When Easy Bake Ovens came out in 1963, they were a marvel, selling half a million units in the first year.
By the time I was cooking on one 20-some-odd years later, it hit those sales numbers and higher, totaling 16 million by 1997. My little baker self was in awe that you could cook something that kind of tasted like brownies with a lightbulb. I didn’t really like the cake, but I loved feeling like a cook.
As much as I enjoyed the memory of that sad, small cake, I wanted to give my own kids the experience of actual cooking, from as early a stage as possible. We made pancakes and granola and “Angry Birds“ cupcakes and kombucha together, each time exploring tastes and techniques and checking off items on our culinary bucket list.
Baking in an Easy Bake Oven has never been on that list (sorry, Hasbro), but this summer, we’re diving into Mom’s Home Culinary School.
Thanks to the pandemic, we’re making more food memories than ever these days. We’ve turned my recent furloughs into fur-doughs, making cinnamon rolls, molten lava cakes and chocolate cupcakes. And bread. So much bread.
What’s going on in my kitchen is nothing compared to what KoKo Badgley-Finan has been whipping up.
The 11-year-old daughter of my colleague Kristin Finan is what I’d called a Croissant Level cook; her incredible baked goods are always popping up in her mom’s social media feed: a “Harry Potter”-themed party for her five siblings, a cinnamon chocolate chip coffee cake on Mother’s Day and a rainbow explosion cake that, when KoKo and her mom pulled the first slice and an avalanche of sprinkles and jimmies and baking candies spilled out, solicited genuine shrieks of delight.
I have another young friend, Mia Ansel, who at 12 is practically a professional at this point. She almost made the cut for “Kids Baking Championship” on the Food Network last year, but even though she didn’t get on the show, she’s making meringues, eclairs, ganache, every kind of cake you could think of and, recently, Mary Berry’s Viennese whirls. She recently started a blog about her efforts called Frosted (miaansel.wixsite.com).
Ansel and Badgley-Finan could very well become pastry chefs in the next decade, and though that’s not a path that all kids want to pursue, I think it’s important to work with new cooks, whatever their level (or age). Let’s face it: There are plenty of adults who are still in the Scrambled Egg stage, and that’s OK.
My own kids are somewhere between what I’m calling the French Toast and Cinnamon Roll stages: They are gaining some independence, which will become even more important as they get older, and they enjoy the process but they also need me there to help.
As we all face a long summer of uncertainties — chief among them, when school might restart and what it could look like when it does — I thought I’d break down 50 food projects to tackle with your kids or to let your kids tackle on their own, depending on what level of cook they are.
We’ll start at the basic (Scrambled Eggs) and end at the most advanced (Eggs Benedict and Croissants). Remember: There’s no crying in baseball, and there’s no winning in cooking. Every interaction with food is an opportunity to learn and grow, even for the teachers.
And best of all, there’s no Easy Bake Oven in sight.
Level 1: Scrambled Eggs
1. We’ll call this the scrambled eggs level, so start there. Breaking an egg in a pan and scrambling its contents is a good way to start familiarizing new cooks with pans, heat, fat and salt.
2. Up next: Quesadillas and grilled cheese, which teach dry heat skillet skills. Making ramen noodles and hard-boiled eggs teach boiling skills.
3. Spend some time on knife skills, with supervision. Even adult-aged new cooks need to practice cutting fruits and vegetables. A fruit salad is a good place to start.
4. Find a show like “Masterchef Junior” or “Kids Baking Championship” to watch together. Or, for older kids, “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat,” ”Chef’s Table” or “Ugly Delicious.”
5. Introduce homemade lemonade and DIY soda. We bought a soda siphon recently and have started simmering fruit, sugar and water to make simple syrups. Big hit.
7. Go to a farm stand or a farmers market. Buy a grow-your-own mushroom kit. Start a windowsill herb garden. It’s important for anyone who is new to cooking to spend some time exploring food from farm to plate.
8. Look at recipes to get familiar with how they work and what kinds of recipes are good for beginners and which require more skill. Start making a list of baking and cooking projects you want to aim for this summer. If the quarantine-trendy pancake cereal or whipped coffee is on that list, I won’t judge.
