This story has been updated.
If you ever doubted whether cooking can help you teach your children about science, math, history and more, here’s an exercise for you: Set a nice, shiny red apple on the table.
And then 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 realized how many things it could teach me. Food is a basic function of animal life, without which, well, we die. It’s the great equalizer and connects to nearly every discipline if you remember how to ask questions like a child does. That’s why I make it the center of so many of the lessons I teach as I’m homeschooling my children.
But first, let me admit that homeschooling them was not part of the original plan. Frankly, the whole idea sounded insane.
I’m not an alpha mom, a religious zealot, a hippie or a doomsday survivalist — I’m 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 have spent every moment of my children’s lives praying I’m not messing them up too badly, and the idea of being in charge of their survival and their education was beyond preposterous. Teachers are extremely well-educated, selfless people who voluntarily decided to understand children on a professional level. Me? I’m just happy to be here, and am doing the best I can.
I sent my two sons to public school, because it’s just what you’re supposed to do, and they hated it, because that’s what kids are supposed to do.
So I didn’t 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 pics 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 standardized tests. My kids were born into a world that’s evolving at an exponential rate, and I began to realize that if my kids were ever to keep up with it, homeschooling might not be a choice, but a necessity.
I explored dozens of websites, watched plenty of YouTube, found online groups for homeschooling families and asked tons of questions. I quickly came to realize that everything I had assumed about homeschool was entirely wrong; it’s not about gathering around the table with workbooks, or trying to replicate the in-school experience. It’s about discovering how you like learning, and having the freedom to explore that. It’s seeing how the world isn’t divided into strict, separated disciplines, but how everything is connected. It’s learning to ask questions about everything, following your curiosities and realizing 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’s impossible not to! I don’t 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’ve 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’m 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’s 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.
Math is something we use every day that affects nearly every aspect of our lives, and when you illustrate that to your kids, they’re less likely to complain about it being “boring.” How could anybody possibly hate math 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 math 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 math is essential for making cake and making money, complaints about it being “boring” tend to disappear.
Conversion Pound Cake
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Print the converted Classic Pound Cake recipe here
Click on the highlighted words in the recipe below to convert the listed amounts into consistent units of measure.
- 285 grams unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing the pans
- 3/5 of 1 pound granulated sugar, plus more for coating the pans
- 1/3 of 1 dozen large eggs, plus 1
- 120 milliliters whole milk
- 2 fluid ounces sour cream
- 2/3 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/3 kilogram all-purpose flour
- 1/3 tablespoon baking powder
- Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting (optional)
Position the rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees. Lightly grease two 8-by-4-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 2 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 1 hour to 1 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.
Children have a natural inquisitiveness that makes them question everything; a quality that is essential to science, and to our family’s approach to homeschool. 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 (even silly ones!), and figure out ways to find the answers. Learning science is not only about finding the correct answer — it’s also about all the steps you need to take to get there.
Pavlova With Lemon Curd
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For the lemon curd
- 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (from about 3 lemons)
- 1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
- 6 large egg yolks
- 1/2 cup (113 grams/1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
For the pavlova
- 6 large egg whites, at room temperature
- 2 teaspoons acid, such as vinegar, fresh lemon juice or cream of tartar
- 1 1/2 cups (300 grams) granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- Fresh fruit, such as raspberries, blackberries, strawberries or your favorite fruit, for serving
Select the underlined words in the recipe directions to see definitions.
Make the curd: Fill a small saucepan with 2 inches of water. Set the saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Place a medium nonreactive bowl on top of the pan to make a double-boiler, making sure the bottom of the bowl doesn’t 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 EMULSIFYthe 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 1 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 9-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 (hand or stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment) whip the egg whites and ACID on high speed.
Continue until they increase in volume and become a soft FOAM after about 1 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 2 minutes.
Fold in the cornstarch and vanilla, then pour the meringue right into the center of the circle, and use an offset spatula or the back of a spoon to evenly spread it out.
Bake the meringue for about 1 hour and 30 minutes, then turn the oven off without opening the door and leave the pavlova to DEHYDRATEin the warm oven for another 1 hour and 30 minutes.
Transfer the pavlova to a plate. Spoon the curd into meringue, top with fresh berries and serve.
No matter where or when they lived, every human that has ever existed has needed to eat. It was a driving force behind the evolution of our species, drawing our earliest ancestors out of Africa, 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’s one of the few things that literally connects every person, allowing us to explore places we’ve never seen and to travel through time. 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 civilizations in human history in ancient Mesopotamia. This was where, during the fourth and third millennia BCE, agriculture became an industry, and the basic elements of society grew out of it. People living in ancient Mesopotamia developed and improved technologies such as the wheel, irrigation, mathematics, astronomy, written language and cuisine. They bred such animals as goats and sheep, and grew lentils, beets and, notably, barley, which were used to invent one of the most important parts of the Mesopotamian diet: beer. This recipe was discovered inscribed on a clay tablet that is nearly 4,000 years old, 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 ancient Mesopotamian homes, based not only on archeological evidence, but the culinary traditions that exist in the region where their ancient civilization once flourished: modern-day Iraq.
When learning about a civilization that existed in ancient times on the other side of the world, ancient Mesopotamia can almost feel imaginary; when making and eating this stew, it becomes startlingly real. As you and your kids enjoy it, think about the fact that you’re having a shared experience with people who walked the earth thousands of years ago.
While you eat the stew, think about what life was like for a kid in ancient Mesopotamia. Try writing a letter to an ancient “pen pal,” telling them some of the ways your life is different from theirs, and some of the ways it’s 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 Mesopotamian could time travel to today, what do you think they’d find most surprising?
Mesopotamian Lamb Stew
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- 1 large leek, white and light green parts only, trimmed and cleaned of dirt in between its layers
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 pound lamb stew meat, trimmed of excess fat and patted dry
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
- 1 small yellow onion, chopped (4 ounces)
- 2 large shallots (5 to 6 ounces), chopped
- 1 pound beets, peeled and diced
- 1 cup (3/4 ounce) baby arugula
- 1 cup chopped fresh cilantro, divided
- 2 large garlic cloves, minced or finely grated
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 cup sour beer, such as gose
- 3/4 cup water, or more if needed
- 1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
- 1 tablespoon silan (date molasses)
- 2 teaspoons whole coriander seeds, crushed, for garnish
Trim a 2-inch piece of the white part of the leek, finely chop it and reserve for garnish. Chop the rest of the leek and set aside.
In a 6-quart Dutch oven over high heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Liberally season the lamb all over with salt, then add it to the pan and sear until dark brown on all sides, about 10 minutes total. Add the onion, shallot and leek and cook, stirring, until softened and translucent, about 5 minutes.
Add the beets, arugula, 3/4 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, about 5 minutes. Add the beer 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 flavors meld and the lamb is tender, about 1 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 and the remaining cilantro, and top with the coriander seeds. Serve hot.
This recipe was adapted from an adaptation of a recipe on a cuneiform tablet at the Yale Babylonian Collection by Gojko Barjamovic and Nawal Nasrallah, which was featured in the “Ancient Mesopotamia Speaks” exhibition at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History from April 2019 to June 2020.
Robicelli is a food writer, cookbook author, and the author of the Substack newsletter HomeschoolTron 5000.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Sumer and Sumerians when it should have referred more broadly to ancient Mesopotamia. Also, a recipe with the article was misnamed and its sourcing was incomplete. It has been corrected.