Share with homeschooler Karen Gibson as she combines baking and learning in the kitchen. See how she assists her late reader and how reading a simple chocolate cake recipe can become an exercise in patience for both parent and child. Best of all, add a new recipe to your collection of family favorites.

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On Food and Cooking
The Science and Lore of the Kitchen

by Harold McGee
A fun book to read along with your older children. Learn the history and science of the food we eat every day. No recipes, just great background on what we eat and why we eat it. Learn what happens when food spoils, the chemical reactions that make carmelization; this is the bible of food science in easily understood language. (Karen Gibson)
Strength is the capacity to break a chocolate bar into four pieces with your bare hands - and then just eat one of the pieces.
~ Judith Viorst

    Life in the Galley - Chocolate Cake!
    Karen M. Gibson

    Many of my most vivid memories seem to center around the kitchen. I’m sure it’s that way with many other people. For some reason, the kitchen of any house I have ever lived in was always the gathering place, no matter what the occasion. Even in our everyday life the kitchen always seems to be where everyone congregates, especially when Mom is there.

    One day this past summer Charles, our youngest son, wanted to make a cake. He knew of the difference between making something from a mix or making it from scratch and he wanted to make a cake totally from scratch. Now I’m not a big cake fan (my family always seemed to prefer a homemade pie rather than a cake) and I haven’t collected too many cake recipes, but I did find one in my recipe file - Aunt Ella’s Chocolate Cake. I dug it out and decided that it was probably simple enough for us to attempt. I hoped it wouldn’t take too long to make. I had just finished two hours of reading aloud from The World in 1492 to the boys and I would need to begin to prepare supper in another couple of hours. David was doing geometry on the kitchen table and Kat was working on algebra on the living room couch. Neither wanted too many distractions (which both usually consider Charlie to be) and our kitchen/living room is not very large.

    First off I realized that I would need to copy the recipe over on to another index card. Charlie is still learning to read and has not even begun to tackle cursive writing yet, so I needed to print the recipe, and the larger and clearer the print, the better. Finding a clean index card took a few minutes and the copying a few more. And Charles is not known for his patience in anything, other than maybe basketball. “I want to read it myself, Mom. Don’t read it to me!”

    “Let me finish copying it over first, Charles, and then you can read it”, I said.

    Charlie is a late reader. He just never saw the need for reading. Finally, at age 9, he’s wanting to read many things, so I didn’t want to discourage him from reading the recipe on his own, even though I knew that there were many words he would have difficulty with.

    Do you know how long it can take to read aloud a recipe that only has 9 ingredients and no instructions?

    The very first line was “makes 1 dozen cupcakes or 1 small cake”. Charlie stumbled a bit over “dozen” and “cupcakes”.

    “I don’t want to make cupcakes, Mom. I want to make a cake! Do I have to make cupcakes too?”

    Explanations ensued about how you can make many different things from the same recipe. Why sometimes you might prefer to make cupcakes instead of a cake.

    Finally, we get through reading all the ingredients. Now it’s time to get the bowl and all the ingredients out. First we have to measure the sugar and then the flour. That went pretty smoothly – Charlie’s done that before. Then adding the oil and the salt. Now comes the egg. Not too bad – only a little shell in the egg! Make the cocoa paste (not too much water to start with! You can always add more water, but you can't take the water back out!) and add that. Add the vanilla and soda. Now the sour milk – more discussion on how to make sour milk, why you would want to add sour milk to a cake, and the difference between sour milk and buttermilk.

    Of course, during all this measuring and pouring and mixing, David and Kat are complaining about the noise level (they can't concentrate and they can't hear their music) and the table is getting jiggled. Kat gives up on the Algebra and heads for the computer room, while David finishes his geometry and goes to his room to read The Cartoon History of Time.

    Now Charlie wants to know who “Aunt Ella” is? Why is the cake named “Aunt Ella’s Chocolate Cake”? I explain that I got the recipe from his Aunt Susie and Aunt Ella was a relative of hers.

    “So, Aunt Ella is related to me, too?” Charlie asks.

    “Well, maybe.” I’m wondering how far I want to go into this. Even though Aunt Susie is related by marriage (she and I married brothers), and therefore Aunt Ella is not related to Charlie, we are also distant cousins. But I'm not sure which side of Susie's family Aunt Ella is on. And I can't remember for sure exactly how Susie and I are related – it goes back at least 3 generations! So, I explain that Aunt Ella "might" be related to us, but I don't know for sure. Of course, that wasn't explanation enough. Why didn't I know? How could someone be related to you in more than one way? We need to call Aunt Susie right now and find out how Aunt Ella is related!

    By now I'm exhausted. And the cake isn't even in the oven yet! We get the bowl scraped out into the pan and then into the oven. And now it's time for me to take a walk – alone! And it can't be a very long walk, as it has taken an hour and a half to get this simple cake in the oven and it's almost time to start supper.

    Charlie thoroughly enjoyed making the cake. It was a big hit and disappeared very quickly. He has wanted to make another one ever since. Maybe he can make the next one on his own? I'm not sure why but my patience seems to wear thin more quickly when in the kitchen, cooking with Charlie!

    Aunt Ella's Chocolate Cake

    Makes 1 dozen cupcakes or 1 small cake

    1 cup sugar
    1 – 1 1/4 cups flour
    1/4 cup melted shortening or oil
    1/4 tsp. Salt
    1 egg
    1/4 cup cocoa (made into paste with hot water)
    1 tsp. Vanilla
    1 tsp. Soda
    1 cup sour milk or buttermilk

    Mix thoroughly and spread in greased 9x9 baking pan. Bake at 350 until toothpick tests done.

    Copyright September 1999
    Originally published in March/April 2000 issue of HELM (Home Education Learning Magazine)

    Check out Karen's
    Blog Articles on Cooking

    Explore the biology, chemistry, and physics
    of a few basic recipes in

    Food Science 101

    and then try some
    Kitchen Science Activities

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