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Every other Thursday, we bring you Nicholas Day -- on cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of.
Today: Don't fear baking projects with children -- not even soft pretzels. Just give in.
This column concludes with a recipe for soft pretzels, and it is a stellar recipe for soft pretzels, but because I am going to recommend that you use it as a baking project with your children, there is a reality we need to confront first: There is no phrase in the English language less promising than a baking project with children.
Even the word baking is disingenuous. For any self-respecting child, the baking part of a baking project is gratuitous. The part before baking is what matters: the desperate, increasingly frantic attempt to ensure that nothing is left to be baked. If there is any batter or dough that actually makes it in the oven, the child has failed. Raw dough is the street drug of children; the baked version is less pure.
Also, about that preposition: with children—with? Almost any other preposition would be more accurate: Around. Amid. Against.
There are two ways to deal with the chaos of baking with children: the first is the French way, at least according to Bringing Up Bébé, in which French preschoolers learn patience and independence by baking on their own. They make yogurt cakes for snack! It’s a totally adorable cultural ritual, and if you also find it maddeningly competent and superior, you can always tell yourself that their yogurt cakes probably suck. Not that I’ve done this.
I have tried baking with my preschooler this way—executive function training, with more butter—and you can do it, but it helps to have an entire culture to back you up. It’s hard to make your household into France for the afternoon. Which is why I usually go with the second way: give in.
Don’t give up, exactly. Just give in: don’t expect that you’ll make what you’re making. Do not try to be efficient: don’t make the thing you’ve been really wanting to make anyway. If there is a photo of the end product, cover it up. Put a preschool-age drawing in its place.
I love baking with Isaiah, but as with a lot of things in childrearing I love it a little more prospectively than retrospectively. We’ve been baking together since he was old enough to stir and we have now reached a happy compromise: he wants to taste everything, do everything—measure, mix, knead—and then lick the inside of every bowl afterward. This means that everything is slightly worse than it would otherwise be—poorly measured, undermixed and underkneaded—and that there is less of it, but also that it survives long enough to be baked. It seems like a fair trade.
Since we have established that your helper is working against you—that you have a mole in the kitchen—pretzels may seem ludicrously ambitious. They are not. If you haven’t baked pretzels at home, you’ll be surprised at what you’ve pulled off: a perfect pretzel that’s crusty and doughy all at once, sweet and salty and a tiny bit bitter. They make you feel like you’ve gone to the fair.
They are fast: the initial rising time is 90 minutes, which means your child will still remember having made the dough when it is time to shape it. They involve a maximum of dough throwing-about: before shaping, you have to roll out lengthy coils, which make good edible necklaces or babushka-style headscarves. Remember to remove from child before baking.
And no matter what they look like, their taste is unimpaired. Ours looked afflicted with elephantitis. With a few extra mouths for help, they didn’t survive an hour outside of the oven.
Baker's Sign Soft Pretzels
Lightly adapted from Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford's Home Baking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Traditions from Around the World (Artisan, 2003)
Makes 8 pretzels
1 cup milk, scalded and then cooled
2 teaspoons instant yeast (or active dry; the difference is minimal)
1 tablespoon barley malt syrup
2 1/2 to 3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt (fine grained)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in pieces and softened
1/4 cup baking soda
1 egg yolk, beaten with 2 tablespoons milk
Photos by Karen Mordechai