Carolyn Federman knows a lot about cooking with kids. Aside from raising two teenagers of her own, the Berkeley-based food educator worked closely with Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project for years before founding the Charlie Cart Project, a nonprofit that teaches young children about nutrition and cooking through hands-on mobile kitchens brought into classrooms. In March, Federman put out New Favorites for New Cooks (Ten Speed), a cookbook for pint-sized home chefs. The book claims that all of its 50 recipes are simple and fun enough “to turn any kid into a budding chef.”

Any kid? I was skeptical. I know adults who can barely make toast and I’ve experienced the non-existent attention span of many tykes to doubt this claim. Sure, there are eight-year-olds whipping up masterful meals on reality TV shows, but I wasn’t confident that a sprout who’s never showed an interest in cooking beyond licking a batter-coated spoon could execute a recipe, from start to finish, on their own.

So I recruited two candidates to help me test two recipes from the book: seven-year-old Sandriz Comiskey and nine-year-old Desmond Appelgren.

Before heading to the kitchen, I sat down with moms Jessica Appelgren and Rumeli Snyder to hear more about their kids’ cooking experience. Both boys have spent some time in the kitchen, but the moms wrinkled their noses when I asked if either kid did much cooking. Desmond (and his younger sister Isobel) has helped his mom — half of the piemaking duo Appelgren + Smith — bake at home. And Sandriz had just baked a batch of cookies with his grandma before he joined my cookbook testing project. (The cookies, he admitted, got a little burnt and “tasted like charcoal briquettes.”) But neither had ever cooked on their own, following a recipe in a book. This was going to be interesting.

Together, we chose one recipe for each kid to test. Sandriz, a cocoa-fiend, would take on the Chocolate Lava Cupcakes. Desmond would test the Spring Pasta with Butter Sauce. The criteria for success would be if each kid could follow and complete the recipe, if the resulting dish they made was to their liking, and most importantly, if they had fun while cooking. So… here’s what happened.

Sandriz vs. Chocolate Lava Cupcakes

The recipe for Chocolate Lava Cupcakes (find the recipe below) has fewer than 10 ingredients and is takes 20 minutes (or so) to make, from start to finish. This was just the perfect easy recipe for Sandriz, who is in his “dramatic age,” just three months shy of turning eight.

After washing his hands, Sandriz was ready to roll. I had gathered and prepped all the ingredients and cooking equipment in advance, so all he needed to do was start following the recipe. Although moments before, he was excited about making chocolate cupcakes, upon looking at the photo of the Chocolate Lava Cupcakes in the book, Sandriz matter-of-factly said:

Still, he persisted. Following the instructions in the book, he programmed the oven to 450ºF and started lining the muffin pan with parchment cup liners before asking, “Won’t they just catch fire in the oven? Won’t they melt in the oven? Won’t they blow up?” These were good questions. I assured him that they’d be OK.

The next steps were probably the hardest for Sandriz. It involved separating eggs — something that he had never done before in his seven years of existence. After one egg exploded in his hands, Sandriz said, “I don’t want to do it. It’ll explode again!” But when his mom stepped in and showed him how it’s done (“You’re a master!” he said with reverence), he gave it a go. And he did it!

With the eggs, yolks and sugar in a bowl, he was ready to mix. The recipe said to whip the ingredients until “frothy.” After every second he whisked, Sandriz asked, “Is this frothy?” No. “How about now?” It wasn’t. “Now?” Um. He continued whisking for about another minute. Was it frothy? No, but he was ready to move on.

Thankfully, step three was where the chocolate came in. In a small saucepan, Sandriz melted a stick of butter and then stirred in the chocolate chips he had (not so carefully) measured out.

Then he said:

Luckily, that was a compliment coming from this scatacologically minded kid. A moment later he said, “Looks good already! This is my dream!”

After pouring in the egg mixture, throwing in some flour, cocoa powder and salt, and stirring some more, he was ready to pour the batter into the cupcake lined muffin tin.

