When it comes to breaking the "don't play with your food" rule, I admit to being a first-class offender. I think food is and should be fun to play with, especially while you're in the process of making it. This philosophy has served me well when it comes to getting my kids to take an interest in cooking. One element we enjoy is the science of food.
Watching yeast come to life right in front of our eyes never ceases to amaze, no matter how many hundreds of times my family has prepared bread. My youngest is the official butter maker in my house, as watching the liquid cream transform into rich, yellow globules of butter is endlessly fascinating and using the stand mixer makes it considerably less of a back-breaking task than it was when our great-great-grandmothers were churning it by hand. It's yet another opportunity to express how easy life is for kids today (insert eye-rolling here). Just whipping egg whites into a soft-peaked foam can be interesting. Of course, watching the foam transform into a lofty souffl is even better.
One of our favorite food-science experiments comes in the form of homemade ricotta. Cheesemaking, while it sounds like an arduous and intimidating task, can be incredibly easy if you pick the right cheese, and ricotta is on that list. There's also a certain "Little House on the Prairie" feeling to this kind of DIY experience that is inherently interesting to kids.
All you need to do to make what is likely to be the best ricotta cheese you've ever had is to bring milk, acid and salt to a simmer and watch the magic happen. Just make sure your kids are right by your side, as it takes place quickly. Soon you'll see the milk appear to separate into curds and a watery liquid called whey. (Remember the nursery rhyme "Little Miss Muffet/ sat on her tuffet/ eating her curds and whey"? Now you'll know what it looks like.) The whole mixture is poured into a cheesecloth-lined colander and strained, leaving you with a delicious, wholesome creamy cheese.
Next on the fun-to-do list? Use the ricotta. Of course, you can put it in your favorite recipe, anywhere you would use purchased ricotta. But the homemade version is so exceptional that it can easily be the star of the show. One of the more summery ways I find for it is to simply spoon some onto sliced ripe tomatoes, scatter some fresh mint on top with a little freshly ground pepper and sea salt, and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. The young Laura Ingalls may not have eaten it this way, but it's mighty fine all the same.
So the next time your kids groan at the thought of another school year learning about photosynthesis and cell structures, just bring them into the kitchen, where science is fun and delicious.
Meredith Deeds of Edina is the author of "Everyday to Entertaining" and "The Big Book of Appetizers." Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @meredithdeeds.