Alexandra, John Annamarie, Betsy and Allison stand around Sandra Bresnick's kitchen stove, giggling while they wait impatiently for a pan of peanut oil to heat up.
"You can't be impatient when you cook," warns Bresnick, who teaches cooking to boys and girls 9 and over in her Bethesda home. Like several of the pupils, Bresnick wears a bright yellow apron emblazoned in red with the words "Creative Cooking."
John, 12, in an attempt to be creative rather than impatient, goes to the freezer to check the progress of an ice cream pie."It's still kind of soupy," he reports.
Meanwhile, the oil has started to sizzle and the kids take turns dropping in dollops of a batter containing grated zucchini. Miraculously, the blobs of batter turn into zucchini puffs. "See the way they puff," says Bresnick. "If we didn't put baking powder in them, they wouldn't."
Three children continue frying the puffs. "You have to eat all you make," Bresnick chides 10-year-old Alexandra, who has repeatedly professed a loathing for zucchini. The others follow Bresnick to the table to prepare the main course: beef fondue. Somehow an hour and a half after the kids arrived at Bresnick's kitchen door, the whole meal is on the table. The class sits down to eat it and to go over the recipes with Bresnick.
Each class makes a full meal, every time, because Bresnick thinks the kids need this instant gratification. "They're not willing to work a long time perfecting a basic sauce the way adults are," she says.
"The kitchen used to be forbidden territory," says Lea Brammick, who runs classes in "the basics of kitchenmanship" for kids 8 to 13 in department stores all over the country. "But children can do much more in the kitchen than adults are willing to believe they can."
Brammick's two-hour sessions, which begin wiht hand washing and end with eating and enjoying, also teach consumer skills. "When we make Italian fruit dip, for instance, we not only bring in beautiful fruit but some bad examples, too. And we tell kids why they should buy the fruit that's in season now," she says.
Brammick's recipes designate each task as something the child should do, something the parent should do, or something the parent and child should do together. "The parent becomes the child's assistant in the kitchen," says Brammick. Her teachers use scripts developed in conjunction with an educational psychologist. The scripts tell the teachers what to reply when the kids say "My mother doesn't do it that way," or "Yuk! It's alive! It's got blood!"
About two years ago, Brammick organized her own Philadelphia-based company. The Lobster Factory, to teach such basic life skills to children. "After all, with 47 per cent of mothers working, children don't always have a role model to learn cooking from," she says.
Melinda Kessler serves as the role model for the 3- to 5-year-olds enrolled in the Montgomery County Recreation Department's Tiny Chefs program. "It's an introduction to the four basic food groups," explains Kessler. "The kids mix, measure, add eggs, and watch what happens."
Kessler herself is the only one in the class who's allowed to touch the oven, but the kids do most other tasks themselves including whipping cream for strawberry whip and making a paste of mozzarella cheese for miniature pizzas. "Their attention is good, and they really want to help," says Kessler, adding that parents ought to let them help make lunch.
To improve your little helpers' kitchen skills, you could enroll them in one of the classes listed below, or you could let them try one the following recipe at home. Bon appetit!