Things were going well. Dare I say, better than expected. Still, a nagging self-doubt started to come over Sandriz. “They probably won’t come out like the picture,” he said. We told him it didn’t matter. Even Carolyn Federman writes in her the book’s intro, “The photographs in these pages are here to inspire you, not to scare you off!”

Not totally convinced, Sandriz carefully opened the oven door and placed the muffin tin inside. After the cupcakes were safely in the oven, he said, “I’m never taking that experience again. Making these cookies is a nightmare!” When I asked him why, he said, “My eyes were blazing!” referring to the heat coming from the oven.

Fortunately, his negativity didn’t last very long. In eight minutes, the “cookies” (cupcakes) were done and so were his fears. Using an oven mitt, he removed the pan of cakes from the scorching hot oven and placed it on the counter to cool for three minutes. “It looks better than the picture!” Sandriz said.

Check out this side-by-side comparison of the photo in the book and Sandriz’s cupcakes:

They looked good, but how did they taste?

“It’s spicy!” (No spices were added to this recipe.) 

“Thumbs up! Sandriz triumphs again!”

Very proud of his cooking achievement, Sandriz wanted to share his creations. He insisted on feeding his mom by hand (“Let me waterfall it. Open your mouth and tilt your head back!”). Mom was a good sport; waterfalls happened that day.

When I asked Sandriz if he’d make the recipe again, he said, “Oh yeah, millions of times!”


Desmond vs. Spring Pasta with Butter Sauce

Being a little older and having more experience in the kitchen, I felt comfortable giving Desmond the slightly more advanced recipe for Spring Pasta with Butter Sauce (see recipe below), which involves chopping with a sharp knife and draining a heavy pot of boiling water.

When I asked Desmond if he had ever cooked pasta before he said, “The closest thing to pasta I’ve ever made is Kraft macaroni and cheese.” Touché!  

Desmond washed his hands in preparation to cook, but he seemed a little apprehensive about getting started. I asked him if he was nervous and he said, “Yes! I feel like this is going to be out in public. I want to be serious. Who wouldn’t? If you were on the news, wouldn’t you want to be serious?”

I reassured him that there was no pressure. And fortunately, once he started measuring out the water to cook the pasta, he seemed to feel more comfortable and confident.

“This is fun!” he said without prompting. (I swear!)

Step two involved prepping and chopping herbs. After pulling the oregano and parsley leaves from the stems, it was time to chop. I tried not to appear nervous when Desmond picked up the knife, but there was really no need for worry — he was a pro.

Once the herbs were chopped and set aside, Desmond waited for the big pot of water to come to a boil. Every minute or so he’d lift up the lid and ask if it was ready.

“It’s not ‘bobobobo,’ but there’s tiny little bubbles all over it,” he said. Nope, not ready yet.

Finally, the pot was bobobobo-bubbling.

“It’s ready! It’s bubbling a lot!” I’d never seen someone so excited about boiling water.

We discussed how he’d put the noodles in and he decided he wouldn’t break them in half before adding them in to the water. “I want them to be big,” he said before dumping the whole box of pasta into the pot.

Next, Desmond measured out butter and olive oil into a mixing bowl that was set over the boiling pot of water — a smart little trick to melt the butter without using another pot.

Then the boring part… waiting for the pasta to finish cooking. Fortunately, the recipe called for angel hair pasta, which meant shorter cooking time (You’re so smart, Caroline). Desmond started counting down when the timer beeped a one-minute warning. “59, 58, 57…” all the way to zero.

Before pouring the pasta into an awaiting colander in the sink, Desmond set aside some of the salty pasta water that would help loosen up the noodles when he combined all the ingredients.

Desmond was feeling good. He kept repeating, “This is fun!” to no one in particular as he cooked. It was pretty cute.

Desmond drained the pasta, letting the hot steam hit his face. “Ooh! It smells good!”

He tasted a noodle before declaring:

After mixing together the pasta with the herbs, Parmesan cheese and some cooking water, Desmond said, “It needs more herbs!”

