Popping the Question: Week 2, Northfield and Faribault, MN

Though most of us don’t consider it when we are mindlessly chowing down on the butter soaked fluffy starch at movies, popcorn serves as the mingling ground for multiple fundamental scientific ideas. Principally, the act of popcorn popping deals with the idea of water vaporization. Popcorn is a seed containing the endosperm of the plant surrounded by the yellow-orange hull. Inside the kernel there is a significant amount of water (about 15% of the kernel is water). When the popcorn is heated, the water vaporizes and expands, which eventually exerts enough pressure on the hull so that the popcorn explodes. When this happens, it can be said that the popcorn undergoes a physical change because the chemical composition of the corn is not altered. Additionally, assuming that the water vapor does not leave the system, the popcorn should not experience a change in mass when it transitions from its kernel state to its fluffy popcorn state. To demonstrate these principles, we first popped a kernel of popcorn in a test tube over a candle and allowed the steam to escape so that they could see that there had been water in the system which vaporized. After they grasped this concept, we allowed the students to explore the concept of preservation of mass. To do so, we weighed a half cup of un-popped popcorn kernels and recorded the weights. We then had the students pop the kernels and reweigh them to see how the mass had changed. Most had predicted that the mass would decrease because they were light and fluffy once they popped. In actuality, we did see a decrease in mass, which was probably due to a combination of hungry students and the loss of water vapor. Though we didn’t address it in this lesson, it would have been relevant to discuss the concept of density.
As we munched on the plain popcorn, we discussed how the popcorn was kind of bland, and how we could add different flavors to make it yummier to snack on. At Northfield Middle School, the kids then divided into four separate groups and each followed a topping recipe to spice up the popcorn a little bit. The flavors included apple pie, maple brown sugar, soy sauce-wasabi, and rosemary/garlic/Parmesan. The kids loved all of the types of popcorn, but they were especially keen on the apple pie popcorn and gobbled it all up within minutes. At Faribault we again had a fairly low turnout and so we decided to split into two groups instead of four.  Rather than adhering to a recipe, these groups focused on the concept of culinary creativity to create flavors that strayed from our recipes. They ended up with a burnt salted  caramel, a brown sugar, a Parmesan and rosemary and a “spicy spicy” (garlic, pepper flakes, wasabi and soy sauce) flavored snack. Again, the popcorn was incredibly  successful, but the students particularly enjoyed the brown sugar variety.
It is safe to say that from a culinary angle, the popcorn was an enormous hit. The strength of the lesson was only weakened by the fact that the weights of the popcorn were inconsistent so the concept of conservation of mass was not effectively taught.  Aside from this, the lesson was effective because, not only were the students eager to try the perhaps unfamiliar combinations, but they embraced the freedom and challenge of culinary creativity and wound up with incredible creations.

Written by Rebecca Fairchild ’18

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Young Chefs Spreads to West St. Paul, MN

As April showers begin (hopefully) to bring May flowers, they’ve also brought the newest expansion of Young Chefs: to the Dodge Nature Center in West St. Paul, MN! We’re excited to announce the newest Young Chefs Project:

The Thomas Irving Dodge Nature Center, MN (2015-Present)

The Dodge Nature Center, an environmental education and habit restoration in West St. Paul, will be incorporating our curriculum in their summer day camp, combining culinary science education with nature and agriculture-based programming.


Noodling Around: Week 1, Northfield, MN

Young Chefs convened in Northfield last Wednesday after the spring break hiatus. Wednesday’s lesson called for an assortment of delicious pastas. There was homemade spaghetti, ravioli filled with pumpkin, and ravioli filled with greens and mushrooms. All these different types of pastas were topped with a delicious homemade marinara sauce.

To begin, the young chefs broke into smaller groups. One group was in charge of making the pasta dough and feeding it through the pasta roller until it was thin enough to be cut into spaghetti. Another group was in charge of filling the ravioli with their sumptuous ingredients and then pressing them and preparing them for the stove. The last group made the marinara sauce with some olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, sage, and crushed tomatoes. The sauce stewed until some of the water evaporated, leaving a thick yet fluid sauce.

The young chefs had fun with the hands-on cooking. They got to take turns kneading the pasta dough and by the end, many were covered with floury handprints. The sauce spattered as it was poured into the pan and the chefs excitedly tasted the sauce throughout the process. One chef called for more salt, another called for extra herbs, and a third called for the tomatoes to be crushed more thoroughly. At the ravioli station, chefs got to practice putting different fillings in the ravioli. Sometimes there was too much filling and the ravioli burst under the weight. By the end, however, the chefs had perfected their pasta proportions.

Finally, the chefs got to eat their creations. We sat around discussing what we liked, what we didn’t, what we would do differently next time. All in all, everything was very tasty.

Written by Sam Bearak ’17

Noodling Around: Spring Term Week 1, Faribault, MN

For the first Young Chefs lesson of the term, we decided to explore one of the most loved and most consumed foods in our diets- pasta. Not only is pasta delicious, but it’s also incredibly versatile and lends itself well to culinary creativity. For this lesson, we did not follow a lesson plan that dealt specifically with the scientific component of the cooking. Rather, using the myriad of pasta possibilities available, we explored the wealth of possibility in food and cooking.
With the beginning of the term, there was some confusion about the program participants, and the group ended up being very small— only three students. Though we had planned for more students, this gave us a unique opportunity to really get to know the students that we were working with and ensured that they each had a large amount of responsibility for the cooking. Though we were initially slightly disappointed with the turn-out, this was really the only hitch in the plan and it ended up being a fun break from the typical larger group setting.
Before we arrived, we had prepared a standard batch of pasta dough to ensure that we had enough time to make toppings and roll and cut the pasta. First, we fed small chunks of pasta dough into the pasta machine and cranked each through multiple times to gradually flatten and stretch the dough out. As the boys enthusiastically cranked the dough through, they marveled at the long sheets as they emerged from the machine. As they were working their biceps cranking sheet after sheet of dough through the machine, they speculated about the composition of the dough and asked about the role of carbohydrates and different grains that they noticed were mentioned on the flour bag. Once the sheets were rolled out and had dried for a couple of minutes, we began the ultimate test of pasta prowess— feeding the long sheets through the pasta cutting attachments without breaking the noodles as they came out. It turned out that they were pasta masters and had no problem cutting noodles, even if they were well over six feet long!
As the noodle formation was underway, a group of volunteers sautéed some mushrooms, garlic and spinach which would be used for our next type of pasta— ravioli. To make the ravioli, we used wanton wrappers which we filled with combinations of ricotta, mushrooms, spinach, mozzarella and goat cheese. As we filled the ravioli, we stressed the value of creativity and ingenuity in cooking. Eventually, we had created dozens and dozens of ravioli and significant heaps of fettuccine and spaghetti. Once they were cooked, we tossed the plain noodles with brown butter, served the ravioli plain, and dug into our delicious pasta feast.
From rolling out the dough as fast as they could, to measuring the noodles against the tallest person in the room, to sampling the mystery-flavored raviolis, the boys were extremely engaged in and excited by the lesson and we deemed it a resounding success. Over the course of the lesson, the pasta stayed true to its reputation— an easy, delicious and creative dish that everyone loves.

Written by Rebecca Fairchild ’18