Munching on Microbes

image (9)This summer marks a second year of trying our own version of summer camp at home, rather than spend hundreds of dollars each week for our kids to attend theme camps.  Each day is filled with fun, low-cost or free adventures, hands-on projects, and learning about science, history, and art.  We intersperse each day with plenty of free play and add an hour of “relaxation time” after lunch so I get a break too!  A lot of Stroller Hikers have asked for more information on what we’re doing, so we’ll post about them and link them to the curriculum page of Stroller Hikes.

Summer Camp with Mom 3: Cooking with Microbes

I was really impressed about how my kids accepted and knew about cooking with microbes.  They knew that many breads grew lofty thanks to yeast, and cheeses got their stink and bite thanks to different bacteria and fungus.  Our start-of-the-day brainstorming about microbes in food went very smoothly.

photo (3)Our first hands-on activity was building some microbes.  We talked about how microbes are made of one cell, and many have hairs (cilia or flagella) to help them feel and move.  The kids had fun making pom-pom microbe magnets, with one or more googly eyes and pipe cleaner or yarn hairs.  I was impressed that each of them wanted to make a lot; I think finding parallels to Despicable Me’s minions (simple and small, often also with one eye) helped build a lot of interest.

We then mixed up some dough.  Every good cook tastes what they cook, so the kids had a taste of yeast and flour, and we recorded our experiences (all five senses – sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound) as we ventured into bread baking.  The kids knew how to keep a science observation table, from the day before when we tasted different salts and honey, so this was easy to do.

After a little free play, we came back to the dough to notice that the yeast had proofed – it was bubbling out some stinky CO2, and the batter still tasted bitter.  I took a drop of dough and added it to a slide so we could view it under a microscope.  I was impressed that no one was grossed out by looking at Baker’s Yeast under a microscope – maybe making fuzzy little pop pom microbes had helped with this.  Perhaps using a piece of science equipment – the microscope – added enough wow factor that they remained enamored in the process. 

A bit more flour and free play later, and the dough was put aside, but not without another tasting and journal recording.  It now met the kids’ approval as something more sweet and subtle.

 Here is our recipe for Pretzel/Pizza Dough:

1 package Baker’s Yeast

½ cup warm water

1 cup warm water

1 Tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1 egg (can replace with flaxseed meal in water)

4 cups flour (can use up to 1/3 whole wheat flour)

Proof the yeast in ½ cup of warm water.  Once it is dissolved and bubbling (proving it is still active), add the other cup of warm water, sugar, salt, and egg.  Beat in flour 1 cup at a time until the dough is less sticky.  You can allow the dough to rest overnight in the fridge or on the counter for one to several hours, to double in size, or use it sooner for a flatter bread (like pizza).  Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead until smooth.  Cut off hunks of dough and shape into pretzels or alphabet letters.  Shake on salt, sesame seeds, or other things as desired (press them in so they set).  Let dough rest for 15 minutes while the oven preheats (425 degrees).  If using a topping that burns easily (like basil), then parbake (bake partially, like for 10 minutes), then baste with a milk or egg wash, and sprinkle on toppings before baking just a few minutes more.  Pretzels will bake in a total of 12-15 minutes at 425 degrees.  If making pizza, parbake the dough that has been shaped into pizzas, for 10 minutes, then top with toppings and complete baking in order to bring the toppings to golden brown.  Avoid too many toppings or water-rich toppings that will make the pizza soggy; cook these ahead and tap with paper towels to keep the water content low, before putting on the pizzas.  For a crispier crust, cook the pizzas directly on the baking rack in the oven.

image (10)I had reached out to Whole Foods a couple of weeks before, hoping we could get a little tour of behind-the-scenes unpacking of shipped foods, cleaning of fish, and so on.  Unfortunately, Whole Foods could not show us their back rooms, for safety and health reasons, but they were more than generous about providing a tour of the store floor where customers could be, followed by a hands-on cooking experience.  We walked around with two tour guides and lots of tasting cups.  We stopped near the lychees to ask about an unlabeled fuzzy fruit, and like ninjas, produce managers emerged then disappeared to do some instantly urgent research, following up on our query about a relative to the lychee that had just been delivered to the store.  We tasted fruit, ground then tasted our own nut butter, picked out and tasted some sweet yogurt pretzels, and tasted vegan muffins. 

image (11)In the culinary center, we arrived to find stations set up, as if we were real chefs with sous chefs doing all of the measuring, cutting, and preheating before our arrival.  What excellent attention!  The kids made pizzas, then fruit skewers, and enjoyed complementary apple juice.  Treated like kings, and full of tasty food, we headed for home and some well deserved bike and scooter riding.

Before our tour, we had planned to make pizza and shishkabobs for lunch.  After some riding, the kids had found some room in their bellies, so we skipped the pizza, and made veggie and fruit shishkabobs.  Some delighted in patterns of color in their skewer threading, others just enjoyed tasting ingredients.  Most could not wait to have their skewers grilled, and ate it all, zucchini, onion, mushrooms, tomatoes, and paneer, raw. 

KabobMakingHomeAfter relaxation time, we finished our dough, first tasting it (and adding to our journals), shaping it to go into the oven, then tasting the final baked product (for our final journal entry).  We rolled the dough into pretzel and breadstick shapes, then topped ¾ of the sticks with the salts we had tasted the day before.  Comparing the flavors across the life of the dough, the dough had gone from bitter to sweet, and in the finished form, the salt added a nice contrast.

I had planned to make mozzarella cheese with the kids after relaxation time, but reading the number of steps, most separated by an amount of time or specific temperature change, I decided to do it myself while the kids rested.  I ended up with a mozzarella with the right taste, but a far firmer texture than desired, as I had squeezed out too much whey.  The kids tasted it, and all of them approved, politely.  They then voraciously ripped into their breadsticks and pretzels, with hummus from the day before.

After a little free play, we finished the day with thank you cards written to Whole Foods for their very generous tour and cooking session.

–          Debbie (Founder), Max (8), Holly (4), and Andrew

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