These kids’ cooking lessons make delicious sense of maths, science and history

Allison Robicelli

THE WASHINGTON POST – If you ever doubted whether cooking can help you teach your children about science, maths, history and more, here is an exercise for you: Set a nice, shiny red apple on the table.

Ask them: Where did apples originally come from? Why do they turn brown? How do they eat apples in India, or Latvia, or Ecuador? How many apples could fit in Lake Superior? Has anyone ever written a poem about an apple? Are there machines that pick apples, and how do they work? How do the farmers make money? Why are some apples better for baking than others? Could we make (and eat) a bunch of pies to figure out the answer?

I first fell in love with food when I realised how many things it could teach me. Food is a basic function of animal life, without which, well, we die. It is the great equaliser and connects to nearly every discipline if you remember how to ask questions like a child does. That is why I make it the centre of so many of the lessons I teach as I home school my children.

But first, let me admit that homeschooling them was not part of the original plan. Frankly, the whole idea sounded insane.

I am not an alpha mom, a hippie or a doomsday survivalist – I am a working mother who, even before these unprecedented times, has been utterly exhausted trying to maintain a balance between being a good parent and being a functional adult.

I sent my two sons to public school, because it is just what you are supposed to do.

So I did not give homeschooling an iota of consideration until one of my oldest friends began doing it. While I was spending my days screaming at my kids to do their excruciatingly boring homework, she was posting Facebook pictures of her elementary-age sons building a playhouse with real lumber and power tools, conducting chemistry experiments in the bathtub and coding their own video games. My kids, already in middle school, did not know how to do any of these things, but they did know about the War of 1812, types of rocks and how to take standardised tests. My kids were born into a world that is evolving at an exponential rate, and I began to realise that if my kids were ever to keep up with it, homeschooling might not be a choice, but a necessity.

Pavlova With Lemon Curd. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Classic Pound Cake

I explored dozens of websites, watched plenty of YouTube, found online groups for homeschooling families and asked tonnes of questions. I quickly came to realise that everything I assumed about home-school was entirely wrong; it is not about gathering around the table with workbooks, or trying to replicate the in-school experience. It is about discovering how you like learning, and having the freedom to explore that. It is seeing how the world is not divided into strict, separated disciplines, but how everything is connected. It is learning to ask questions about everything, following your curiosities and realising that your education never ends.

Many years ago, when I decided to become a chef, I taught myself by reading voraciously, watching cooking shows and, most importantly, doing. A decade or so later, I did the same when I became a writer. I learn something new every day, because it is impossible not to! I do not need to take out loans or get permission from a school to delve into the wonders of the universe, because I can look up everything I want to know on my phone. Learning new things is invigorating, something every adult should do till their dying day.

Not surprisingly, I discovered that my kids like learning much in the same way I do – and that food and cooking can be an effective recurring focus for our lessons.

Cooking is an excellent way to convince your children that, yes, they will actually use this knowledge in the real world. It makes the intangible tangible. It tells us who we are, it communicates our stories and allows us to hear others. We can travel through time by eating the foods our human ancestors did. We can make chemistry happen in a way we can see, touch and taste. We can read recipes like puzzles to be solved. We can make watercress sandwiches and plant a Secret Garden, sit down for a spot of tea with the Mad Hatter and eat the cold plums in the icebox.

I will not lie and say homeschooling my kids is easy. There are plenty of days I struggle with it, because I am still learning. We evolve our approach as the kids grow older and the world transforms around them. We explore new things and take bold risks, because that is how real life goes. And, we eat well, because the universe is not only endlessly fascinating, but extremely delicious.

Here are three lessons my sons and I developed using cooking.

SCIENCE

Children have a natural inquisitiveness that makes them question everything; a quality that is essential to science, and to our family’s approach to home-school. This pavlova recipe, as written, demonstrates some basic concepts of chemistry, but can be used to learn so much more if you and your kids think like scientists.

For example: Why are lemons so sour, and what happens when you plant their seeds? How do chickens lay eggs, and what makes them good for us? Where does sugar come from, and how is it processed? Does the shape of a beater or the velocity of the mixer matter when making a foam, and why? What is the difference between direct and indirect heat? Does climate affect how berries grow, and how are they farmed?

Brainstorm out loud with your kids, writing down every question and figure out ways to find the answers. Learning science is not only about finding the correct answer – it is also about the steps you need to take to get there.

No, it is not necessary to understand the science behind the recipe to get a crispy baked meringue with a lush curd, but the dish can be a sweet reward for a lesson learned.

PAVLOVA WITH LEMON CURD

Eight servings

This pavlova recipe, as written, demonstrates a few basic concepts of chemistry, and can be used to learn much more if you and your kids think like scientists as you bake. Here, terms such as “emulsify”, “acid”, “foam” and “dehydrate” are explained in the context of meringue and lemon curd recipe.

