The modern childhood ferris-wheel. Most days packed to the rafters. Early rise for school, extra-curricular activities, tuitions, swimming lessons, dance classes, music lessons, football, homework. Pepper in social media and it is relentless, manic, and exhausting.
Meet four children who have learnt to carve some quiet for themselves, where the kitchen is their respite and their awakening. Here, their creative juices froth up cloud like meringues, and 70% cacao with a smattering of coffee make for perfect cake partners, where they discover that caramel can be used as the base for a flan or praline with the addition of nuts and where all- your-left-over-bits-in-the-fridge can be reduced to an almost life-enhancing stock.
It is where real life experiments with butane torches and Santoku knives replace the Bunsen burner and ubiquitous beaker to offer a significantly more palatable outcome. More often than not, children educate us. They see things with such sharp clarity, unblurred by adult discombobulation. Liam, Rayna, Ben and Sophia are gentle reminders that food is to be enjoyed with gusto and uncomplicated pleasure, and that cooking and baking are the mindful mediums that offers the best of life as a wobbly slice on a plate, heaped in a bowl, or eaten straight off the pan.
THE BAKER BOY
Two years ago, then 11-year-old Liam Paul asked his parents for a stand cake mixer for his birthday, there was reason for them to pause, sit back and wait for a change of heart, just in case they had to swap the kitchen device for a gaming one. That moment never came.
Liam first ventured into the kitchen as an active participant age 10 to escape the stresses of school and homework. He cut his teeth on eggs. “Scrambled eggs were the first thing I cooked all by myself, and when I got more comfortable and confident, I challenged myself to make an omelette and then finally progressed to poached eggs,” he says. “Every little success I had in the kitchen was appreciated by my family and when I was scared to experiment, my Dad encouraged me to keep trying.
“I love to bake sweet pastries and desserts. Salted brownie cookies were the first dessert I attempted, and I am happy to say that I even sold a batch! I first started baking with my Mum (who is a good baker!) but I moved on to baking alone, as I am often led by my intuition. I do enjoy watching different videos on YouTube and then test out different versions before making them my own. It is a proud feeling of accomplishment when my family and friends enjoy my cooking.
“I feel a connection with the ingredients, and I love to play with spices but my favourite one to use is cinnamon. If I am using 70% dark cacao for my brownies, I will reduce the amount of coffee to keep the balance right. The kitchen is where I belong, where I feel most at home. One day, I will go to culinary school and I will have my own bakery.”
Liam’s cooking arsenal …
- Favourite kitchen utensil: A spatula because it has so many uses.
- Favourite dish to bake: Chocolate lava cake.
- Whose recipes do you keep returning to? Anything by Joshua Weissman on YouTube.
- Favourite combination of flavours: Sweet and salty. Salt gives crunch and lifts the sweetness.
- Liam’s repertoire includes, chocolate lava, crème brulee, salted brownies and crème caramel flan.
- A word of encouragement. “Do not give up on your dreams and don’t stop doing what you love”.
SUGAR, SPICE & ALL THINGS NICE
Rayna Lye, 16+, was driven to the kitchen by her Mum’s words “if you love to eat, then you need to learn to cook”, and at the age of seven, she took heed and followed her grandmother into the kitchen and has never looked back.
“My grandma nurtured my interest. She was a keen baker, and I was her curious assistant. She would let me mix the wet ingredients when making muffins. By the time I was 10, I was baking by myself and I loved the feeling of having created something all on my own. That gave me a strong sense of pride. I like science, and baking to me is like a mini science experiment. It’s how two or more different ingredients come together and create an explosion of flavours in your mouth, like in the computer-animated movie, Ratatouille, when Remy discovers the delight of eating cheese and strawberries together!
Baking takes a lot of practice and I watch Babish Culinary Universe on YouTube for inspiration. He recreates iconic and even non-existent dishes from movies and shows like Harry Potter and SpongeBob SquarePants. My mother encourages me to challenge myself and it was she who suggested I set up an Instagram account to share my baking journey.
