For 8- 10-year-olds: Bakery Science: Vanilla Meringues
A recipe so simple that 3rd-graders and up should be able to read and follow it themselves has more to teach than you'd think. Print out the recipe for Peppermint Meringues and (unless you're doing holiday baking) cross out the peppermint extract and replace it with vanilla, using sugar (sparkling if you've got it) for sprinkling instead of crushed peppermint candies.
Lesson 1: Read the directions. All of them. Even experienced junior cooks tend to just dump the ingredients together in a bowl and then check to see what comes next, and that won't work here. If your kids learn nothing from kitchen school other than to read all of the instructions before starting any project, they'll still have learned a lesson most adults are still struggling with.
Lesson 2: Separating eggs. Why do the yolk and the white come apart so easily? There's actually a small membrane separating the yolk from the white, and as long as this membrane is intact, the white will slip off the yolk. There's a lesson in patience here as well—do this quickly and your yolk will break. And, finally, a lesson in caution: you must put the egg whites you've already separated aside, or the one you're working will inevitably break and ruin the whole batch.
Lesson 3: Air—the secret ingredient. Whipping the egg whites stretches their proteins and allows them to trap air within the structure created by the bonded, stretched proteins. When you add the sugar while whipping, the sugar bonds with the egg white proteins but not with the air. Baking the meringue at such a low temperature allows the network to solidify around the air. (Bake it any hotter, and the air bubbles will expand so much that the protein structure will collapse). Some form of this air capture happens in most baking, which is why you almost always have to whip ingredients like eggs, butter and sugar.
Once kids have made these with you, they can make them without you and flavor them with nearly anything from almond to peppermint to orange to cocoa. They can be piped from a gallon-sized baggie into letters or kisses or nests for berries and cream or flat cookies for ice cream sandwiches. They're both easy and impressive, and make your kids feel like accomplished chefs for whom anything is possible—a lesson that's always worth learning.
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