EMULSIFY: An emulsion is when two liquids that do not mix – like oil and water – are combined by suspending tiny particles of one liquid into the other. In the curd, lemon juice (water) and fat (butter) come together into a smooth mixture thanks to the presence of egg yolks, which contain a substance called lecithin, an emulsifier, that helps hold them together. Imagine an electrical adapter: one side of the lecithin molecule sticks to the oil, and the other side to water.

ACID: Acids are a type of molecule that donate some of their protons to other molecules, and can cause many different types of chemical reactions. When making an egg white foam, if too many proteins bond together, the foam can become lumpy or collapse. In this recipe, the acid adds extra hydrogen particles, which attach themselves to some of the egg whites’ protein strands, which helps form a smoother, more stable foam.

FOAM: Foam is created by trapping pockets of gas in a liquid or solid. Egg whites are made of about 90 per cent water and 10 per cent proteins; when beaten, the proteins change shape, turning from tightly wound balls to long strands. As air is whipped into the egg whites, the proteins begin to link together and form bubbles, trapping the air inside.

DEHYDRATE: To remove the water from something. By keeping the pavlova in a warm oven for a long time, some of the water content slowly evaporates, turning the foam crunchy on the outside and softer on the inside.

INGREDIENTS

FOR THE LEMON CURD

Half cup fresh lemon juice

Half cup granulated sugar

Six large egg yolks

Half cup unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

FOR THE PAVLOVA

Eight large egg whites, at room temperature

Two teaspoons acid, such as vinegar, fresh lemon juice or cream of tartar

One-and-a-half cups granulated sugar

Two tablespoons cornstarch

Two teaspoons vanilla extract

Fresh fruit, such as raspberries, blackberries, strawberries or your favourite fruit, for serving

DIRECTIONS

Make the curd: Fill a small saucepan with two inches of water. Set the saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Place a medium non-reactive bowl on top of the pan to make a double-boiler, making sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the simmering water. Add the lemon juice, sugar and egg yolks, and stir to combine. Add the butter and continue to stir constantly to emulsify the curd, until it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 10 minutes.

Remove from the heat and strain through a fine-mesh sieve into another bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until completely cool, about one hour.

Make the meringue: Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 225 degrees.

Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Using a marker, draw a nine-inch circle, with a dinner plate acting as a guide. Flip the paper over so the marker is on the bottom. This way you can still see the circle without getting ink on your meringue.

In a large metal bowl, using a mixer whip the egg whites and acid on high speed until they increase in volume and become a soft foam, about one minute. Add the sugar, a few spoonfuls at a time. Continue to beat until you get stiff, glossy peaks that stand straight up when you lift the mixer’s beaters, about two minutes.

Fold in the cornstarch and vanilla, then pour the meringue right into the centre of the circle, and use an offset spatula or the back of a spoon to evenly spread it out.

Bake the meringue for about one hour and 30 minutes, then turn the oven off without opening the door and leave the pavlova to dehydrate in the warm oven for another one hour and 30 minutes.

Transfer the pavlova to a plate. Spoon the curd into meringue, top with fresh berries and serve.

Nutrition | Per serving: 312 calories, 5g protein, 54g carbohydrates, 9g fat, 5g saturated fat, 153mg cholesterol, 48mg sodium, 0g dietary fibre, 51g sugar

HISTORY

No matter where or when they lived, every human that has ever existed needed to eat. It was a driving force behind the evolution of our species, drawing our earliest ancestors, bringing them across the globe as they pursued game and fertile soil. It helped create societies, economies and empires. It tells stories of survival and resourcefulness, of trade and exploration, of culture and identity. It is one of the few things that literally connects every person. Pick any moment in history, and you can probably find a recipe that will take you there.

This is one of the earliest known recipes, courtesy of one of the oldest civilisations in human history: the ancient Mesopotamian city-state of Sumer. This was where, around 4,500 BCE, agriculture became an industry, and the basic elements of society grew out of it. The Sumerians developed and improved technologies that made the evolution of our species possible. They domesticated and bred such animals as goats and sheep, and grew lentils, beets and barley. This recipe was discovered chiselled on a stone tablet, with little in the way of detail and a total absence of measurements. As such, this stew is an approximation of what may have been served in Sumerian homes, based not only on archaeological evidence, but the culinary traditions that exist in the region where their ancient civilisation once stood: modern-day Iraq.

While you eat the stew, think about what life was like for a kid in ancient Sumer. Try writing a letter to an ancient Sumerian “pen pal”, telling them some of the ways your life is different from theirs, and some of the ways it is the same.

