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My 6 year old child really likes to play "spices" where we put various herbs, spices, flour, and other ingredients into small jars, set those on a baking sheet, and give her a mixing bowl. She mixes them and, usually, makes some sort of dough she wants to bake. She has a lot of fun doing this and it helps her experience new scents and flavors. Historically we just buy cheap spices at the store and don't really overthink it.

So far the main problems we have had are:

  1. We have a hard time finding complementary herbs/spices that can be mixed in somewhat arbitrary proportions and not end up completely disgusting. Sometimes the spices conflict with each other and sometimes they are spices you generally don't use more than a tiny pinch.
  2. Since she wants to bake things, we try to provide something to make it "bakeable" such as baking soda, yeast, sometimes even eggs. Usually, though, the end result is unappealing - often too spongy or too hard - and she doesn't want to try it. When it isn't unappealing she really likes it and finds it rewarding.

It would be really nice if we could put a little more prep work into this and be able to give her all her ingredients to play with, knowing that they are the right proportions that make something relatively palatable in the end, and be able to do this repeatedly.

She does also help us with "real" recipes which is obviously a critical thing for helping hear learn and understand cooking, but this self-directed play is really important to her and helps expand her palate and calm her.

It would be nice if I could come up with the following system:

  • measure out a set of ingredients and put them into appropriately-sized jars
  • nearly all ingredients are dry and would not spoil in a week or so
  • give her all the jars on a baking sheet along with any water needed
  • have a pre-defined temperature and time for baking
  • when combined, the entirety of the ingredients would be tasty when baked
  • when some ingredients are not fully used (randomly), would not be terrible when baked
  • clean up afterwards; be able to repeat this over and over without too much expense (no saffron, etc.)

How can I approach this task?

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  • 28
    You are a nice parent.
    – Candid Moe
    Oct 19, 2022 at 15:22
  • 2
    Is she old enough to write yet? Does she understand and can she count? What I am thinking is that if so, she can start tracking amounts, as in "I used a pinch of this and 3 pinches of that (or tsp, or ozs, whatever) and that was too much, next time she can use 1 and 1... ?
    – CGCampbell
    Oct 20, 2022 at 13:11
  • It's been a few years since I did it, but in the Cooking for Engineers class I took at Google, the instructor gave us something like a 5x5 grid with each column corresponding to one of the five flavors: Sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami, and gave us a general rule that the simplest combination that wouldn't taste bad was to pick one item from each column (and encouraged us to start with a pinch of each before using it in a meal). It wasn't 100%, but it was surprisingly effective, and trying the mix of just two items opened us up to a lot of interesting flavor combinations. Oct 20, 2022 at 13:31
  • 2
    A little frame challenge - there's no satisfaction with getting cookies appealing, or with any other success, when there's no chance of failure left. And being able to learn what does not work, taste-wise, may be even more important that learning only what does.
    – Mołot
    Oct 20, 2022 at 14:36
  • haven't put enough thought into it for a proper answer, but what about cake mix?
    – jackwise
    Oct 20, 2022 at 20:44

8 Answers 8

20

The easiest way would be to make a very simple cookie dough that relies on a lot of dry ingredients.

I personally like to make different seasoned and flavoured banana cookies for breakfast and think the recipe meets all the guidelines you asked for.

As I personally prepare the ingredients also in jars and measure them by cup and teaspoon to make it easier for myself, I hope the recipe below works for you and your kid.

Basic ingredients:

  • 1 banana (you can additionally add nut butter for liquidity)
  • max 1 tsp baking powder
  • ca. 1/2 to 1 cup of dry ingredients like granola, oats, flour or a mix out of them

Ideas for the dry ingredients and flavour/spices:

Basically, everything you like, which is dry and could be measured pre-hand e.g.

  • nuts
  • dried fruits e.g. raisins, cranberries, raspberries
  • chocolate chips
  • sprinkles
  • coconut flakes
  • seeds …

It’s completely up to you, what you would like to add to the cookies. Be creative and experience with the flavours that your daughter likes. If sweet or hearty - there are no limits!

