Although I am a trained teacher, I do not teach my kiddos. At least not in the formal sense. There are no “skill and drill” moments in my home, no peppering their days with flashcards and worksheets. I figure I only get them as little kiddos once and I’m going to enjoy them.
But what I do do with my kids is play with them. Teaching kiddos card games and making crafts, those are all skills that make those synaptic responses just go whiz-bang. And, of course, I read to them. But my favorite thing to do with my kiddos is cook with them. Talk about a thematic gold mine. In one batch of banana bread you can talk about all kinds of stuff: science, math, geography, spelling, you name it.
So, making focaccia for dinner last night was yet another great chance to turn my little kiddos into the next generation’s scientists or geographers or what-have-you.
I love focaccia for its inherent yumminess as well as a fantastic level of versatility. In our case, last night I made what we call “Italian Dunkers” for dinner and made focaccia for the base. Considering the lack of left-overs, I can safely say it was a hit. So, this is how I make focaccia.
First, we have our preamble chat about germs and health and safety. This usually entails me asking everybody to go wash up, telling people that just walking out of the room and coming back doesn’t count, and then changing at least one child’s shirt because the sleeves have gotten soaked. Finally, everybody comes back all scrubbed up and disinfected and we are ready to do business. Then, we get all the ingredients and tools together and start mixing and chatting and laughing. But because it was a bread recipe, we had our usual conversation about the “magic of yeast”. My kiddos are now experts when reading a thermometer to ensure that the water is no more than 110 degrees. And of course, they have gotten good at balancing on the stool while jostling each other for a good look. Because, you know, even if you are taking turns and Mom ensures that everybody gets a chance to look, it is really hard to loose your coveted spot closest to the bowl.
It is important to remember that 5 minutes is pretty close to an eternity for a 3 year old, so the waiting for the yeast to “proof” is a great time to do something else. Eat a snack, pick up some Legos, whatever. Of course, then you have to get them all disinfected and redressed, but by then, the yeast should be proofed. Years ago I explained this process to my 9 year old using language along the lines of the yeast “eating” the sugar and together we decided that the little bubbles might be the yeast’s farts. Perhaps not the most appetizing way of explaining how yeast works, but my kids love it and now they all wait for the yeast to make magic in the bowl by eating and farting. Heaven know’s what I’ll do if I ever kill the yeast. My kids will need therapy over that for sure!
After we whoop it up and get excited about science and math all over again, plus end one or two minor squabbles over who gets to pour in the first cup or teaspoon or whatever, it is on to the fun part.
And then, it is finally the really fun part because we get to be so messy – everybody gets to knead the dough at least a few times, because let’s face it, this is only fun for a pretty short time.
However, my kids love to hang out and watch while I finish up kneading the dough. We count how many times we can fold it over on itself. We laugh over who has the most flour on his or her face. We argue over who gets to shake just a smidgeon more flour into the bowl until the dough is just right.
And then, it is finally ready to set aside to rise. There are lots of ways to do this, but since I never get an early enough start on making dinner, I do this great trick. I know it sounds nutty, but it really works.
After the dough comes to a nice smooth ball and you’ve gotten it to the perfect texture, put some olive oil in the bottom of the bowl and roll the dough ball in the oil until all sides are lightly oiled. My kids love this part. However, I must caution against a high level of enthusiasm. You really don’t want that dough ball to go skidding out of the bowl and onto the floor. Well, if your floor looks better than mine, you might get away with just washing off the dough. But at my house, you have to start all over. With our dog, one way or another, you get a redo if this happens.
Anyhoo, I put a piece of plastic wrap over the dough and then take a hand towel, get the towel wet (but not dripping wet) and put the towel in the microwave for about 2 minutes. Be careful, because the towel is going to be super hot. Set the bowl in the microwave, cover with the towel and shut the door. Congratulations! You have now just made your microwave into a hot and steamy little world that makes your dough rise like crazy. Plus, after the dough has risen, you can wipe out the condensation in the microwave with the towel. Viola! A clean microwave and perfect dough!
Punch the dough down, shape, let rise again for about 20 minutes while preheating the oven and pour yourself a glass of wine. Dinner will be on the table in no time, your kiddos just helped you make dinner, relearned all kinds of great stuff and you have a clean microwave. Can you think of a better way to spend an evening?
ps. I have a great recipe if anyone is interested. Here’s a pic of the finished product – half naked for the kiddos and half with sauteed onions, olives, and pesto for the grownup palates.