Teachers in the Classroom and Kitchen

Published February, 2008

A child's role in cooking

By day, Phyllis and David Whitin are professors of education at Wayne State University in Detroit. The couple, who met in fifth grade, are teachers of a different sort at home. They are parents who raised three independent, self-sufficient children and are now committed to helping raise equally self-sufficient grandchildren, Sarah, 2 years old, and Sophie, who is almost 1. Their teaching method is simple: They share their love of food and their proficiency in the kitchen and they give the youngsters tasks for which they can be fully responsible.

The Whitins always knew that they would teach like the teachers they had admired as students. When their sons, Brett and David, and their daughter, Becca, were small, the family moved frequently to pursue education and jobs. Through all the changes cooking together remained constant. The activity provided stability, in a way, and helped the children learn to accomplish tasks and exercise their creativity.

“We used to pick blueberries when the kids were little — when the boys were 5 and 7,” said says Phyllis Whitin. She had to hold her hands behind her back to resist helping the children; years later she remains as proud of herself as she is of her sons when she says, “They did it themselves.”

She adds: “It takes patience but you learn that kids really are quite capable of doing quite a lot all by themselves.” Fascinated by the way children assimilate knowledge, she couldn’t help turning her kitchen into a classroom. Baking bread, she found, was not only something she loved, it was also a powerful teacher.

“It is part science, part creativity, and part just amazing," she says, “and then you can eat it.” She loves demonstrating what she always found so fascinating about the bread process: “How the stuff grew up, got puffy, ended up something you could eat and that yeast was really a plant.”

She started her sons and daughter kneading bread — it’s not so different from working Play-Doh, after all. Her husband assigned equally simple tasks: sprinkling cheese on his famous macaroni and cheese, for instance, or cracking eggs on the side of a bowl.

Their children’s culinary skills gradually improved. One of Phyllis's primary goals as a parent was to fully involve the children in the cooking process. “It’s paid off,” she says. “My kids are excellent cooks and take a huge role in cooking at their homes.”

She and her husband are already taking the same approach with their oldest granddaughter, Sarah. At age 2, she is so taken with cracking eggs on the edge of a bowl that, at bath time, she mimics the cracking action on the edge of the tub, using her toys for eggs.

This sort of result, Phyllis says, is from assigning young children real jobs that they can be in charge of ... and as grandparent, resisting the impulse to help.

“Bread is great because you can’t really hurt bread. I like kids to be able to do things and feel independent and be part of the real process,” she says. She and her husband are already making Cloverfield dinner rolls with young Sarah. Each of them kneads a small ball of dough, and then they place the three pieces together and bake them in a muffin tin where each roll rises like a golden three-leaf clover.

Another constantly requested dish is her sweet-potato casserole with cranberries. It's not hard to make and it won’t be long until Sarah will be able to assist. When Phyllis's children ask for sweet-potato casserole, it shows that it's a family favorite. When her granddaughter asks to learn how to make it, it will show that the dish is becoming a family legacy. And, in the world according to Phyllis Whitin, the dependent child makes one more step toward independence.

David's Easy Macaroni and Cheddar Cheese
This crusty mac and cheese with ham, served warm, is basically a hug on a plate

Mac and cheese is comfort food at its best. David Whitin has been making his version for years, adding ham when the mood strikes. For a communal cooking experience, he grates the cheese and lets his young granddaughter do the sprinkling.

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1 pound elbow macaroni, cooked and drained
2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, cut in small pieces (about 1/4-inch thick and 1/2-inch long)
3/4 cup cooked ham, cut in bite-sized pieces (optional)
1 cup milk (more or less, depending on how soft you like the macaroni)
1 or 2 slices of bread, buttered and cubed (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and lightly grease a 1 1/2-quart casserole dish. Mix the first three ingredients together in the dish.
2. Add about half the macaroni, cheese, and ham. Mix again. Add the remaining macaroni, cheese, and ham, and mix again. Sprinkle with cubed bread, bake for 40 minutes, and serve immediately.

Yield: Serves 4 to 6.

Phyllis's Dinner Rolls
Homemade dinner rolls are perfect for buttering before dinner, dipping in soup or sopping up gravy

From our feature Teachers in  the Classroom and in the Kitchen, a professor of education Phyllis Whitin advises giving children a small piece of dough to call their own and working with them to knead and shape it. From time to time, she gives them a new bit of dough to work and incorporates their earlier masterpiece into the dough that she is working.

2 (1/4 ounce) packages active dry yeast
1/2 cup lukewarm water
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon salt
1 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup (1 stick) salted butter
5 1/2 cups flour

1. Soften the yeast in the lukewarm water. Scald the milk. Pour it into a large bowl over the sugar, salt, and butter. Cool to lukewarm.
2. Add 2 cups flour and mix thoroughly. Add the softened yeast and the eggs and beat well. Add enough additional flour to make dough that is soft but not sticky. Turn out on lightly floured board and knead for 5 minutes, or until smooth and elastic.
3. Rinse the bowl and grease it with shortening. Put the dough back in the bowl and turn it so that the greased side is up. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth, put in a warm place, and let it rise about 1 hour or until double in bulk.
4. Punch down the dough. Divide into 3 parts on a floured board. Each part makes 1 dozen rolls. Shape and put in greased pans. For clover leaves: Divide into 12 pieces. Break each piece into 3 parts and roll them into balls. Put 3 balls of dough in each cup of a muffin pan. For knots: Divide into 12 pieces. Roll into a "snake" shape about 6 inches long. Tie into a loose knot. Place on a cookie sheet. For crescents: Roll the dough into a 12-inch circle. Cut into 12 wedges, like a pizza. Roll up each piece, starting at the wide end. Place on a cookie sheet, curving the tips to make a crescent.
5. Cover and let rise about 1 hour, until doubled.
6. Bake at 400 degrees F for 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown.

Yield: Makes 3 dozen.

Sweet Potato Casserole
Sweet potatoes with brown sugar enjoy a little twist on the classic

This rich side dish is a holiday standby in the Whitin household. Adapted from a lifestyle magazine about 20 years ago, it has become the most requested item in their culinary repertoire. The casserole is a traditional Southern dish, and Phyllis Whitin adds cranberries for a tangy twist on a sweet classic.

4 large, fresh sweet potatoes or yams, peeled, steamed, and drained, or 4 16-ounce cans of yams, drained
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup quick oats (uncooked)
1 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 cup butter
2 cups fresh whole cranberries

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine the flour, brown sugar, oats, and cinnamon. "Cut in" the butter using two dinner knives by sliding the blades across each other until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
2. Toss 1 cup of the crumb mixture with the cranberries and yams or sweet potatoes. Top with remaining crumbs.
3. Bake in 1 1/2 quart casserole dish for 35 minutes.

Yield: Serves 6 to 8.