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Welcoming Kids Into the Kitchen

IT'S 11 a.m. at Michela's restaurant, where 17 parents and 20 children have gathered for some Saturday-morning fun. But this group is not here for table talk and ordinary holiday cheer: They came to cook.Donning white aprons, the tall and the small scuttle into the kitchen. It's a haven for kids: Here, flour is supposed to fly, you're allowed to get messy, and you can play with all the dough you want. It's a haven for parents, too: It's not their kitchen. Michela Larson, owner of Michela's, offers a "Kids in the Kitchen" class for parents and children several times a year. A professional chef and mother of two, Ms. Larson is one of many who see cooking as way to learn, bond, and just plain have fun. "With everybody as busy as they are in this life, [cooking] is a real break. It's a time for parents to be with their kids with no distractions," Larson says. Today's menu includes Joshua's baked apples (See recipe), personalized pizzas, and festive gingerbread cookies. Pastry chef Joshua DeGroot begins by demonstrating the first few steps of his baked-apple recipe as the kids and parents look on. "The one trick in this is not to pack the stuffing too tightly. Otherwise, the apple will explode, and that's no fun," he says. "We want an apple that's soft but not mushy," he adds. After the demonstration, he pulls out a tray of already-baked apples. "This is what they look like when they're done." Next, the kids wrap the baked apples in thin filo dough. "If it tears on you, don't worry," calls out Mr. DeGroot. "Don't be shy with the butter!" he adds, as the kids paint each filo sheet and attempt to wrap them around the apple. "It's fun to make kids excited about food and enjoy it," says Lolly Foley, mother of three. Holding her infant with one hand and a camera in the other, she observes her husband Henry and daughters Catherine, 8, and Kyle, 7, as they dig into the action. Kyle sneaks a small piece of filo in her mouth every chance she gets. "The kids get to see everything we [chefs] do," says DeGroot later. "So it demystifies. Little kids just love to play. I did, and I've been cooking since I was five - making a mess in the kitchen!" On to pizza: Larson passes out palm-sized clumps of dough to each child. "Hey, no dueling!" she calls out to two boys sparring with rolling pins. (The energy level here is equal to that of several birthday parties for 5-year-olds put together, she comments later.) "Play with your dough a little bit. Get a little life into it," Larson says. You don't have to make the dough yourself, she offers: Ask your local pizzeria if you can buy some. Next come the toppings: pepperoni (most popular), cheese, green and red peppers, caramelized onions, and more. "You want some anchovies?" "Eee-yuuuuck!" Gingerbread animals are decorated next. The kids choose from among many types and colors of candy - gumdrops, gummy bears, M&Ms, licorice, and more. Whether they know it or not, these kids are learning more than cooking: measurements and math, language and following directions, science, creativity, and more. "They learn a lot about process. How to start a job and finish it, have a good time with it. They learn the bad with the good because there is the clean up," says Larson. "They also learn coordination, which is a lot better than learning in front of a Nintendo screen," says Linda Bassett, a cooking teacher here with her six-year-old son, Timmy, who is "very particular about his ingredients." Safety is a must. "It gets tricky with fire and knives; you have to be extremely careful about that stuff," says Larson. "They learn that the kitchen is a wonderful, fun, warm, loving, and sometimes dangerous place." The kitchen can also be a place to nurture parent-child relations. Kitchen activity is conducive to communication, says Larson. "Lots of stuff comes out when you cook. You have intense work, and you're chatting. Whatever is going on in their minds, they sort of free associate with you." "With cooking, you've got to spend a certain amount of time. There's something great about being in the trenches together. You've got your hands in it, and you get a little dirty. And then you get to share with everybody at the end."

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