Just make sure to follow the steps in the order below and add a banana + baking powder + any kind of dry base.

Steps:

  1. Mash your banana with a fork in a bowl until it’s banana puree - consistency like a smoothie.

  2. Add all the dry ingredients (except baking powder and spices) until you have got a stiff but sticky dough.

If it runs off the fork it’s too liquidy, if you can knead it with your hands it’s too stiff. It should be somewhere in the middle.

As dry ingredients you can use: Oats, (e.g. coconut or spelt) flour, pre-mixed granola, nuts, dried fruits, sesame, puffed rice, a bit of couscous or quinoa, cocoa nibs, espresso beans, chocolate drops etc. etc.

If you add multiple ingredients, I would recommend starting with the smaller and finer ones and then adding whole nuts, etc. It’s easier to add only a bit of each, to begin with, and then more until the dough has got a nice, chewy consistency.

  1. Now mix ca. 1/2 to 1 teaspoon baking powder (depending on how much dough you have) and your spices.

I like to add organic turmeric powder or barley grass powder (the banana overpowers the flavour and the powder gives a nice colour), cinnamon, nutmeg or ginger.

There are no limits to what you can or can’t add. For example, if you are more of a crisp and less of a cookie person, add as dry ingredient sesame seeds and seaweed sprinkles and as spices sea salt flakes, umami and hot sauce or pepper.

You can adapt the recipe fully to your taste!

If you like your cookies extra crunchy or caramelised, add some coconut flakes, puffed rice, a drizzle of honey, etc. on top.

  1. Bake your cookies at 180°C / 356°F for ca. 15min. until they are golden brown.

enter image description here

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    I believe this general approach paired with the recommendations from Joe's answer will be a big improvement to her "spices" game.
    – Steve V
    Oct 19, 2022 at 22:33
  • at the top of the recipe you say 1 tsp (teaspoon) and at the bottom 1 tablespoon. Which amount should I try? I am going to start with 1 teaspoon for safety and see how it goes, but it would be good to know which was meant!
    – Steve V
    Oct 22, 2022 at 18:00
  • Oh sorry! It's teaspoon, I edited it :)
    – Hannah
    Oct 24, 2022 at 8:20
12

This is quite similar to another answer but I think is worth looking at separately.

Granola, granola bars, and (British) flapjack are all made with oats, fat, sugar, and spices/fruit. They're fairly forgiving on the proportions, so I reckon you could provide oats, butter, sugar and/or syrup, and some of dried fruit, nuts, chocolate chips, cinnamon, and other sweet spices in small quantities. Candied peel might be interesting too. Everything on this list is safe to taste raw. I'd weigh out enough butter and sugar to make flapjack. If they don't use it all, you'll get something crispier. If they don't use all the oats you'll get something more fudge-like.

Melting the butter and sugar together would need some supervision but with small enough oven gloves and a heavy pan it's possible (my daughter made similar things at a similar age, though with less experimenting). Of course you're likely to need to handle the oven too. Someone will have to keep an eye on timing, but there's room to experiment there as well.

Whether the result is chewy, crunchy, crumbly, or some combination, it should be decently edible as a snack, a breakfast cereal, or sprinkled on fruit salad or ice cream.

A completely different, savoury, idea is seasoning for potato wedges. I make mine with polenta (for texture, optional) and a variety of herbs and spices (cumin, black pepper, paprika). Avoid anything too hot and have a play. You'd cut the potatoes, someone brushes them with oil, and sprinkles the spice mix

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  • Upvote for the flapjack. A 6 year old can use a frying pan and spatula.
    – Willk
    Oct 19, 2022 at 21:44
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    Worth being aware that flapjack means something totally different in US versus British English: separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2022/01/…
    – dbmag9
    Oct 19, 2022 at 22:02
  • These are good suggestions as well, but from experience she really enjoys the sensory experience of flour, so I think they will be less commonly fun for her.
    – Steve V
    Oct 19, 2022 at 22:35
  • @dbmag9 good point though my understanding was that both meanings occurred in the US. Is there even an American term for chewy oat/butter/sugar bars?
    – Chris H
    Oct 20, 2022 at 5:50
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    @dbmag9 thanks for the reference. I’ll have to go mine it for other terms for cooking.stackexchange.com/q/784/67
    – Joe
    Oct 22, 2022 at 3:43
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Reading your description feels very good, but I am afraid that there is nothing you can do to achieve this exact dream.

