There is a secret getting three narrow braided strands of dough to stick together, so as to preserve the challah shape while it rises, said Ryan Bauman as he prepared a loaf last Thursday.
“More flour, luck and a little bit of praying,” said the 16-year-old.
Ryan, a sophomore at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, bakes challah with his mother, Elisa Bauman, every week Thursday or Friday afternoon in their Rockville home. He doesn’t need instructions: The bread has to rise for three hours before it can be baked bake at a temperature of 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
With cooking and baking threatening to become a lost art as families increasingly turn to prepared meals, Ryan, and other area kids, are bucking the trend. Their kitchen skills are intuitive. Some even prefer chopping vegetables to playing video games.
For her 10th birthday last month, Elana Snyder, of Bethesda, wanted a cooking-themed party. Her mother, Tamara Snyder, hired a professional cooking instructor to help Elana and her friends make fettuccine using a restaurant-style pasta machine.
“I made this sauce with tomatoes and onions,” she said. “We put that on the pasta and it made it taste super-duper good.”
Elana, a fourth-grader at Burning Tree Elementary School, said she started cooking around the age of 3, when she helped her parents make pancakes and muffins. Now her specialty is guacamole.
“It’s good and easy to make,” she said. “I made it for a bunch of people on New Year’s Eve, and they said it was good.”
Elana said she doesn’t think a love of cooking is common among people her age, but her best friend shares her passion.
“She understands me,” Elana said.
Even as Eli West busies himself with bar mitzvah preparations, there are three meals a day he can cook if he wants to. Last Saturday, the 12-year-old Bethesda resident prepared a late afternoon lunch last Saturday by submerging two pieces of salmon in paprika, cayenne pepper, thyme and a lemon marinade.
He then turned on his gas range and sautéed each side for five minutes in olive oil, while simultaneously simmering green beans with fresh garlic and other spices.
He said much of his culinary knowledge came from watching chefs on The Food Network, particularly Rachael Ray.
“When I was little, at first I baked a lot,” he said. “And then I just wanted to cook more and move away from baking. But I still like baking now.”
Eli recently cooked a meal for 50 in his kitchen with the help of several friends. The group donated the meals to the Rockville nonprofit Nourish Now, which collects surplus fresh food and redistributes it to needy families.
Eli’s mother, Natalie West, said the group also discussed issues related to healthy eating and food waste while completing the service project.
“He received great feedback from his friends and they want to come over and do it again,” she said.
Eli said he plans to do a similar project for his bar mitzvah, and another one for community service day at school.
A few weeks ago, Eli achieved a personal baking goal: mastering French macarons — light, airy cookies made from egg whites that are sandwiched together with buttercream frosting. He has prepared the pastries several more times, including at lunch on Saturday.
“These have been resting for 30 minutes now,” he said pointing to round drops of macaron batter on a cookie sheet.
After a half hour, Eli’s lunch cooking session was complete. Powerful aromas of creole and garlic from the salmon wafted through the kitchen, and most of the macarons rose to the desired height. But one was slightly deflated, prompting the perfectionist in him to self-critique.
“I mixed it too much, that’s why it didn’t rise,” he said, explaining that mixing egg white batter for too long can cause it to lose air and bake into a deflated cookie.
Pikesville resident Sunny Diamond is also a perfectionist. Last Sunday, she poured just enough oil, kosher salt and seasonings on an arugula salad to flavor it without oversaturating the vegetables. Sunny, a fifth-grader at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, said her love for food started when she was 5, because of her father’s television-watching rule.
“You see, my dad didn’t like the kids’ shows that were on Nickelodeon and the Disney channel, so we blocked out all the shows except for the Food Network,” she said while sautéing mushrooms for the salad. “I DVR’d everything so I could watch it after school when I finished my homework.”
Like Eli, Sunny works independently in the kitchen. She said she notices when food served in the cafeteria at school is undercooked, but stays silent.
Just as passionate, but not yet independent in the kitchen yet is 6-year-old Annandale resident Michael Appelbaum. Michael has been making a family mandel bread recipe with his grandmother Eileen Appelbaum since he was 3.
“I like eating it,” he said. “I’m not a huge dessert guy, but I love it.”
When the two cook together, Michael and his grandmother wear matching aprons that say “Chef Michael” and “Chef Grandma.” In addition to the mandel bread, he makes pineapple pie, brisket, kugel and salmon croquettes, either with his grandmother, or his mother, Marissa Appelbaum.
At the Baumans’ house, Ryan and his mother have adapted their challah recipe for holidays such as Rosh Hashanah, when they stuff it with apples and Nutella. Sometimes he uses the challah to make French toast or a special dessert.
“I’ll make a challah babka with my mom,” he said. “It’s less dense than other babkas, and we make it into a Jewish star.”
As Ryan puts the finishing touches on a loaf, he gives his mother a hard time about how she once left challah dough unattended while it was rising.
“It was supposed to be round, and she forgot that it was rising for too long,” he said. “It was, like, overflowing. But we ended up with four challahs out of that.”