Cooking together can be great bonding time for families, and the holidays offer so many fun opportunities. Chocolate-dipped pretzels, popcorn balls, decorated sugar cookies and gingerbread houses are just a few traditional kid-friendly projects.
Cooking with kids can also be educational. Counting mixing strokes or measuring ingredients use math skills. Following a recipe helps with reading and logic skills.
But, simply turning a few youngsters loose in the kitchen is bound to lead to chaos and frustration. Kids tend to be messy, and they can lose interest in the middle of a project. You don't always get picture-perfect results to show off to the neighbors. Also, the kitchen can be a danger zone of hot stoves and sharp knives.
It pays to have strategies and age-appropriate recipes to make cooking together an enjoyable experience for children and parents, and grandparents.
Ruth Kendrick, owner of Chocolot Artisan Chocolates in South Ogden, grew up learning the art of candymaking from her mother, Pauline Atkinson. The chocolate tradition has been handed down through the family. Her grown son, Ryan Kendrick, remembers dipping chocolates during the holiday season when he was a youngster. His mother made the candy centers ahead of time and the kids had fun covering them with the chocolate.
"I think family traditions are always good, and nothing is as inexpensive and readily available as food. And it's something that the kids can carry on with their own kids," Kendrick said. "Certain smells bring back holiday memories, such as wassail or chocolate."
An easy kid-friendly project, she said, would be to make the typical Rice Krispies/marshmallow mixture, spread it on a cookie sheet, and let kids cut it with cookie cutters. Kids can use frosting and candy to decorate the Rice Krispies treats. These take a lot less time than traditional sugar cookies that need to be mixed, rolled out, cut in shapes and baked.
This year, Kendrick's grandkids are decorating houses made of molded chocolate instead of gingerbread.
The houses will already be assembled so her grandkids (age 7 and under) will only have to decorate them. Often young kids get impatient when they have to attach the roof and walls, then wait for the frosting to harden. But if they start decorating too soon, the walls fall down and the roof caves in.
"The kids don't care about building it, they just want to decorate it, and eat candy while they're at it," said Kendrick.
Joy Sundloff of Kaysville uses graham crackers for her grandkids' gingerbread houses, and firmly attaches all the walls and roof with a hot glue gun ahead of time. The glue can be covered over with frosting, and the kids enjoy the creativity of decorating.
Donna Kelly, a prosecutor in the Utah Attorney General's office, grew up in a family where siblings had a nightly assigned cooking task. (Hers was making the salad.) The cooking experience paid off, as Kelly has written seven cookbooks and co-authors two different blogs. One, Apronstringsblog.com, is written with her daughter, Anne Tegtmeier, showcasing family recipes; the other is "Everyday Southwest" with her sister, Sandra Hoopes. Her most recent book, also co-authored with Hoopes, is "200 Appetizers" (Gibbs Smith).
Savory Herbed Popcorn, a recipe from "200 Appetizers," offers a change of pace from sweet treats. It also gives kids an opportunity to stir big bowls of popcorn, and can be used for neighbor gifts.
"Our family does a Pass Around Fudge where you place all the ingredients in a Ziplock bag and then pass it around and the kids squeeze it with their hands," said Kelly. "The heat of the hands 'melts' the ingredients and fudge forms. It's great fun for kids. And their little hands are warm and perfect for the job. It keeps them occupied and feeling like they're contributing to the cooking process."
MINTY MARSHMALLOW POPCORN CAKE
These are fun to make as gifts for neighbors or a favorite teacher. Borrow a few bundt pans so you can make more cakes while you wait for the first cake to cool.
Equipment needed: One bundt pan
4 quarts (16 cups) popped popcorn (it's better if you use air-popped, as the microwaveable popcorn will be greasy)
Nonstick cooking spray or butter
1/4 cup butter or 100 percent margarine
1 16-ounce package mini marshmallows
1 teaspoon mint extract (more for a strong mint flavor)
2-3 drops green food coloring
1-2 cups mix-ins such as gummy bears, M&Ms, peanuts, raisins or craisins
Sort through the popcorn and remove unpopped kernels as you place the popcorn in a large, wide mixing bowl.
Spray the inside of the bundt pan with cooking spray or rub it with butter.
Place the butter and marshmallows in a large mixing bowl.
Microwave on high for 1 minute. Remove from the microwave and stir. Microwave on high for 30 seconds and stir again. If marshmallows haven't completely melted, microwave another 30 seconds.
Stir in mint extract and food coloring.
Pour marshmallow mixture over the popcorn, and gently stir the popcorn until it is completely coated. Add some of the mix-ins, reserving about 1/4 to 1/2 cup.
Pour the mixture into the bundt pan and press the mixture down so that it becomes more compact.
Wait 30 minutes for the mixture to set. Turn the pan upside down on a plate and tap gently until cake releases. Finish decorating the cake with the remaining mix-ins. To serve, cut slices with a knife. To give as gifts, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and tie with a festive bow.
— Valerie Phillips
Tips for making holiday treats with kids
1. If you have more than three kids younger than age 8, have another adult or teen on hand to help supervise.
2. Don't attempt a complex project if you're in a hurry, super-tired or feeling irritable.
3. Divide and conquer. Consider mixing dough and freezing it one day, then baking and decorating on another day. Or instead of expecting them to help with the whole process, just assign pre-school age kids specific tasks, such as cracking the eggs and stirring them into the batter, or rolling cookie dough into balls.
4. Start with simple recipes with a quick pay-off, such as chocolate-dipped pretzels or Rice Krispies treats.
5. Choose age-appropriate tasks. Don't let your 4-year-old loose with a knife, for instance.
6. Kids should be covered with an apron or old clothing to protect against spills, with sleeves rolled up to keep them from dragging in batter or frosting.
7. Use a sturdy stool so kids can safely be part of the action.
8. If the child can read, have him or her read the recipe it aloud to you before you start. It's good reading practice, and helps you both to see if you have all the ingredients, equipment, time or patience to make the recipe.
9. Gather ingredients and equipment beforehand and place on a cookie sheet. As you use each one, replace in the cupboard or refrigerator until the cookie sheet is empty. This helps to keep you from leaving an ingredient out of the recipe.
10. Clean as you go. Kids need to learn that clean-up is part of the process, but it shouldn't be the emphasis.
11. Wash hands before and after handling foods. Parents should supervise use of knives and appliances.
12. Use thick, dry pot holders. Moisture will quickly scald the skin when heated.
13. Use caution when making candies, whether it's for toffee, peanut brittle, fudge or molded suckers. Involve the kids in stirring the sugar and other ingredients together before you crank up the heat. They can butter pans or arrange nuts on a cookie sheet for peanut brittle. But pouring out the boiling syrup is a task for adults or teens.
— Valerie Phillips
Valerie Phillips is the former Deseret News food editor and the author of "Soup's On!" She blogs at www.chewandchat.blogspot.com.