But whatever your views on parenting, if you want to ensure edible results, you will have to drop the rule that she can mix and match whatever she wants. Instead, she will have to learn a small set of combinations that work, and always make one of these, with some variation, but not much. This would basically mean that you choose a real recipe, and require her to follow it. Or you drop the edibility requirement, and let her continue what she has been doing.

There are other areas in the kitchen where a mix-and-match is completely possible and the results are pretty much always edible. An illustrative example (I know, it hurts other requirements) would be a fruit salad - you can just provide prepared, cut-up fruit, and she can mix it in any proportions and combinations and get a tasty result. Or you could use breakfast cereal - from my point of view, any combination of the typical ingredients is as edible as any other, although you might turn out to have different preferences. But baking is a different beast, and you cannot leave out the structural components of a cake or cookie, and have an edible cake or cookie.

If you absolutely want to try the curation thing: since people tend to like combinations which are familiar, your best bet on mutually compatible spices is to restrain her to the individual ingredients of some common spice mix. These mixes rarely have more than 4-5 spices tops, and at the same time, they are not foolproof. Imagine what will happen if you choose a gingerbread mix and she makes it 90% cloves. So the best compromise you can achieve will combine the worst features of both worlds.

Luckily, this doesn't have to be a problem. Here I am deviating from cooking a bit, but what is happening from the parenting perspective: your daughter has already found a game which she enjoys (play-baking) and now you are coming in and adding an additional requirement or a rule (the result should be enjoyable to eat). This is pretty much the opposite of current parenting advice: recommendation tend towards self-directed play, and that, if the adult joins, they take their directions from the child, instead of imposing their own preferences on the whole thing. So, if the game is already working, then she can just keep playing it the same way, no need to change.

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    Thanks for the notes. We are already curating the ingredients so it's really trying to just optimize what we curate so that the results are more predictable and pleasing. We are not setting any requirement of edibility, but feel like the activity would be more rewarding if she enjoyed eating whatever she makes. It is, in effect, an attempt to experiment and make it even more enjoyable for her.
    – Steve V
    Oct 19, 2022 at 17:23
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    @SteveV I get how pleasant your vision would be. With baking, you picked the one area where it won't work - for any subset of baking ingredients, there are many more ways to combine them in a "wrong" way than in a tasty way. This is why you are getting so many answers which suggest experimentation with something other than baking. So, in that sense, your current situation is already as optimal as it's ever going to be, and you cannot get closer to your wish points than with the "random ingredients" approach. You can decide best whether to continue as-is, or change your wish list.
    – rumtscho
    Oct 19, 2022 at 18:49
  • @SteveV I think my initial formulation was a bit unclear, so I will try to be more precise. If you introduce the aspect you want (edibility) you will have to remove aspects which your daughter has brought into her game - one or more of the "spices", "baking in an oven", "having a large selection of ingredients" and "being able to mix and match freely" aspects will have to be removed. Your description comes across as you being the one who wants change, and not your daughter - but I am not in your home, so it is you who has to recognize if she has asked for your support or not.
    – rumtscho
    Oct 20, 2022 at 9:42
  • @SteveV I did this kind of baking play as a child (also around age 6) and I thought the inedible results were fascinating. Why didn't these flavors that I liked independently work well together? I didn't eat them, which may have been frustrating to my parents who payed for the ingredients, but I was still excited by the process.
    – 2cents
    Oct 20, 2022 at 15:39
4

Depending on the age of the child, I would recommend a few things:

  1. Bake your flour. This is necessary to kill bacteria that may be present in case the child wants to eat raw dough or flour.

