden, you might need to pay a bit of attention to how well your soil has been fed. Some Seasol or similar organic fertiliser can help.
It is important to water lettuces regularly and well. If they dry out, they will bolt. That is to say, they will go to seed early. You can tell they are starting to bolt if a central section starts to grow tall and leggy. You may be able to stop it by pinching that part out, and increasing the water supply.
As soon as you have 5-6 leaves on the plant, you can start to harvest one or two leaves at a time. They are sweeter and softer when they are young.
If you let the children pick it themselves, they can cut a leaf with scissors, or you can show them how to pinch off a leaf with their fingers. Occasionally they will pull the whole plant out. Put it back in quickly, tamp it down, and water well, and it will probably survive.
I sometimes add a few leaves from our garden to the fruit platter.
As the plants mature, the leaves will become bigger, tougher and more bitter. You can use them in cooking at this point – they will do as a substitute for spinach or silver beet in most recipes. Or you can let them go to seed, and observe the rest of the life cycle. If you leave at least one plant to go fully to seed, you can collect your own seed, and plant from that next season.
We have often cooked biscuits as gifts in our program. My long-time co-educator contributed a wonderful, flexible, reliable, pliable biscuit dough recipe.
This dough can be worked by children, and will hold its shape when you use cutters to make novelty shapes. It copes with substituting ingredients. The biscuits are sturdy enough and keep well enough to put into gift bags to go home.
When made with Nuttelex, No Egg and gluten-free flour, these biscuits are dairy-free, egg-free, nut-free and gluten-free, ticking all the boxes most commonly needed for preschool settings. And they are still nice to eat.
(see below for substitute ingredients)
500 gr SR flour
250 gr butter
flavours if desired eg vanilla essence, lemon or orange rind
Mix all dry ingredients. Melt butter/Nuttelex and egg/No Egg together. Mix with dry ingredients to form a soft dough. Knead for a few minutes. If too dry add extra egg or more No Egg.
Roll out on a floured board or table with rolling pins or by pressing. Use cutters for different shapes.
Bake at 180 degrees till golden.
Remove from tray gently as they tend to be soft. As they cool down they harden.
Notes on method
Flours behave differently depending on where the grain is grown, and local weather and altitude conditions. Eggs vary in size and liquid content. So you will have to experiment a bit with your local products.
We can’t give a precise definition of ‘too dry’. You have to get a feel for it. You want a dough that doesn’t start to crack on the edges as soon as you roll it thin (that is too dry), but is not sticky (that is too wet). You should be able to pick it up off the table or board after rolling it out.
Don’t make the shapes too fussy, or you won’t be able to get it out of the cutter, and the fiddly bits of the biscuits will break off too easily.
When children do it themselves, they will produce a variety of thicknesses. Try to group biscuits of the same thickness together on one tray for cooking. Otherwise, you will have to take individual biscuits off as they cook and put the rest back in the oven.
You need to stay close by as they cook. They turn quickly – once they start to brown they will burn soon after. You want to catch them just before they start to colour.
The wonderful thing about this recipe is how well it copes with any – or even several – of the ingredients being substituted for allergy-friendly ones. Use the substitute ingredients in the same quantity and method.
substitute flour …. with gluten free SR
(we use White Wings – some gluten-free flours have flavours that are not neutral enough for such plain biscuits, or have too much rising agent, so you may need to experiment)
substitute butter… with Nuttelex (or another dairy-free margarine)
substitute sugar….with Equal Bake
substitute eggs….with No Eegg
Cooking is a great experience for kids. There is so much learning. Literacy, numeracy, science, health, culture – it is all there.
Early childhood educators know this, and it is very common for them to include cooking experiences in their programs. Of course, a cooking experience suitable for a classroom setting is not the same as something you might whip up at home. Too many cooks. Involving all those children actively involves a different set of skills, recipes and equipment.
Then there is the question of allergies and intolerances. We have an epidemic of allergies in twenty-first century Australia, particularly among young children. Cooking for a group has become a minefield of competing needs. We might have to cater for vegetarians, vegans, halal or kosher, for coeliacs, for those who may suffer anaphylaxis or those with allergies to nuts, eggs, seafood, milk, kiwifruit, strawberries or in fact almost anything you care to mention.
Luckily, there has been a concurrent explosion of online cooking sites. It is very easy nowadays to trawl the net for recipes, and to find specialty recipe collections. There are sites devoted to allergy-friendly cooking.
For teachers, cooking is one type of experience that really has to be planned in advance. Not only do you need the ingredients to hand, you also have to work out how to adapt the method to include all the children in the processes. You need to be sure you have enough time in the session to complete the dish. You need to know it is going to work.
The most important thing is to make something you actually know how to cook. When you are in charge of a group of children is not the time to start experimenting with a new recipe or unfamiliar ingredients. Don’t make your kinder class the first time you try to use yeast, or bake with gluten-free flour.
Test your recipe. If trying it out at home is too much of a burden, chances are you are not really a confident enough cook to manage it as a learning experience. But your co-educator might be. Maybe s/he could be in charge of the cooking, and you could manage the turn-taking, noticeing, talk, photography etc.
It helps to think about what learning you imagine and would like to focus on. Will you be asking the children to read the recipe? Will you let them live with mistakes? Do you want them to write or document what they do? Is the focus the science? Is there a way to highlight the process you want them to notice? Will you need photos? Who will take them if you have your hands dirty? Of course, it depends on the age of the children as well as why you are doing the activity. There is a lot going on when you cook, and it will be harder than usual to think on your feet, especially if you want edible food as well as good hands-on learning.
In my kindergarten classes, I have found some simple ways to involve everyone are (depending on the food being prepared):
• have chlidren take it in turns to add small quantities of the ingredient from a pre-measured lot
• pass the bowl around and take it in turns to stir
• divide the class into groups and repeat the same experience with more than one group
• knead or roll small quantities so everyone gets to work with a bit
• put individual serves on baking paper with the child’s name written on it
• have each child decorate or finish an individual serve
• have everyone bring a contribution (eg a piece of fruit or a vegetable) to add to the dish
• send everyone out to the garden to pick a herb
A useful tip I picked up from the Kitchen Garden program is not to expect to be able to grow enough of a single ingredient in your own garden to feed a whole class. Pick what you have grown yourself with the children, and buy in enough extra to make up the quantity you need.
These are mostly gluten-free, as that is my particular bias. I haven’t yet come across one that specialises in cooking with groups of young children. If anyone knows of one, please tell me.