I love cooking with kids—I love turning kids on to how cool it is to cook. I love the way they’ll eat stuff they’d never eat otherwise, and the way they stand up a little taller when you let them use a really sharp knife. I love showing them that tasting is the way to see if you’re doing something right, and I love to watch them eating their creations. Recently, I did a cooking class with Pathfinders of Perry County Kids Club. We had a blast.
One of my favorite things to cook with kids is pizza. After all, everybody loves pizza, right? And when you can make it EXACTLY THE WAY YOU WANT IT—when you can be IN CONTROL of your pizza, it’s even better. I love to show kids how to make this usually unhealthy food healthier, and it’s a great chance to get them to try new toppings, like roasted broccoli or a new kind of cheese. It’s a blend of the familiar (pizza) and the unfamiliar (new toppings, different cheeses, different sauce) that can encourage kids–and grown-ups, for that matter–who may be reluctant to try new things into expanding their horizons. For instance, Taylen, one of the kids in our Pathfinders group, tried feta cheese, and he loved it. He ate a ton of it, and I have no doubt that he’ll be eager to try other new cheeses now, too.
When I do cooking classes for kids, pizza takes a little planning. What works best is to make up a batch of dough ahead of time and have that all risen and ready to go, and then let the kids mix up their own batch, which we let rise while we work with the dough I made. I send them home with balls of dough and instructions for turning it into pizzas, or a number of other things. That’s one of the things I love about making pizza from scratch. It can so easily become something else, like cinnamon rolls or a loaf of bread. If time is short, I bring in the toppings already prepared–grated cheese, of course, homemade sauce (sometimes a white sauce and a red sauce), sauteed spinach, roasted broccoli, olives, peppers, sauteed mushrooms…anything I think the kids will try. Pepperoni, even if it isn’t exactly healthy. Sometimes you have to live on the edge, though, right?
When the kids arrive, I set them up at tables in groups of three to five, depending on how many kids I have. I usually try to group younger kids with older kids, or well-behaved kids with bad kids, or cute kids with ugly kids. KIDDING! There are no ugly kids. Only ugly adults. But I digress. I put the kids in groups and have each group learn to measure–I usually show them how to use a knife to level off the flour, just like in my old-school Betty Crocker Kids Cookbook. With the Pathfinders, we were in a super-hurry, so I just had them dump the flour into measuring cups and explained that dough is very forgiving, and that we don’t always need to be really exact. I showed them how to measure a teaspoon of salt into their palms so they’d always know what a teaspoon looked like and could, in the future, impress people by not really measuring and still having things turn out perfectly.
Of course when you’re working with kids and yeast, you must explain the science behind how yeast works to make dough rise. The scientific term for this is called “farting.” The yeast farts are what make the bubbles that make the dough rise. Or at least, this is my understanding of the process and it’s what I tell kids. They seem to like that explanation. I also explain to them that yeast is alive, just like they are, and that if they burn it with water that’s too hot, they’ll kill it. I tell them that the water should be about as warm as they are, and we stick our fingers in the water and think about that for a while. Sometimes, at this point in the lesson, I explain to them how you can make a sleeping person pee in their sleeping bag at summer camp by placing his or her hand in warm water. The two processes–proofing yeast and making campers pee–are closely related, and are equally important life skills. And really, isn’t that what a cooking class with kids is all about? The acquistion of realistic life skills?
Once the kids have whisked the dry ingredients–the flour, salt, and yeast–together, they’re ready to add the wet ingredients–the olive oil and water. This is where things get delightfully messy. Their hands are coated with wet dough, flour is flying around the room, and they just can’t believe that the shaggy mass of flour and water is going to morph into something as magical as pizza. We talk about all the things that affect the dough, like humidity and the kind of flour you’re using (I like to use white whole wheat–it has a good texture, and even if it isn’t quite as healthy as full-out whole wheat would be, it’s better than white flour. This is a good place to sneak in a label reading activity if you’re teaching a group of kids and want to make them conscious consumers.). I show the kids how the mess on their hands will work itself into the dough once we get the right balance of water and flour and work those ingredients together. Slowly but surely, the dough turns into something elastic and wonderful and not messy at all.
