Monday, June 25, 2007

Our Last Community Meal

I teach cooking classes at my son's public school, and at the end of every term the kids in my class cook a giant meal for all the kids in the afterschool program. It is so beautiful. The kids help me choose the menu, we get a couple parent volunteers, we fire up the propane burners, and this incredible natural urge for community dining takes over. It brings out the best in everyone.

At first it is all like a normal cooking class -- walking the fine line between this perfectly calibrated culinary ballet -- and total chaos. At any moment I could look up and see a couple 5th grade girls with linked arms, spinning around on their heelies, like some giant disco ball has just descended and they were compelled to drop their Parmesan cheese and their Microplanes and pay homage to the funk machine that resides within.

We get past this, and by the time we finish and start serving the meal it's like we have turned into a catering outfit, staffed by extremely short waiters in fuzzy tee-shirts and jeans. The kids set the table like professionals, and do all the serving. This was their idea, the first time we did a community meal. I'd assumed we'd do a buffet, and I walked out into the cafeteria and the kids had set the tables and were walking from kid to kid offering salad and jambalaya. "Do you want salad? Do you want salad? Do you want salad?") (And, yes, the all do; the salad is the first thing to go.)

Today was the best Community Meal ever. One group of three kids made four batches of orange yogurt cake, with no help whatsoever. Two 4th-graders took over the food processor and intuited their way to a couple batches of FINE-tasting pesto. (We used to pound the pesto by hand, but if you've ever been in a room of five stone mortars and pestle pounding for 20 minutes straight, you will know what i mean when I say the headache is not worth the thrill.)

The meal was our best ever. We've learned to avoid the ongoing problem of an ancient electrical system that shorts out the whole room, usually right as we are in the middle of frying tortillas or ten minutes into baking zucchini-carrot cupcakes. We had the propane burners flaming away, and the kids were experienced and confident enough that they helped pull the whole thing off. Like real caterers.

Here's one of the recipes, with apologies to Martha Stewart, from whom/which this recipe is adapted:

Orange-Yogurt Cake
(Hint: for a crowd, make two batches and use a larger pan.)

Softened butter for the pan
1 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
1/2 cup plain whole yogurt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp grated orange zest
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 350°
2. Butter an 8-inch square cake pan.
3. Stir flour, 1/2 cup sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, yogurt, oil, orange zest and juice, egg and vanilla into a bowl. Mix.
4. Pour into the buttered pan. Bake for about 25 minutes. Let cool, then cut into squares and dust with confectioners’ sugar.


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