Max Johnson, 15, started smoking meat as a school-at-home project last year and has been cooking ever since. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

If Max Johnson was in school last June, he might not have taught himself to smoke meats. Or to make Beef Wellington.

But Max was home, doing his classwork remotely, when he was given an assignment to learn a new skill. The idea was that it should be something that would make him a little more self-sufficient and prove that good things could come out of the pandemic and being stuck at home.

“I really like to eat, and I had always watched cooking shows, so I decided I’d learn to smoke meats for my project,” said Max, 15, currently a sophomore at Cape Elizabeth High School. “I’d get up at 4 a.m. to get the smoker started and then make a pork shoulder and document the whole process. The smoker really sparked my interest in cooking.”

Kids and teens have taken advantage of pandemic downtime to turn up the heat on their passions for cooking, say parents, as well as local and national cooking instructors. Some have used time at home to expand their interest in baking, grilling or cooking in general, while others are learning their way around the kitchen for the first time. The process for kids can be educational, and more parents these days are looking for constructive things for children to do at home, since most only physically go to school a couple days a week. Learning to cook can be a form of entertainment – something to do besides video games or watching TV – and take a bit of pressure off parents who during the pandemic have had to make three meals a day for the whole family.

“I’ve definitely seen a lot of interest from parents who are looking for something for kids to do, and want their kids to be a little more self-sufficient, whether it be just making their own eggs or sandwich or making dinner for the family one night,” said Amy Kayne, owner of 2Gether Private Chefs in Portland. “I know my own kids (two sons, ages 10 and 12) are doing more in the kitchen, able to do more for themselves.”

Portland chef Amy Kayne and her son Nolan filming an online cooking lesson for kids. Photo courtesy of Amy Kayne

Kayne began giving free cooking lessons for kids on Facebook Live when the pandemic shutdown started in March, with sons Nolan and Jackson as her sous chefs. She gave the lessons for about three months – soliciting donations to help local community groups struggling during the pandemic – and had as many as 1,000 people watch an episode, she said. The lessons are still up on her company’s Facebook page. In the fall, she was hired by the John Hancock insurance company to do online cooking lessons for its Kids Healthy Living Club.

Samantha Barnes, a 2002 Bowdoin College graduate, has seen membership in her Raddish subscription cooking club for kids and families double across the country during the pandemic, up to 80,000 members. Families purchase memberships by the month, or longer, and get three illustrated recipes mailed to them, along with a kitchen tool and an online lesson plan to help learn math, science and history while cooking, as well as bonus recipes, Spotify playlists and other resources. January’s kit theme is My Italian Restaurant and comes with a ravioli-making tool. Monthly prices are $20 to $24.

“During the pandemic, families found themselves cooking seven nights a week and looking for something for kids to do, to learn,” said Barnes, based in Los Angeles, who started Raddish in 2014. “Kids aren’t seeing friends or playing sports as much, so cooking can be something that gives them a sense of satisfaction and confidence while they’re staying home.”

Max Johnson, 15, checks on baby back ribs cooking on a smoker at his family’s home in Cape Elizabeth. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

YEARNING TO LEARN

Some kids are cooking fun treats for friends and family – cookies or brownies for instance – while other are creating more complex culinary challenges for themselves.

Max continued to cook ambitiously after his meat-smoking project, using his family’s Kamado Joe grill/smoker. He smoked more meats, with sauces and rubs, including ribs and brisket. He cooked non-smoked dishes too. For the holidays, he made Beef Wellington for his family, though he said the pastry wrapping the meat “fell apart a little.” Recently, he made fried chicken, in a skillet with hot oil, using a recipe from celebrity chef Rachael Ray.

Max says not being able to go to restaurants during the pandemic helped fuel his desire to learn how to cook for himself. He’s applied to the culinary program at Portland Arts and Technology High School, with hopes to attend next year while continuing his core course at Cape Elizabeth High School.

“I’d like to learn more about cooking and maybe work in the culinary field some day,” said Max.

Quinn Daly, 13, of South Portland, started baking in a serious way this past summer. Before then, she had cooked a little, making pancakes or crepes. Sometimes she helped her father, Sean Daly, who had cooked in restaurants for several years.

But this summer, she found she had time on her hands and began baking on her own. Normally, she’d have been busy with summer camps, including at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone.

She began baking cookies and treats to raise money for various causes and groups she believed in, including GLSEN-Southern Maine, which advocates for the rights of LGBTQ youth, and Black Lives Matter. She made more than 100 cookies and earned more than $100 for each of the causes. She made a lot of decorated sugar cookies, including some with rainbow-colored dough.

Quinn Daly, 13, holds a freshly-baked Cranberry Shortbread Tart at her home in South Portland. She started baking a lot over the summer, when she normally would have been at summer camps and programs and has continued the hobby. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Quinn, an eighth-grader at Mahoney Middle School in South Portland, didn’t only learn to bake. She learned about planning out large batches, calculating ingredient costs, and figuring out how to ship or deliver the finished goodies.

“I think it’s been a great confidence booster for her,” said Quinn’s mother, Jenna Daly. “Without camps to focus on, this was really great for her.”

In the fall, Quinn invited a few friends to her backyard for socially-distanced gatherings around a firepit, and she often baked something. At Halloween, when she had friends over, she made candy corn cupcakes, among other things.