I tell the kids that dough at the proper consistency should feel like their earlobes. I don’t really think this is true, but I read it once long ago when I was learning to make bread, I think in The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, and it always puzzled me a bit. I mean, I guess…but then I feel my earlobe, and it really doesn’t feel like dough. But how else to do you describe how dough should feel? You really just have to make some good dough and then you KNOW how it should feel, for the rest of your life. That’s why I’m so into teaching kids to cook–because once they’ve handled a nice dough, they’re hooked, and they will never, ever forget how it should feel. However, it amuses me to see small children with flour covered hands looking confused and fingering their earlobes while yeasty balls of dough await their kneading, so I say it anyhow just for fun.
Kneading the dough is the next step. The kids always gain confidence at this point. They’re all like, “Oh, I KNOW kneading. Don’t EVEN tell me how to knead. Have you SEEN my prowress with play-doh???” And I have to explain to them that they want to bring the dough together, not pull it apart–that they shouldn’t be sticking their fingers into it like claws, but using their palms to fold and press the dough. I tell them to pay attention to the way the dough feels when they start, and to the way it starts to change as gluten develops. (Actually, I’m always telling them to pay attention, to the way things feel, the way they smell, the way they taste. Paying attention–really stopping and paying attention with all our senses–is an integral part of cooking, and something we all should do more of, in every part of life.) Once the kneading has gone on long enough, it’s time to shape the dough. There are three basic ways to shape pizza dough: patting it out, rolling it out, or SPINNING IT OUT. Spinning dough with children is such fun it makes me all giddy and capsy. It doesn’t really work all that well–they drop it a lot, and it gets missphapen, and they poke through it and tear it when they catch it, but WHO CARES??? It’s so much fun to teach them to throw spinning disks of dough into the air and catch them on the backs of their hands that I don’t care if it works. We can always fix it when we’re done.
I have the kids spin, roll, or pat their dough on sheets of parchment paper. I can write each child’s name in the corner, in case there is any doubt whose creation is whose once they’re baked (there rarely is–these are deeply personal pizzas). I ask the kids to think about what they like in a pizza crust–thick or thin? Chewy or crispy? Often, they’ve never really considered these questions before–and certainly never considered that they can BE THE BOSS OF THIER CRUST. We talk about how the crust should be more or less uniform in thickness to avoid burned spots, and how it doesn’t really matter if it’s perfectly round. Pizza is a very forgiving medium.
Once the crusts are rolled or patted or spun out, they should really rest for a while–maybe twenty minutes. But I tend to underestimate how long it takes to do things like this, and so usually when I’m working with a group of kids, I’m waaaaay behind at this point and we just pile the toppings on and it still turns out just fine. I have the kids rub a little olive oil on the crust to seal it and keep it from getting soggy–insert teachable moment about water and lipids here–and they choose what they want. I encourage diversity and trying new things but I don’t insist–these are their pizzas and I want them to have ownership. I have ovens preheated and a pizza peel ready, and either stones or baking sheets, depending on where I am and how many kids I have. Then, once the pizzas are baked, comes the best part: We eat.
Children today, or at least the children I know, lead pretty safe lives. I am grateful for that–beleive me, I am thankful that our children, unlike so many other children in this world, don’t have to contend with war or famine. We protect them, and rightly so, from the dangers that are so scary–from bad guys and spoiled meats and sharp edges and speeding cars. But maybe, I think sometimes, we protect them too much. When children are never allowed to take risks–reasonable, thought-out risks–I think they start looking for ways to bring a little danger into their lives. They balance on walls that are too high or too narrow. They poke at weaker children to get a rise. They misbehave just to see if they can get away with it. When we cook, we take risks. We might get cut, or burned. We might make a mess. We might not like what we turn out. But cooking risks are managable, reasonable risks. Our children’s lives are all too often wrapped up in video games and classroom worksheets and sports where only the best kids get to play–so much in their lives is out of their control, sanitized for safety and keyed to some nebulous core competencies. Cooking isn’t like that. Cooking is REAL–at the end of it, kids have something meaningful and tangible and REAL. This is why I want kids to learn to cook. Besides, it’s fun.
And here is a link to the handout I gave the kids on how to make pizzas and more…
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