9. Find those simple recipes from your own childhood to start with. No-bake cookies, Rice Krispie treats and even chocolate chip cookies.
10. This first stage comes to an end when you can crack an egg with ease, slice a zucchini and measure a cup of flour.
Level 2: French Toast
1. At this stage, kids should start feeling more comfortable with knives and are getting familiar with different cooking utensils and what they are used for, like using a spatula instead of a wooden spoon to flip French toast.
2. Work on the basics: How to cook rice and roast potatoes. How to steam vegetables and saute meat. Baking projects are what often draw kids into the kitchen, but they need to learn some everyday home cooking skills while they are there, too.
3. Start looking for YouTube shows and Instagram channels to follow. My kids were early fans of “Nerdy Nummies,” a pop culture-themed baking show on YouTube, and now they are all about “Binging with Babish,” another YouTube show hosted by an adventurous chef named Andrew Rae. My teenager is a big fan of Buzzfeed’s Tasty videos on Instagram.
4. Go to Hana World Market, 99 Ranch Market, Gandhi Bazar or Central Market for inspiration, education and groceries you might not usually have on hand. Ikea is another one of my favorite food field trips. My oldest son spent his 13th birthday at H-Mart and Antonelli’s; Con’ Olio is next.
5. Take a trip to Foodie Kids, the kid-centered cooking store on Far West Boulevard, or Make It Sweet cake supply store on U.S. 183 to gawk at all the baking supplies.
6. Make a point to eat foods from restaurants that might be slightly outside of the established comfort zone. Take note of any flavors the new cook might want to experiment with.
7. Order a cooking kit subscription from Raddish or America’s Test Kitchen. Skull & Cakebones is a local company that sells baking kits. (Raddish has teamed up with Outschool to host online cooking classes this summer.)
8. Contribute to the family grocery list and grocery shopping. Thinking ahead about what supplies a family or household needs is an important step in the growth of any cook.
9. Practice using other kitchen utensils, such as a vegetable peeler, a paring knife or skewers.
10. You’ll know you’ve graduated from this stage when you can make breakfast in bed for someone in the house without asking them for help.
Level 3: Cinnamon Rolls
1. This is when the parents and kids might find themselves at the same skill level: comfortable in front of a stove but still a novice in many ways. This is when you’re ready to start handling dough to make things like pizza, tortillas, no-knead bread or cinnamon rolls.
2. Buy a few extra bags of flour and sugar and get to work. Advancing from mixes to from-scratch baking can take a little while to master. Have patience. Remember that muffins, brownies and banana bread are pretty forgiving.
3. This is also a good stage to consider taking a cooking class or camp to learn even more basics. Most kids cooking classes are taking place online this summer (Kitchen House Austin, Faraday’s Kitchen Store, Foodie Kids) but you could also do a parent-kid cooking class with any other local online cooking options, such as Pasta Social Club or Intero chef Ian Thurwachter.
4. Bread is a good introduction to fermentation, but now is a good time to dig into decay, not only what foods are fermented, including chocolate, but what foods are easily fermented at home: quick pickles, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, hot sauce. Pick one and try it.
5. If your young cook is into cheese, try making homemade ricotta, goat cheese or paneer, which are all easily made at home.
6. Lean into pop culture to get the whole family involved. Those “Angry Birds“ cupcakes were such a hit, and there was also the Skylander birthday cake, and the Star Wars-inspired Wookiee Cookies.
7. If you can, give your burgeoning chef a modest budget to spend on a specialty ingredient or cooking tool that would help them make a dish they are interested in. Fifty dollars at Ikea will go a long way and make them feel more invested in the kitchen environment.
8. Grilling requires some physical height to safely reach the hot grates, so young kids at this stage should probably work closely with a parent as a helper, but teens and parents can work together to heat the coals (or light the gas) and start to learn the art of cooking over a flame.
9. A cook at this level will likely want to start spending more time in grocery stores (or maybe, in our current situation, shopping for ingredients online). Hang out in the bulk spice section. Linger at the farmers market. Connect with people who make food, and ask them questions.
10. This stage wraps up when the student is able to start tweaking basic recipes to their tastes and can put a weeknight meal on the table.
