Prior to receiving Mardi Michels‘ book In the French Kitchen with Kids from the publisher I couldn’t think of anything more daunting than French cuisine. Maybe it’s because the final results look so complex and elegant (hello croissants I’m look at you!) that I never believed I could master those recipes let alone teach my (or anyone’s kid) to cook French recipes. Embarrassingly I do own cookbooks that are dedicated to French cooking and baking that I’ve never cooked from so what is it about Mardi’s book that got me to change my mind?
Well, when I first opened the book and started to bookmark all of the recipes that I wanted to make I ended up starting really small — with the Ratatouille Tian. It seemed easy enough for us and it turned out really well. Then her other recipes started to beckon me on a very personal level — making her Omelette recipe reminded me of the first “real” thing my mom taught me to make. I remember the feeling I had when she taught me to make my own scrambled eggs — I felt a joy and independence that has led to a life-long love of cooking. Why wouldn’t I want to instill those feelings in my four-year-old daughter?
When I posted the picture of the omelette here’s what I had to say: “[Mardi’s book] offers a very easy and tangible way to [teach kids how to cook] with recipes that are simple and delicious. Each recipe offers different points at which young cooks can access the kitchen, learn skills, build confidence and, although my 4 yo isn’t quite ready for the stove even just following along and watching me cook one of her favs — the omelette — lets her see what it takes to make her favourite meals!” So while Mardi’s book is being marketed for older children I think there are more than enough tasks and little jobs that young and aspiring cooks like my daughter can do under supervision (pour, mix, roll, cut, fold…). The more you practice cooking with your kids you’ll eventually find there will be a gradual release of responsibility so that they can cook and try things on their own. As children cook different recipes and cook more often they’ll begin to develop an intuition about cooking/baking itself. What happens in the kitchen won’t be a mystery and I think this is how we get kids interested in home cooking. The key to success is to start off following the recipe — exactly. This will set up good cooking habits and build a firm grasp of important culinary fundamentals.
I’m good at cooking there’s no doubt but there are things I’ve never tried because I thought they’d be way too difficult and totally above my skill-set. With Mardi’s recipes, even the most challenging recipes for me — croissants, pain au chocolat, and crème caramel — became “doable” with the clear instructions she’s given. Which means attempting something like, say, the croissants, with kids is very easy because she’s broken up the different parts of the recipe. When the information is chunked in this way the whole recipe is completely surmountable. After making her recipe for Crème Caramel (something I’d never ever thought I’d make!) I really feel like I can make just about anything now! A completely empowering experience! It seems like there’s been a lot of talk in this paragraph about me but this is where I’ll tell you that even if you don’t have children this is an excellent book to have in your kitchen!
Since this all started at Mardi’s school (she’s a French teacher!) with her after-school cooking group what I’ve notice about the recipes (we’ve already tried over 25!) is that you don’t need any specialized equipment (not counting a few items such as Madeleine pans), nothing takes very much time (unless you’re talking about proofing dough but really that’s inactive time because you’re not actually doing anything at that point), and her ingredients are very simple and easy to source. In my former life I too was a teacher so it makes sense that her timing is accurate and cleaning a cinch because if you’re running an after school program timing and clean up would be so essential! This is probably why we’ve made so many of her recipes already — I haven’t ended up with a messy kitchen and everything is very easy to make. She’s conveniently provided weighted measurements (along with metric measures) for her recipes so that the recipes are easy to clean up, there’s a precision that helps to create a consistent finished product, and (I think most importantly) kids can get a sense of weight. What I mean is if you’re making the Crispy Vegetable Cakes you don’t have to rely on the descriptors “small,” “medium,” or “large” when deciding on what produce to use. Learning how much each produce size weighs is really helpful to children in my opinion because size is very subjective.
What’s interesting about Mardi’s book is that unlike other books that focus on cooking with kids hers offers interesting, enticing, and challenging recipes. Many kid’s cookbooks offer recipes that are (in my view) too simplistic and therefore provide no challenge. Her recipes are challenging yet not impossible and offer real satisfaction to a young cook for trying something that took effort. The whole family can be included in this endeavor and from what I’ve seen on social media everyone is getting involved from first time cooks to the most seasoned of home cooks. In the French Kitchen with Kids gives an honest way for kids to build their skills while cooking with their parents (or other adults in their lives) from the book.
I really appreciate is that the book is well organized. The beginning of the book is full of helpful tips about how to get cooking with kids, French pantry staples, and essential kitchen equipment. But as I mentioned earlier there aren’t too many things you’ll need to get — I purchased some heart ramekins so that I could make the Coeur à la Crème but I could have easily made them using regular ramekins. One item that she suggested that I don’t have is an adjustable rolling pin or one with spacers. Although I did roll out the dough semi-thin enough for the Butter Cookies and tarts I think I would have had an easier time and ended up with more uniform consistent dough if I’d had one.
The remainder of the book contains the recipes which are divided up by meal: Breakfast (Le petit déjeuner), Lunch (Le déjeuner), After-School Snacks (Le goûter), Dinner (Le dîner), Dessert (Le dessert), Special Occasions (Pour les grandes occasions), and Basic Pantry Recipes (Racettes de base de pâtisserie). The entire book is filled with absolutely delicious recipes! As I mentioned before her recipes are very precise this allows for the cook to split recipes in half in order to try two recipes simultaneously! For example you can totally make the Croissants and Pains au Chocolat together, as well as the Jam Tarts and Galettes or both versions of the Coeur à la Crème! Undecided? Make both! Seems like a very reasonable compromise.
The recipes in the book are also balanced — not all dessert. In the French Kitchen with Kids offers a way for kids to learn how to properly cook meat, poultry, and fish if this is something they eat. If you or your children aren’t into eating meat there are lots of vegetarian dishes to try (like I said before we’ve tried 25+ and haven’t exhausted the vegetarian options). For those who observe gluten-free and/or a vegan diet I would recommend checking out this book (from the library) before you buy it. The book doesn’t offer substitutions so it would be up to the cook to decide upon and implement them and since this is a French cooking book centered on working with kids in the kitchen I don’t think it really needed to address this aspect (a single cookbook can’t be all things to all people imho).
In the French Kitchen with Kids is a great cookbook (and not just for families)! While I enjoyed spending time with my daughter trying recipes I also loved cooking solo from the book. The food is so delicious and easy it’s a great start for anyone wanting to cook more meals at home or those who need a change up from their same old weekly meal rotation. Want to see what I’ve been cooking up? Well then head on over to my dedicated Facebook post or explore my custom Instagram hashtag #kidsinthekitchenmakingeatworthyfrenchfood.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Appetite by Random House / Penguin Random House for providing me with a free, review copy of this book. I did not receive monetary compensation for my post, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.