What do you think they did every day? Did they go to school, or did they have jobs? What kind of toys did they have, and what sort of games did they play? If an ancient Sumerian could time travel to today, what do you think they’d find most surprising?

SUMERIAN LAMB STEW

Four servings

This fragrant lamb stew was adapted from a 4,000-year-old Sumerian recipe found on a cuneiform. It is a fantastic way to experience how people ate millennia ago and how advanced their culinary practices were. To suit contemporary palates and blunt the strong taste of the lamb, however, we tweaked the recipe, adding pomegranate and date molasses, both of which were being made at the time the recipe was recorded. The ancient Sumerians would have accompanied this stew with steamed bulgur, boiled chickpeas and bread, but you can also customise the accompaniments to suit your tastes.

INGREDIENTS

One large leek, white and light green parts only, trimmed and cleaned of dirt in between its layers

Two tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

One pound lamb stew meat, trimmed of excess fat

One teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed

One small yellow onion, chopped

Two large shallots, chopped

One pound beets, peeled and diced

One cup baby arugula

One cup chopped fresh cilantro, divided

Two large garlic cloves, minced or finely grated

One teaspoon cumin seeds

One cup soda water

Three-quarter cup water

One tablespoon pomegranate molasses

One tablespoon silan (date molasses)

Two teaspoons whole coriander seeds, crushed, for garnish

STEPS

Trim a two-inch piece of the white part of the leek, finely chop it and reserve for garnish. Chop the rest of the leek.

In a six-quart Dutch oven over high heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Liberally season the lamb with salt, then add it to the pan and sear until dark brown, about 10 minutes. Add the onion, shallot and leek and cook, stirring, until softened and translucent, about five minutes.

Add the beets, arugula, three-quarter cup of the cilantro, the garlic and cumin and cook, stirring often, until the excess moisture evaporates and the bottom of the pot is nearly dry. Add the soda water and water, stir to combine and bring the mixture to a boil. Stir in the pomegranate molasses and silan until incorporated.

Reduce the heat to medium-low, partially cover the pot, and let the stew simmer until the sauce thickens, the flavours meld and the lamb is tender, about one hour. Halfway through cooking, stir the stew. Taste and season with additional salt, if desired.

Divide the stew among the bowls. Sprinkle with the reserved leek, the remaining cilantro and top with the coriander seeds.

Serve hot.

Nutrition | Per serving: 349 calories, 26g protein, 27g carbohydrates, 13g fat, 3g saturated fat, 74mg cholesterol, 456mg sodium, 5g dietary fibre, 14g sugar

MATHS

Maths is something we use every day that affects nearly every aspect of our lives, and when you illustrate that to your kids, they are less likely to complain about it being “boring”. How could anybody possibly hate maths when, without it, cake could not exist?

This recipe is not only a cake to be baked, but a puzzle to be solved. In one scenario, kids can portion the ingredients exactly as printed, giving them a tangible example of what different weights and measurements look like. In another, they can use basic maths skills to convert the listed amounts into consistent units of measure, and simplify them so they become easier to follow. In a third scenario, they can portion out the ingredients twice – once by weight, once by volume – then compare and contrast to determine which method is most accurate. If you end up having more cake than you can possibly eat, let the kids figure out how much it costs to make each cake, and then host an online bake sale. When children discover that maths is essential for making cake and making money, complaints about it being “boring” tend to disappear.

CLASSIC POUND CAKE

16 servings

INGREDIENTS

One-and-a-quarter cups unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing the pans

One-and-one-third cups granulated sugar, plus more for coating the pans

Five large eggs

Half cup whole milk

Quarter cup sour cream

Two teaspoons vanilla extract

Half teaspoon kosher salt

Two-and-two-thirds cups all-purpose flour

One teaspoon baking powder

Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting

STEPS

Position the rack in the middle of the oven and preheat 325 degrees. Lightly grease two eight-by-four-inch loaf pans with butter or cooking spray.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, or using a handheld mixer and a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar together on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, for about two minutes, scraping down the bowl occasionally. Beat in the eggs one at a time, stopping the mixer and scraping the bowl between each addition. Add the milk, sour cream, vanilla and salt. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and baking powder to aerate, add to the bowl with the wet ingredients and mix on low speed until just combined.

Sprinkle a little sugar in each loaf pan and shake the sugar around to coat the inside, then tap out the excess. Divide the batter equally between the two pans. Bake for one hour to one hour 15 minutes, or until a toothpick or cake tester inserted into the center of the cake pulls out clean.

Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely then remove the cakes from the pans, slice and serve. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar, if using.

Nutrition | Per serving: 301 calories, 4g protein, 33g carbohydrates, 16g fat, 10g saturated fat, 98mg cholesterol, 87mg sodium, 1g dietary fibre, 17g sugar