I asked him if he even tried the herbs before and he admitted no. He tasted the chopped oregano and said it tasted, “Spicy, but like a good spicy.”

Do you normally like spicy, I asked? He said, “I like Hot Cheetos. My mom doesn’t get me it, my dad does. At the Dollar Store.” Ooh, you’re in trouble, Dad.

Here’s the side-by-side comparison of the photo in the book and Desmond’s pasta:

Desmond was so proud of the final product, he made plates of pasta for everyone in the house. His sister Isobel seemed especially enamored with the recipe  — she helped herself to seconds. And maybe thirds.

Well done, kids, well done.

Chocolate Lava Cupcakes

Makes 6 cupcakes

1/4 cup sugar
2 eggs plus 2 egg yolks
(see “How to Separate Eggs,” page 158)
1/2 cup unsalted butter
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon semisweet chocolate chips
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder
A pinch of coarse salt Vanilla Whipped Cream and/or raspberries for serving (optional)

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Line a muffin pan with six paper cup liners.

In a medium bowl, combine the sugar, eggs, and egg yolks and whip with a whisk until the mixture is frothy and the sugar is dissolved, 1 to 2 minutes.

In a small saucepan over low heat, warm the butter until just melted.

Remove the pan from the heat, turn off the stove, and stir in the chocolate chips until they are melted and smooth.

Pour the egg mixture into the chocolate and stir with a wooden spoon. Sprinkle in the flour, cocoa powder, and salt and stir again, until the flour is mixed in and the eggs and chocolate are blended— less than 1 minute. The batter should be thick like chocolate sauce. Fill each lined muffin cup with 1/4 cup batter.

Bake until the cakes wiggle a little when you move the pan but aren’t soupy, about 9 minutes. (If your oven runs hot, cook them for 8 minutes instead.) Remove the pan from the oven immediately (use an oven mitt) and then turn off the oven. Let the cakes cool for 3 minutes; they will be soft and gooey in the middle. To ensure they don’t burst, gently remove them from the pan by sliding a small spoon underneath the cupcake liner and lifting out the cake, liner and all.

Crack open the crust and drop a heaping spoonful of whipped cream into the center, with a few fresh raspberries on top. Serve the lava cakes warm, right in the cupcake paper. Eat with a spoon.

Spring Pasta with Butter Sauce

Makes 4 servings

Coarse salt
Few sprigs fresh parsley and marjoram or oregano
1 pound dried angel hair pasta or spaghettini
2 tablespoons unsalted butter 1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup (heaping) grated Parmesan cheese
Ground black pepper

In a stockpot, combine 10 cups water and 2 tablespoons salt. Cover, place over high heat, and bring to a boil. Set a colander in the sink.

While the water is heating, pull the herb leaves from their stems (discard the stems) and chop the leaves fine (the size of ants; remember to use “the claw” to protect your fingers). You need 1 tablespoon of each chopped herb.

When the water is boiling, add the pasta and cook according to the package directions. Put the butter and olive oil into a heatproof mixing bowl and set it on top of the stockpot. When the butter is melted, use an oven mitt to move the bowl to the countertop. When the pasta is done cooking, turn off the stove.

Ladle 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water into a measuring cup and then pour the pasta into the colander in the sink. Move the drained pasta to the mixing bowl with the butter and oil.

Add the herbs, cheese, and 1 tablespoon cooking water to the pasta and stir well. The “sauce” should be melty but not soupy — add another teaspoon or two of water to the sauce if needed.

Taste a small bite and add salt or pepper as you like.

Serve warm, right from the mixing bowl.

Recipes reprinted with permission from ‘New Favorites for New Cooks’ © 2018 by Carolyn Federman, Ten Speed Press

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Sarah Han was the editor of Nosh from 2017 to 2021. Previously, she worked as an editor at The Bold Italic, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. In 2020, Sarah won SPJ NorCal's...