  2. Stick with the ‘pie spices’ for now. Cinnamon, clove, allspice, ginger, and such that are commonly used together

  3. Instead of having your child worry about quantities for everything, you may want to use a recipe like snickerdoodles where you make up the dough, roll it into balls, and roll the balls into the spice mixture

  4. You may want to use older spices for this. This reduces the chance of the flavors being too overwhelming, but also any chemical burns from spices that are too fresh. (I know it’s possible with oils, like cinnamon, I don’t know if it’s possible with just the spices directly)

  5. If there are any spices that you think tend to be too overwhelming, put them in jars with shaker tops, so she can’t easily dump in a lot at once

4

For spices you'd normally use only in small amounts, mix a small amount with flour in the jar (dilute them.)

If you can stand the wait for the yeast to work, my personal observation (which various purists may dispute by trying to impose their definitions, without affecting my actual experience of many decades) is that every time I make yeast or sourdough bread (and I very rarely measure much) it comes out bread - some better than others, but it's bread and edible every time. Quick breads are far less forgiving, but yeast bread is very adaptable. Likewise, by varying the amount of liquid you can range from loaf to flatbreads that are pourable (which is what I do with sourdough starter some would "discard as excess" - or when I feel like having some hot fresh bread product with minimal time and effort before I get around to bothering to loaf it with the rest of the dough-in-progress I took that material from.)

2

A great option would be shortbread, especially gluten-free shortbread. It basically has no wet ingredients, can be mixed/played with into oblivion if it's gluten free, and is super yum in raw and baked form. If you want her to eat it raw, you may prefer to heat the raw flour so it's safe to eat.

My basic gluten-free shortbread recipe would be 1 part sugar, 2 parts butter, 4 parts rice/corn flour mix. You can add spices to give it flavours, eg cranberry + orange, chocolate, ginger, etc.

If you give her sufficiently small enough quantities of spices (or just colour the flours into different colours to make 'spices'), so she can dump in everything and have it work. Pre-mixing the spices in the correct ratio into a single jar would also work.

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  • Oat flour (which I mostly make myself from rolled oats by running it through the food processor) would be another GF flour that would work similarly. And it's already heat-treated in processing if it's from rolled oats.
    – Ecnerwal
    Oct 20, 2022 at 11:58
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Specific to the spices, I would consider separating them into groups.

  • Pinch group
  • Spoon group

and/or

  • Sweet group
  • Savory group

For example. This lets the child know what spices might work well together (sweet vs. savory) or what spices should use larger versus smaller amounts.

For the baking powder, simply have a ratio - 1TBsp per 1c flour - or, even better, use Bisquik/other self-rising flour, depending on the level of detail you want to get into.

I would set up stations, personally: flour, sugar, baking powder if not self-rising flour, spices, water/liquid, fat. Give her an appropriate measuring cup/spoon at each station, sized to about what you want her to get - so a 1c at the flour, a 1Tbsp at the baking powder, a 1/8c or 1Tbsp at the sugar, etc. - something where if she did one dosage of each it would make a decent dough. Then she can test more/less more easily within a space that is sensible.

0

Bisquick. If you're not familiar with it, Bisquick is a baking mix for making American-style rolled biscuits (this is sort of like a very plain not-sweet scone). It already contains (in dry format) flour, shortening, salt, sugar, and baking powder. The basic recipe to make biscuits is just 2+1/4 cup Bisquick and 2/3 cup milk...mix, shape, and bake. This doesn't produce omg-best-ever biscuits but the results are edible. As long as she mixes all the milk and Bisquick you should get at least a reasonable texture.

The great thing about it is that it's fairly neutral, it doesn't lean too heavily savory or sweet, so you can make it into scones by adding sugar+blueberries or you can make a savory biscuit by adding cheese+garlic.

Also you can jazz them up a lot by including some flavorings in the biscuits and also some DIY toppings like flavored butter or cream cheese or glaze or syrup. Depending on how strong the topping turns out (whatever she puts in it) she can still adjust the final taste by how much topping she uses. She can also, e.g., mix some seasoning into cream cheese and then just taste it straight away to see if she likes it.

Also: chocolate chips, but also butterscotch chips, peanut butter chips, chocolate mint chips, Heath bar chips, etc. And sprinkles, sanding sugar, etc.

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