Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Mathematical Kitchen!

While reading the first couple of sections of Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice and getting ready to embark on the awesome BBA Challenge, I happened to be simultaneously planning our school's new targeted intervention period. (For anyone who doesn't already know, in my non-mommy, non-cooking, non-baking life, I am also a 7th grade English teacher.) There is so much math and science in the second section of the book (The Twelve Stages of Bread: Evoking the fullness of flavor from the grain, p. 48). To be honest, even after reading these sections twice, I still don't understand many of the principles he covers. (Science was never my strong suit.)

Anyway, the focus of this period is targeting students' needs in order to raise test scores (oh the joy). But every couple of months, we're having a two week break for a purely fun "choice" time. Suddenly, I had an awesome brainstorm. Chatting with my friend P (the one who sent me the Auntie Abby email jokingly asking me to bake her pretzels), who teaches math at my school, I said, "We should team teach a choice time on baking bread!" I figured we could use the bread baking as an incentive to figure out all of the math and formulas in Peter Reinhart's book. Luckily, she said yes, and we started planning like mad.

P had the beautiful brainstorm of calling our class The Mathematical Kitchen. (We figured we'd only get sweet, geeky kids who would be willing to do math during their choice time.) We also realized that, especially this first time, baking bread was probably a bit too ambitious. We only see our students for 30 minutes, three times a week, for two weeks. We couldn't quite figure out how to break up the bread baking process, and I wanted to test it out first to make sure the bread dough could handle so many waiting periods in the fridge.

So we switched to cookies. Meanwhile, the students - all 803 of them - got to fill out their choice surveys, and I (lucky me) got to enter their choices into the computer. TMK blew the competition away! Even with choices like playing computer games, walking outside, breakdancing, reading graphic novels, playing other games, and art, we had more requests than anyone! Unfortunately we could only take 32, which was way more kids than we'd initially planned on.

So with a trip to the dollar store and a trip to the local warehouse store (25 pound bag of flour, 20 pound bag of sugar), we were off. We made eight groups of four, dove into math, and had an absolute blast!

Day 1: Students were given a giant mixing bowl full of lentils, a set of measuring cups and measuring spoons, and a worksheet asking them to figure out as many ways as possible of making 2 cups, 1/3 cup, 1 tablespoon. We wanted them to begin to really understand and have a visual picture of fractions.

Day 2: Students worked on doubling, tripling, and halving recipes.

Day 3: Students read this article from the Post-Gazette on cookie chemistry. We talked about the functions of all of the different ingredients, and we kind of wished we had a science teacher working with us, too! Students were given a basic sugar cookie recipe and were told to tamper with it...experiment, hypothesize, see what would happen if....

Day 4: Students finished creating their new recipe and then halved it. Then they mixed their dry ingredients. We gave them paper bowls filled with flour and paper cups with salt and baking powder. Watching them measure the flour was pretty hysterical: grabbing giant handfuls, tamping it down with their fingers..... I'm guessing the measurements were not exact. =)

Day 5: Was insane!!! In 30 minutes, we: handed out recipes, baggies full of dry ingredients, paper bowls full of sugar, sticks of butter, latex gloves, mixing bowls, measuring cups and spoons, and giant wooden spoons; handed out and helped put together hand mixers; explained that they needed to reserve 1/4 cup of sugar for coating their cookies; measured out vanilla; handed out and cracked eggs; had students cream the butter and sugar, add the vanilla and eggs, and then the dry ingredients; had students roll out 12 cookies, roll those cookies in sugar, and place them on a plate; labeled plates and covered them with plastic wrap; and got everything picked up and cleaned up. It was pure craziness and so much fun! We were short two mixers, so two groups had to mix by hand. They were crabby, but they actually had an easier time. P had left the butter out overnight, but our school gets so cold at night that it hadn't softened much. The kids mixing by hand (and they were literally mixing by hand: eight glove-covered hands in the bowl squishing the dough!) used the warmth of their hands to get the butter to the right temperature and texture. I so wish we'd had a camera to take pictures!!

Unfortunately, in my rush to get back to my own classroom, I stacked the plates on top of one another. When I went to put them into the fridge after my class, I had one plate of nicely rolled cookies, two plates of slightly smushed rolled cookies, and five plates of pancakes.

That night, I baked like a mad woman. Eight sheet pans of cookies: re-rolled, re-rolled in sugar, flattened, sprinkled with additional sugar, into the oven for 12-14 minutes, cooling on the pans for 10 minutes, cooling on the counter, and then placed into baggies and labeled with the group name. While most of dough looked pretty standard going into the oven, the look and texture differences upon coming out of the oven were fascinating!

Day 6: Taste testing day! The kids got their baggies of cookies, a placemat with a spot for each cookie, and a taste-testing comparison worksheet. One student from each group was the waiter or waitress and delivered a cookie to each of the other groups. While P led them in a discussion of how each tasted, which were the best and the worst, and what changes each group had made to the original recipe, I demonstrated the actual recipe. I whipped up a triple batch of the cookies in another mad dash.

This weekend, I've rolled out 80 cookies, which are in the freezer waiting to be baked on Monday night. And (another of P's brilliant ideas) I picked up blue and yellow sugar at the store tonight so I can decorate them with our school colors. On Tuesday, our last TMK class, we will have our celebration and enjoy more cookies (which will hopefully turn out, despite the chaotic atmosphere I made them in on Thursday!).

If schools valued it, and if it didn't include sewing, I could seriously consider teaching middle school home ec. It is so much fun to watch the kids experiment; it's pretty clear that many of them do not have much experience in the kitchen. How lucky I feel to get to share my love of cooking and food with them, and to show them how fun it can be! It also makes me wonder about a charter school...English, math, science, social studies, art, music....all centered around cooking......... A girl can dream, right?

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