I find balance and calm when I am in the kitchen with my ingredients and utensils. It takes my mind off the stress and weight of school, especially if I am baking cookies or brownies where I don’t need to focus too hard. It brings me so much joy.”
Rayna’s kitchen in a nutshell …
- Favourite kitchen utensil: My lemon squeezer—it gets every drop of juice out!
- Have you created your own recipe? Yes, my Lychee and Rose Water Swiss Roll (with Mum’s encouragement!)
- Favourite ingredient to bake with: Peaches and apples because they make the best fillings.
- Baking tip: Always wipe down your baking bowl and whisk with a little apple cider vinegar to get rid of any traces of oil before you beat egg whites for meringues.
- Favourite combination of flavours: Sweet and tart like in a Key Lime Pie.
- Most challenging thing to make so far: Macaroons.
- Most proud of: My Black Forest Cake—looks presentable enough to sell!
- Rayna’s truism: I love to cook because I love to eat!
Benjamin and Sophia Graham Khoo’s first foray into the kitchen were when they were five and three. “I started off as the gatherer of ingredients and slowly moved up to mix, peel and chop,” recalls Ben, now 11 years old.
“Mum used to take us along to the supermarket and she used to identify the vegetables we picked up and we would often come home and cook those ingredients with her,” pipes in nine-year-old Sophia.
Today, the pair help their Mum, Danielle Graham, celebrity home cook and author of On The Table At Home, in the kitchen with her lockdown-prompted catering business, from chopping and marinading to packing and making personalised gift tags.
“I love steaks,” declares Ben. “I love to cook and eat them, and I have become good at it! Just salt and pepper if I want a western style steak or soy sauce, chilli flakes and lime for some Asian flavour. Simple! The key is to get it just right which is medium rare for me. Never overcook your food. If it’s undercooked, you can always return it to the pan, but you can’t correct it if you’ve overcooked it.”
“Cooking relieves stress and making something delicious from simple ingredients makes me very happy and proud. It’s satisfying,” adds Ben.
Ben spills the beans …
- Favourite kitchen utensil: My Santoku knife with my name on it. I use it for just about everything!
- Love to eat … Potatoes! In any form, boiled, mashed, fried, baked …
- Least favourite ingredient: Chillies.
- Cooking tips: Always read through the recipe and have all your ingredients ready and taste as you go.
- Most proud of … My steaks.
- Go-to cookbooks: Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver.
“When I am cooking, I feel joyful, happy and relaxed and calm,” says delightfully chatty Sophia, who reminded me her name was spelt with a ‘ph’! “When I am in the kitchen, my mind is on the ingredients in front of me and that is a stress buster. I love cooking Chicken Rice because from that one chicken I can make soup, stock for the rice and then eat the chicken pieces, too! Oh! And I love making wantons with my Mum especially during Chinese New Year. That’s very special for us.
“Though I enjoy baking too and watch only baking shows for inspiration, I tend to cook more especially as I help my Mum with her food orders. I love cooking food that has different textures like Chicken Karaage along with sticky Japanese rice or the crunch and crisp of Chicken Katsu with soft mashed potato. I love eating and it’s a good thing that Ben likes the drumstick and thigh, and I love chicken breast. I’d love to keep cooking with my Mum. We don’t get stressed with each other; we have a good time in the kitchen. The other person I miss in the kitchen is my Opa. He and my Nona live in Sydney. Opa is a pastry chef, and he has given me so many tips and taught me to bake one of my favourite sweets—Condensed Milk Almond Cookies. They are the best!”
Sophia’s cream of the crop …
- Favourite kitchen utensil: Mini spatula because I can use it in my baking and cooking. It gets into corners and gives my mashed potato good consistency.
- I love eating … all things rice!
- Most watched baking show: Sugar Rush.
- Cooking tip: To check if your pan is hot enough, hover the palm of your hand over the centre of your pan.
- The future: I would like to go to culinary school and one day open a bakery.