Carrot cake at four? Elaine Williams's children get up to their elbows in cook books
USBORNE COOKERY SCHOOL SERIES. Cooking for Beginners. Pasta amp; Pizza for Beginners. Vegetarian Cooking for Beginners. Edited by Fiona WattUsborne pound;4.99 each
THE USBORNE FIRST COOK BOOK. By Angela Wilkes. Illustrated by Stephen Cartwright. Usborne pound;6.99
MY FIRST COOK BOOK. By Angela Wilkes. Dorling Kindersley pound;8.99
CHILDREN'S QUICK amp; EASY COOK BOOK. By Angela Wilkes. DK pound;10.99
As a child I loved cooking. I loved the mess, the textures, the licking out of bowls and spoons, the magic of the science, of seeing ingredients work together. But my childhood repertoire was frustratingly limited. Children's recipes didn't venture much further than jam tarts and chocolate crispies and school cookery lessons seemed dominated by peppermint cream production - a thoroughly miserable process as mine were always blobby and grubby and the wrong shade of green. Anyway, I hated them.
Beating up the "Yorkshires" for my grandma gave far more pleasure. She didn't seem to mind how much I slopped about. Seeing them coming out of the oven, risen and hillocky, crisp and golden, seemed like a wonderful feat of alchemy. That was about real cooking for real meals. Children like to be in the thick of it, producing grown-up food.
That's why my kids are addicted to Ready Steady Cook on TV. They love watching people mucking about in the kitchen, tossing salads, preparing sauces, frying and chopping, screeching and squawking and making a drama out of a bunch of carrots. They think it's cool and sassy and they want to do the real thing. Publishers are on to this: there have never been so many children's cookery books and the best of them are adventurous, sexy, exceedingly mouth-watering and do-able.
Since this job lot arrived on our doorstep, my three (aged nine, seven and four) have been up to their elbows in bread and pizza dough, carrot cake, pasta bakes, salads and guacamole. As cooks, they are willing to try out food previously rubbished, and have grown curious about the countries and cultures behind the recipes.
Meals cooked from the Usborne Cookery School's Pasta amp; Pizza for Beginners, Vegetarian Cooking for Beginners or Dorling Kindersley's Children's Quick amp; Easy Cook Book are good enough to grace any table, so do not require parents to be involved in twice as many cooking sessions. The Turkish meatballs, falafel, tacos and guacamole in Quick amp; Easy are all respectable grown-up fare, while the recipes for chicken nuggets and lemony fish fingers give children an insight into the real ingredients of something they probably assume begins life in a takeaway carton.
The clearly-listed ingredients and step-by-step approach take nothing for granted, not even the peeling of a garlic clove, so that even five-year-olds can prepare delicious meals with minimum guidance - though any pan-frying and boiling would, of course, still have to be done by an adult.
Quick amp; Easy and the Usborne Cookery School books are aimed at children of nine and upwards, and could be used independently by 12-year-olds. The series editors Angela Wilkes (DK) and Fiona Watt (Usborne) have taken great pains to produce simplified recipes which are nevertheless sophisticated, giving children the satisfaction of being in the cooking mainstream. However, Lucy, my four-year-old, had a lot of fun making the spicy carrot cake (Quick amp; Easy) and her brother Henry (seven) could comfortably manage the cream cheese topping and the marzipan carrots.
But the bread bears, hedgehogs and snails from the quick bread recipe in Angela Wilkes's My First Cook Book (aimed at younger children and now on its ninth reprint) were nearer their level. They enjoyed walloping and modelling the dough.
DK has gone for the glossy look, with top-class photography of perfect-looking dishes. No child could turn out stuff looking like that, and few adults could unless they have the skills of Rosie Mee, our nanny, who is a qualified baker. She was concerned that children would be disheartened by having professional standards as their point of reference. One could argue that Angela Wilkes's First Cook Book for Usborne, published recently in a new edition, which is illustrated by Stephen Cartwright and enlivened by his team of little chefs, leaves more room for childish creation.
But neither Lucy nor Henry seemed the least bit upset that their characterful, irregular and delicious concoctions looked nothing like the photographs. They loved the attractive pages and the simplicity of the instructions. With very little help they cooked up an enormous sense of achievement.