A little boy brandishing a spoon and stirring a bowl of blueberry muffin batter caught my eye a few weeks back on Facebook.
His mom, Jessi Oppenheim, and I met on a sailing trip at USF St. Petersburg, where her husband Zac directs campus recreation. She posts pictures of “Little Chef Fridays” every week featuring her baking experiments with son Eli, who’s a little over a year old.
It’s evident from his expression in each photo that he really enjoys the mixing, stirring, and tasting. I was equally impressed by Jessi’s courage to tackle baking with a toddler.
Jessi and Eli bake on Fridays, she explains, because Friday is the start of the Jewish Sabbath.
“I like to do something special to make that day more important than other days,” she explains. “I used to bake challah bread every Friday, but he’s not quite ready for challah yet.”
When I walk into their St. Petersburg home, she’s gathered the sectional sofas together in what she calls “the couch pit.” Eli bounces and plops around inside.
She tells me he started showing interest in the kitchen when he was about 9 months old. Zac does most of the cooking at home, and Eli was so engrossed with his father’s culinary efforts that the family had to get a second high chair, just for the kitchen.
“I started him with simple pre-made cookie mixes from the dollar store,” she says. “All you need is an egg, water, and vegetable oil.”
Since then, Eli has graduated to recipes like White Chocolate Macadamia Nut Cookies, Blueberry Matzo Bars, and Garlic Cheddar Biscuits.
She sits him in his high chair and places a bowl and spoon on the table, just out of reach. As we talk, Eli immediately stretches to grasp the bowl and spoon; it’s obvious he’s ready to get down to business. Jessi, who’s a teacher herself, uses these baking sessions to teach Eli shapes.
“This month’s shape is squares, so we’re making S’more Squares,” she says.
For a wedding gift, Zac asked family and friends to create a book of recipes for Jessi. Today’s S’more Squares recipe comes from Grandma Johanna Breejen Mullen.
Eli begins with the butter and sugar, and does a pretty handy job mixing them together (of course, Mom helps a little). When Jessi cracks the egg into the bowl, Eli laughs out loud.
Wielding a meat tenderizer like Thor’s hammer, Eli smashes the graham crackers with precision (save the minor dent incurred by the dining room table).
As he tops the baking dish with tiny marshmallows, Jessi recalls recent one Little Chef mishap while making frosting with milk and confectioner’s sugar.
“He poured the milk all over the high chair and started splashing it around,” she said. But kids will get messy no matter what. At least this way you get cookies. “You can’t cry over spilled milk… literally.”
Little Chef S’more Squares
Makes one square baking pan
1/2 cup softened butter
3/4 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 pouch of graham crackers (broken into crumbs)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
6 Hershey chocolate candy bars
1-2 cups marshmallows
In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in egg and vanilla. Combine the flour, graham cracker crumbs, baking powder and salt. Press half the mixture into a greased 8-inch-square baking pan. Place candy bars over mixture. Add marshmallows on top. Crumble remaining graham cracker mixture over top. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on a wire rack. Cut into bars.