Level 4: Eggs Benedict
1. Now we’re nearing foodie stage. This means learning how to make a Hollandaise sauce for eggs Benedict or bechamel sauce for macaroni and cheese. If you haven’t already made ice cream, find a custard recipe to practice tempering eggs.
2. As new cooks become more comfortable looking at more complex recipes, this is a great stage to buy a first “real” cookbook, aka one not directed at kids.
3. Dinnertime staples like homemade pasta sauce, a salad with vinaigrette and a roasted chicken should be within reach now. At this stage, you can try making more difficult DIY projects, such as mozzarella or tempeh.
4. Once you’ve practiced yeasted breads, try sourdough. It’s trickier to work with, but the resulting baguettes and boules can be stunning. This is a good time to explore slightly more challenging bakes, such as pretzels, English muffins, pita or bagels.
5. Make pasta. Start with simple egg dough noodles and then move on to filled pastas and hand-shaped pastas.
6. Marshmallows aren’t particularly difficult to make, but they are a good way to introduce a candy thermometer to someone’s baking repertoire.
7. Don’t wait for Thanksgiving to bake a pie. Some cooks find pie crusts to be one of the most challenging baking projects, while it comes more naturally to others. Knowing how to prepare and roll out a pie (or quiche or tart) crust will come in handy for the rest of your life.
8. Keep track of “your” recipes in a recipe binder, an online document, a recipe app or whatever method works for you. At this point, it’s good to start keeping track of the recipes you love, the tweaks you’ve made to them and the recipes that might start to feel like your own.
9. Teach someone. A sibling, a friend, a grandparent. As cooks of any age learn new skills, it’s important to learn the art of talking about cooking. The transition from student to teacher is a subtle one, and it’s a wonderful feeling to let my kids take the reins and teach me something they’ve learned online or in practice.
10. Getting to the end of this level means a cook has recipe fluency and autonomy and a willingness to fail. Some of us never finish this stage.
Level 5: Croissants
1. Kids or teens or adults who advance to what I call Croissant Level have a combination of talent and willingness to work hard that could very well take them to a culinary school or a high-end restaurant. Laminated dough is tough for even advanced bakers, so if you’re rolling layer after layer of flour and butter to make croissants or kouign amann, you have my attention and my respect.
2. Make macarons. Those delicate little French pillows are notoriously finicky. Master them and you’re automatically advanced to this level, in my opinion.
3. Bake a fancy cake. Cake art has come so far in the past 10 years; find the big players (HayleyCakes and Sideserf are two notable Austin cake-makers), follow their work online and get inspired.
4. Pick a dish or two from a cuisine that’s new to you, and use it to learn more about the culture and people who developed it. As cooks become more savvy about food, it’s important to learn about the history of that food and the environmental, political and social context around it. Food always tells a story, and it’s up to us to pay attention to it.
5. Smoke a brisket or a pork butt. With the right tools, smoking meat is easy, but it can take time to master the skill, especially if you’re a younger cook who isn’t used to working with fire. This is a great activity for multigenerational learning.
6. Learn how to scale a recipe up or down. Making more or less than a recipe calls for is a skill that many students don’t learn until they are in a high school or college culinary classroom, but it’s helpful to start to do this on your own. This will help you bake cupcakes for a crowd or to cut down on food waste when you’re baking for one.
7. Get artistic. Even if you end up with something that belongs on “Nailed It,” it’s fun to put your creativity to work with food. During the quarantine, I’ve also seen bakers using edible flowers to make incredible focaccia art. A lame, a sharp blade attached to a handle, can transform your everyday bread loaves into works of art.
8. Do good with your newfound skills. Many experienced cooks, like the founders of Dough Re Mi, find that cooking and baking for other people — or using food to raise money for a good cause — is one of the most rewarding acts of service.
9. Keep learning. Even the best chefs in the world know that it’s important to be humble about what you know and that there’s always more to learn. Find a good book to deepen your own exploration. Better yet, connect with a mentor whom you can share ideas with.
10. Share your knowledge. Start a blog or an Instagram account to show off what you’re making and connect with other cooks. This journey to becoming a better cook, no matter your age, might just lead to a community that supports you out of the kitchen, too.