September 18, 2019

A Food Pyramid for Stir-Crazy Kids

I’ve loved being in the kitchen since childhood. I had a slew of aunts who cooked and a mother who always had something pickling, simmering or baking. In an extreme case of foreshadowing, my favorite toy as a child was my Easy-Bake Oven. I vividly remember watching my cakes bake, which took a long time considering the oven’s only heat source was a small light bulb. Because I was an only child, I’d gather my stuffed animals and serve them tea and cake and fuss over them much like I do now over my customers in my cafe. 

I’m now that “auntie” with whom parents are slightly reluctant to leave their kids. The weekends my friends have let me entertain their offspring, the kids are returned sugar-rushed, overly excited, sleep-deprived little monsters covered in flour or chocolate — usually both. I have a special weakness for children, and I like to get them into the kitchen (preferably their parents’ kitchen) and let them go wild. Food fights ensue, singing and dancing always figure into it, and crazy lava-like experimentations occur. Usually, I’m the one who gets the stern looks and the worried pleas to “please just don’t blow anything up.” In all fairness to me, that happened only once but parents have such long memories.

No sooner than the pesky adults are out the door, utter mayhem ensues. Even introverted children can be brought out of their shells by spending some time in the kitchen. It’s almost miraculous to see the transformation in a child during a no-holds-barred cooking session.

“Even introverted children can be brought out of their shells by  spending some time in the kitchen.”

Sometimes, if I sense a child is distracted or losing interest, I’ll take something gooey and I’ll just lob it over to them or smear it on their faces. I live for their expressions of shock as they return the favor, watching them realize that they can have a food fight with an adult without fear of penalty. There’s only one rule in my kitchen time with kids — no phones, iPads or computers of any kind — unless it’s a music device. After all, disconnecting children from electronic baby-sitters and screens for a few hours just can’t be a bad thing.

Even surly teenagers enjoy kitchen time, especially when the result is mastery of something they love to eat, such as pizza or quesadillas. I’ve had the deepest conversations with teens while cooking with them — sometimes they will even confide in me about something that is bothering them and ask my opinion about it. It’s so soul filling when a child opens up and tells you their hopes or fears. Bonding with kids in this way, besides being one of life’s supreme joys, invariably cements their affection for life.

The kitchen is one part of a home that is a sacred space where most of us feel safe. Positive connections and feelings that are associated with it can stick in a child’s mind well into adulthood. Rather than associating stepping into the kitchen as a chore, like many adults do, the simple act of baking, letting the house fill with the aromas of cinnamon and vanilla is magical and apt to leave an impression that never goes away.

This is the time of year in Israel when the weather gets chilly, the sweet shops begin selling sufganiyot for Hanukkah, and it’s when the ultimate kid sweet comes out: Krembo. Krembo, an Israeli confection that consists of a delicate dome of marshmallow-type fluff that sits atop a round biscuit base covered in a thin coating of cheap, waxy chocolate. It isn’t sold during summertime because it melts easily.   

In Uganda where I live, there’s no Krembo, and most times I can’t even find decent marshmallows, so I’ve made do with a cake that approximates the heavenly Krembo combination and is a fun project to make with kids. It’s more of an assembly project and requires no baking and very little kitchen equipment — only a hand mixer, although a wire whisk will do in a pinch. I’ve made it when I have last-minute dinner guests because it’s elegant enough to serve to adults and can be ready in under an hour. It’s a lovely cake my aunt used to make called a pyramida (pyramid), and I dare you to find a kid who will not love you for it, not only for teaching them how to make it, but for letting them eat it for breakfast or in place of dinner. 

Pyramid Cake
1 package vanilla-flavored instant pudding
5 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 cups whipping cream
1 3/4 cups whole or 2-percent milk
1 cup mascarpone cheese
42 Petit Beurre cookies (2 inches by 3 inches)
4 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1/2 teaspoon instant coffee
1 teaspoon honey
4 tablespoons white chocolate shavings or sprinkles (optional)

For the filling, place pudding mix, sugar, 1 cup whipping cream, 1 cup milk and cheese in a medium-sized bowl and whip with a hand mixer until thick and stiff peaks form. Refrigerate cream while you prepare the base.

On a countertop, put 2 layers of extra heavy aluminum foil (or wax paper) down on top of each other. Pour 3/4 cup milk in a bowl and proceed to briefly dip each cookie in the milk and lay them down in 3 rows, side by side — vertically. You should end up with a rectangle of cookies that is 3 rows wide and 7 rows long. 

Remove cream from refrigerator and spread a bit more than half the cream on top of the biscuits evenly until the surface area of the cookies is covered. Add another layer of cookies on top of the cream — but this time, the middle row of cookies should be placed vertically while the 2 outer rows of cookies should be laid down horizontally. This will make a pyramid shape. With a spoon, put remaining cream only on the center row of cookies. Don’t spread the cream onto the outer biscuits.

Using both arms, slip hands and forearms underneath each length of the foil and gently bring hands together, pressing the two flaps together to form the pointed top of the pyramid. Peel back foil, and using an offset spatula or knife, neaten up the cream and remove excess. Wrap the cake in the foil it’s on but be sure to close both ends well so as not to dry out the cream. Place in the freezer for at least 30 minutes. 

After the cake has hardened, make the ganache. Break or chop chocolate into smaller pieces, add to remaining 1/2 cup of cream and instant coffee in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave for 1 minute. Let mixture sit for 1 minute, add honey and whisk until chocolate is melted and ganache is shiny and homogenous.

Remove cake from freezer, unwrap and evenly pour ganache on top of pyramid, taking care to cover all the cookies in chocolate. Decorate with white chocolate or sprinkles before the ganache hardens and return it to freezer or refrigerator to set for at least 1 hour.

After cake has set, slide a spatula under the base and transfer to a long serving dish, discard the foil and slice into 1-inch wide triangles for serving.

Serves 10.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.