How do we learn to cook? I remember my grandmother assigning me a variety of tasks in the kitchen: scraping out the last of the cake mix from the mixing bowl with a spoon – her adage of “every last bit could feed a starving child in Biafra” – ringing in my head, crushing a clove of garlic and a pinch of salt against the back of a teaspoon on a saucer until it became a puree, and stuffing mint into the rattling hand mincer to make mint sauce for Sunday’s lamb roast. Was that learning? Perhaps, because I was always encouraged to taste but never made to do the washing up until I was much older, kitchen duties always remained enjoyable and never a chore. I learned by osmosis, by tasting and by doing.
When it came to my own children, life was a little more complicated. I do remember being told by one primary school teacher that I should encourage my daughter to weigh out ingredients whilst I was cooking supper as that would help her arithmetic. I could feel the smile freeze on my face, before thanking her, tight lipped, for her suggestion. She didn’t know that I was lucky if I managed to return home from work in time to read them a story at bedtime, never mind making their supper. The children’s meals were therefore supervised by a range of au pairs, mother’s help, and nannies. It was always a surprise to me, that many of these young women from as far afield as Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa were practically devoid of basic cooking skills. Weekday meals were a mishmash of fish fingers and frozen peas or the all-time favourite of tuna sweetcorn pasta. Not too much weighing involved in that, just opening cans and mixing the contents into cooked spaghetti. At weekends I tried hard to pre-make dishes for the freezer, homemade spaghetti sauces, stews, shepherd’s pie that would just need heating up. Did I involve my children in more than just stacking the dishes into the dishwasher? Probably not. Time, even at weekends, was the scarcest of commodities.
Holidays, I think were the biggest influence. Trips to foreign markets, where everything not only smells and looks different, but tastes different too. Stalls stacked with regional produce, where you are encouraged to feel, sniff and even taste. A peach in London never tastes the same as one eaten straight from a market stall in southern Europe. There’s no rush on holiday, no set bedtime hours, just time – time to introduce children to food such as artichokes, and how to dip the leaves into melted butter and nibble off the soft fibrous ends. That’s when food becomes a real enjoyment and meals in a sunny piazza are not ones to be rushed. I did instil what has now become a family mandate, that everything has to be tried once, whatever it is. If one child liked paté and the other, garlic infused snails, they would have to try both. If they didn’t like it the first time, then they would have try it again the next year.
Perhaps that’s it, perhaps kids need to learn to taste before they can start to cook. Find out what tastes and textures work well and what doesn’t. Now I have more time on my hands, I enjoy having the older grandchildren help in the kitchen and the garden just as my grandmother did. Cooking, as that primary teacher had suggested, is really a very easy way into science. The practice of skills, collecting ingredients, weighing them out, and working out timings all hold good for a wide variety of subjects. If you want to start children cooking, then it has to be with something that is not only interesting to make, but also enjoyable to eat. In my kitchen, that’s cookies. I keep Man’s Dutch cookie jar filled with a crunchy fruit and nut digestive, which just happens to be low on sugar. My only problem is that they disappear far too quickly. Cookie Monsters of all ages will out.
Fruit and nut digestives
125grams fruit and nut muesli
125grams whole wheat or multigrain flour
125grams butter, chopped into chunks
25 grams brown sugar – I use muscovado as I like the treacly taste.
Pinch of salt
Splashes of whole milk
NB. you can add spoonfuls of extra nuts, cherries, raisins if you want. I was persuaded by my no. 1 grandson that white chocolate flakes were a critical ingredient.
I have made this in both a food mixer which makes a chunkier biscuit or in a food processor which is a smoother mix.
Cover a baking tray with a sheet of greaseproof paper – it doesn’t need to be stuck down with butter.
Place muesli, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into the mixer/processor and beat/whiz for a few seconds to combine the dry mix thoroughly. Add the chopped butter and beat/whiz until the butter is incorporated into the mixture and starts to clump. Using your judgement, splash in enough milk to make the mixture pull together in one clump. If too wet you can always add a shake of extra flour. Transfer the clump onto either a sheet of cling film or a transparent plastic bag which you have cut open to make a double sheet. The intention is to shape it into a round, wrap it in the plastic to put in the fridge for 20 mins. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 180C.
Remove dough from fridge and place on a hard surface. Leaving it wrapped in the plastic, centre the dough so that when rolled out it has room to spread. Place a small amount of flour in a saucer. Roll out the dough through the plastic to approximately one centimetre thick. If you turn the dough bit by bit after each roll you will create a circle which it is easier to cut round cookies from. You can use whatever cutter you have to hand or use a small glass if you don’t have one. Whatever you use, dip its edges into the flour first so that it stops it sticking to the dough. Cut out your shapes, rerolling the dough in the plastic to use it all up. Place cookies on a baking tray and put in an oven for 15 mins. They should be a light golden brown. Place the cookies on a wire rack. Do your best to keep small hands off the cookies whilst they are cooling or you will find yourself having to make another batch all too soon. Store in an airtight monster-proof container.