Around the holidays, Quinn baked dozens of cookies, as well as some pies, and delivered treat baskets to friends and family. She continues to bake when she’s not too busy with schoolwork, and recently made cranberry shortbread. She’s made pies and tarts as well.

Quinn says she enjoys baking, a lot, but tries not to eat everything she makes.

“I definitely don’t want to keep all the stuff I make, I’d rather give a lot away and raise money for things I care about,” Quinn said.

Kids and teens will probably continue to be interested in cooking into the foreseeable future. A national survey released in mid-January by New York-based marketing communications firm Hunter found that 71 of respondents who said they have cooked more this year will keep doing so even after the pandemic ends. For the study, Hunter surveyed more than 1,000 adults around the country. But if adults keep cooking at home it makes sense that kids will keep cooking too.

The interest shown by youngsters, and their parents, in cooking will likely spur more demand for kids’ cooking lessons. Stacey Stolman, a cooking instructor based in South Portland and owner of Fun Chefs, recently began teaching virtual cooking classes for kids through the South Portland Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department. She’s teaching a weekly, one-hour class for grades 6-12 that is scheduled to run through March 1. The online lessons include information on nutrition as well as math and geography as it pertains to the cuisine being cooked, plus some rules of etiquette.

On Valentine’s Day, Stolman will teach another online class through South Portland rec, about making sweet treats like chocolate truffles and chocolate-dipped berries.

Stolman has taught cooking to kids in schools and recreation centers in the past. She says kids and their parents have always been interested in cooking and cooking lessons. The difference now is that people are home and have more time on their hands.

“When I teach cooking in a classroom, the end game is to get kids to take the skill into the home kitchen,” said Stolman. “Now, they’re learning to cook, and they’re doing it at home.”

Skillet-Fried Chicken

Serves 4

This recipe, from “Rachael Ray Every Day,” is a favorite of Max Johnson, 15, of Cape Elizabeth.

INGREDIENTS

1/4 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon hot sauce, such as Tabasco
Salt and pepper
4 chicken thighs
4 chicken drumsticks
1 1/4 cups flour
2 teaspoons cayenne
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons paprika
1 egg
3 cups plus 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

DIRECTIONS

In a medium saucepan, bring 4 cups water, the brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, 2 tablespoons salt and 1 tablespoon pepper to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Transfer to a large, heatproof bowl and let cool to room temperature. Add the chicken (make sure it’s submerged completely) and refrigerate for at least 3 hours or overnight. Remove the chicken from the brine and pat dry.

In a bowl, whisk the flour, cayenne, garlic powder, baking powder, paprika, 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. In another bowl, whisk 1 1/2 cups water, the egg and 1 tablespoon of oil. Slowly whisk the flour mixture into the liquid mixture.

In a large (10- to 12-inch) cast-iron skillet, heat the remaining 3 cups oil until it registers 325 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer. Working with half of the chicken, dip each piece into the batter, let the excess drip off, then add to the skillet (the chicken won’t be entirely submerged in the oil). Fry, turning once, until the chicken is deep golden-brown, 12 to 14 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Increase the heat, if necessary, to bring the oil back to 325 degrees. Batter and fry the remaining chicken, then transfer to paper towels to drain.

Cranberry shortbread made by Quinn Daly, 13, of South Portland, who started baking a lot during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Jenna Daly

Cranberry Swirl Shortbread

Makes 16 wedges

This recipe, from “The Perfect Cookie” by America’s Test Kitchen, is a favorite of Quinn Daly, 13, of South Portland.

Time: One and three-quarters hours, plus 20 minutes chilling and 1.5 hours cooling.

INGREDIENTS

4 ounces (1 cup) fresh or frozen cranberries
½ cup (3 1/2 ounces) granulated sugar
½ teaspoon grated orange zest, plus 2 tablespoons juice
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour
½ cup (2 ounces) confectioners’ sugar
½ teaspoon salt
14 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled

DIRECTIONS

Bring cranberries, 1/4 cup granulated sugar, orange zest and juice, and cinnamon to boil in medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until cranberries have burst and juice has just started to thicken, 2 to 4 minutes; let cool for 1 hour.

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees F. Process flour, confectioners’ sugar, salt and remaining 1/4 cup granulated sugar in food processor until combined, about 5 seconds. Scatter butter over top and process until dough starts to come together, about 1 minute. Gently knead dough by hand until no floury bits remain. Divide dough in half and roll each half into 9-inch circle on parchment paper; refrigerate for 20 minutes. Process cooled cranberry mixture in food processor until smooth, about 20 seconds.

Press 1 dough circle into 9-inch tart pan with removable bottom and poke all over with fork. Bake on baking sheet until edges are light golden brown, 15 to 17 minutes, rotating tart pan halfway through baking. Spread dough with 1/4 cup cranberry puree, top with second dough circle, and poke all over with fork. Fill zipper lock bag with remaining cranberry puree. Snip corner off bag and pipe remaining cranberry puree over dough in spiral shape. Score dough into 16 wedges. Between score marks, lightly run knife in opposite direction. Bake until top is pale golden, 25 to 30 minutes, rotating tart pan halfway through baking. Let shortbread cool for 10 minutes, then remove outer ring of tart pan. Cut through score marks, transfer wedges to wire rack, and let cool completely before serving.


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