En español | For big holidays, the Aronian family has a favorite meal: salmon baked in a yeasted dough as the entrée and a bûche de Noël, also known as a Yule log, for dessert.
Dianne Aronian, 80, is the head chef, but she usually has four assistants — her grandchildren, ages 11 through 17. For most of their lives, Aronian's grandchildren have been her companions in the kitchen, helping to cook and bake during the holidays and prepare meals throughout the year.
"When we're preparing a dinner — especially a more formal dinner — I'll do most of the prep work,” says Aronian, who lives in Yorktown, New York. “But they help me finish and set up. It's really fun to have an activity to do together."
This year, the family is taking precautions due to the coronavirus pandemic. Two of Aronian's grandchildren live nearby, and their family is in the same “bubble” and has worked hard to shield her from the virus. But even with social distancing measures in place, Aronian sees the benefits of baking with grandchildren.
The activity teaches children a skill for life. It cements the bonds across generations. And it creates a social experience that families can share, whether during the holidays or their everyday lives.
"The best thing that comes out of it is that you connect,” says Ann McKitrick, an early childhood education expert who lives in Houston. “Food is the all-time connector."
A tradition that links generations
Even during the worldwide pandemic, it's possible to cook together through Zoom or to carefully plan in-person cooking sessions after quarantining, as recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If you're looking to introduce a sweet new tradition of cooking together, both Aronian and McKitrick say the trick is to start with simple recipes and slowly add new challenges, always keeping in mind what age groups are capable of.
Toddlers, for example, can mix dry ingredients, use a pastry brush to oil breads and vegetables, and use cookie cutters. They love to frost cakes, though be prepared for a mess. Early elementary-school-age children can crack eggs, peel vegetables, and cut herbs or soft vegetables with scissors. Older children can measure and mix dry ingredients, beat eggs and pound chicken on a cutting board.
When working with young chefs, the experts suggest enjoying the process rather than focusing on the outcome.
"Patience is the key,” says Amy Driscoll, the manager of King Arthur Flour's Bake for Good program, a school-based project that teaches schoolchildren how to bake bread. “They're going to knock things over. They're going to get eggshells in the batter. It's fine. It's totally OK to make a mistake."
When Aronian's grandchildren were younger, she introduced them to borma, a pastry made with nuts and phyllo dough, using a family recipe that her father grew up eating in Persia. She taught the children to roll the phyllo dough into cigar shapes, using a 10-inch piece of copper pipe.
Now that Aronian's oldest grandchildren are teenagers, they contribute to other family recipes. Their favorite is what Aronian proclaims is “the world's best carrot cake,” which has extra carrots and a little bit of coconut oil added to the wet ingredients. The carrots add moisture, and the coconut oil adds “just a hint” of that nutty flavor.
One of the Aronian holiday traditions is baking salmon wrapped in a yeasted dough. Aronian prepares the fish, and before it goes into the oven, the children decorate the dough with a mouth, eyes, fins and scales.
Try a virtual cooking class
This year, cooking with their grandchildren may be more difficult to do for many grandparents. Through creative preparations, grandparents can still establish a connection through videos and videoconferencing.
McKitrick, whose grandchildren live 1,200 miles away in Minneapolis, suggests making a video of yourself while preparing a simple recipe, showing each step and finishing by sitting down to eat the final product. In their own homes, young children can watch the video and repeat the steps with their parents’ help.
Another approach would be to schedule a videoconference to cook together, prevailing upon the parents to support, if necessary. When the recipe is in the oven, McKitrick suggests reading a book together, preferably something that has a baking theme.
Share information about nutrition
Whether virtual or in person, any cooking experience also provides a chance to teach about nutrition. Aronian often makes half a batch of desserts and tells her grandchildren, “We don't need all that sugar around.” The extra carrots in her family's favorite cake cuts the need for processed sugar.
Creative cooks find ways to sweeten recipes without white sugar. Jessica Levinson, a registered dietitian and an author of family cookbooks, substitutes unsweetened applesauce for sugar in her family's kugel recipe. In other recipes, she reduces the sugar by half.
"Family recipes that have been handed down are usually very heavy on the fat and sugar,” she says. “If you use less sugar than the recipe calls for, you probably won't taste the difference."
The best nutritional benefit of cooking with children is that they'll typically eat whatever they make, Levinson says. “It exposes them and gets them interested in trying foods that they otherwise wouldn't try."
And they may always carry the memory of the first time they made a dish and how their grandparents taught them how to do it.
The Aronian Family's ‘World's Best Carrot Cake’
- 1/2 cup white sugar
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1/8 cup molasses
- 1/3 cup coconut oil
- 2/3 cup avocado or vegetable oil
- 3 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon. vanilla
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3 1/2 cups grated carrots
1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
2. Mix the sugars, eggs and oil together.
3. Sift the dry ingredients together and add to the wet ingredients.
4. Mix the carrots into the batter and spoon into 13-inch or 9-inch rectangular pan.
5. Bake for 35 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.
6. Cool before icing.
- 4 ounces softened cream cheese
- 2 tablespoon softened, salted butter
- 1 1/2 cups confectioner's sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon. vanilla
1. Sift sugar into softened cream cheese and butter, and combine.
2. Add vanilla.
3. Spread on cooled cake