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November 12, 2018

Annabel Langbein on why it's never too early to get kids in the kitchen baking treats of their own...

As told to Bianca Zander 

I love the expression, "keeping the tins full," which I think goes back to the war era. I have two young kids and I aim to fill up the freezer with baked treats for lunchboxes (when I'm not too busy). Did you grow up with those sorts of ideas and traditions?

Yes, totally. My mother was a home science graduate so she was amazingly well-organised in terms of everything we ate. We had a pantry with about six different biscuit containers and two or three cake and slice tins which were always full. My friends always wanted to swap lunches and come over for afternoon tea. She also did lots of preserving in the summer, bottling jars of fruit for our breakfasts.

What freezes well?

So many more things than you can imagine – but the trick is not to let the freezer become a cemetery for dead food and little bits of leftovers. I tend to freeze dips and spreads, doughs and pastries, cooked meals like stews and oven-bakes, ratatouille, lasagne, soups. Label and date everything and plan to use it within three months. Things that don’t freeze well are white sauce and egg yolks (although the whites freeze well). 

Is home baking better for us than store bought? Can parents cut out some of the sugar when baking for toddlers?

With home baking you know exactly what is going into it. Because it’s made fresh there are no preservatives or colourants or flavour enhancers, so the end result is a lot less processed. In my cookbook ESSENTIAL Volume Two: Sweet Treats for Every Occasion, I have worked through all the recipes and cut down the sugar where I can. Because baking is all about chemistry you can’t eliminate the sugar entirely – it’s key to the texture of baked goods, as well as the flavour. But I’ll often use dates or honey instead of refined sugar, and I’ve included a special index for those recipes in the back of the book, along with gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan indexes.  

You’ve said you found your confidence and your passion in the kitchen as a youngster – how wonderful!

My mother loved to cook and whenever she was baking I would hang around, like most kids, waiting to lick the beater. Before I knew it I was mixing and rolling and bringing trays of beautiful biscuits out of the oven. It was so satisfying to feel a sense of success and usefulness. I learned very quickly that through cooking I could feel confident and not only make myself happy but give a lot of happiness to other people as well.

Very small children love baking – from about 18 months they can stand on a chair at the kitchen bench – but initially it requires a lot of patience on the part of the head cook. Did you get your own kids involved in baking early on? What tips do you have?

I was incredibly busy when my kids were little and I often missed out on things like bathtime or the kindy drop-off or pick-up. But I always made time to hang out in the kitchen with them. They both loved to bake and, like me, they derived so much pleasure from creating sweet treats. I have a memory of Sean aged about two on the floor early one Sunday morning mixing flour and eggs and milk to make pancakes – there was flour everywhere, but he was so happy. I think not worrying about the mess is my biggest tip – it’s just mess and can be cleaned up. Start with simple recipes that don’t have too many steps and make things they like. Little kids can lose interest quickly so they need fast results. And don’t use expensive ingredients or you will start to get anxious if things get wasted.

What are the best recipes to start kids on?

My ultimate chocolate cake has proved a huge hit with hundreds of very small children – everything just goes into the mixer and you mix it up and it comes out in a big perfect cake, or a bunch of cupcakes. My sticky buns are another winner – kids love working with the dough and it doesn’t mind being mixed to death. And a simple biscuit recipe like my basic butter biscuits is another good starter – the kids can mix the dough, roll it out and decorate the biscuits with hundreds and thousands or chocolate or nuts – they love that. And pancakes and pikelets – kids love making them in fun shapes. All those recipes are in my new book. 

What are the best treats in the book that can be held by chubby little fists? 

I’m thinking doughnuts, shrewsburys, pikelets… All soft and doughy treats. Yum! I have never known a child who can’t get their chubby little fists around anything that is sweet, but if you’re keen to avoid mess then bite-sized morsels are best. Biscuits and slices are so easy to make and perfect for lunchboxes and snacks on the run. 

When it comes to mealtimes, kids are drawn to plain dishes with lots of butter and cheese and carbs, such as macaroni cheese. What were your family staples when your kids were growing up?

My kids had the plainest appetites ever. Rose would only eat plain boiled pasta with olive oil and parmesan and Sean liked mashed potatoes and chops or sausages. But rest assured they do grow out of it, and now they eat everything.  

Any tips for getting toddlers to eat vegetables?

When she was about four years old, Rose refused to eat anything green and would climb under the table and cry until the offending item was removed from her plate! It was during this period that I developed my Fridge Fixings concept. I would make big batches of sauces and spice mixes and dressings and keep them in the fridge so Ted and I could add them to meals and eat something more interesting without having to cook a whole other meal. I found the best way to get veggies into food was in disguise. I would puree vegetables like carrots, onion and pumpkin and add them to bolognaise sauce, lasagne and meatballs, and even into baking – beetroot, carrots, pumpkin and zucchini are fabulous in cakes and loaves. 

Gourmet food delivery services are all the rage. Have we forgotten about the old favourites we grew up on such as boiled egg and soldiers?

Yes and I find this quite fascinating as you lose that idea of family favourites and family traditions as every day there is something new. Personally, I like having some familiar food in my repertoire. I prefer to run a menu of recipes for each season so we make the most of what’s fresh and local and eat more in tune with the weather and seasons.

Purchase Annabel's cookbook, ESSENTIAL Volume Two: Sweet Treats for Every Occasion, here.

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