Jayla Reeves saw the muffin tin and her hopes soared.
"Are we making cupcakes? Maybe organic cupcakes?" she asked.
"Well, no. Corn muffins!" I said, trying to summon equal enthusiasm. Not quite as heart-stopping as cupcakes with frosting, I realized.
I had planned such an easy weeknight meal - chili and corn bread - a dinner I made for my own family dozens of times. But I've learned that nothing is simple when teaching 11-year-old girls to cook in a kitchen that is not your own.
While I was laying out the vegetables, knives, and cutting boards, eager to get the girls chopping, Jayla had turned the chili pot upside down on the stove and was beating it like a drum, while she and Kayla Reid demonstrated African dances they had learned.
"Quite beautiful!" I said. "But we've got a lot to chop - three onions and three peppers - so we've got to get cracking."
Since we were without the tear-preventing onion goggles, I suggested the girls stick their tongues out, or put their tongue between their teeth, and breathe through their mouths, age-old tricks to prevent watering eyes.
Unfortunately for Maliyah Gregg, trying so hard, it wasn't working.
"Cooking momma," she said, tears running down her cheeks, "cooking hurts."
Oh dear. I sent her to splash cold water on her face, while the others finished the onions.
We got the pot upturned, added the oil, and were waiting for it to heat to add the onions, when I started to smell gas.
Yikes. The burner had not lit. I know a match will light a finicky stove, but I was nervous about how much gas had been released - and was taking stock of the fire extinguisher on the wall.
I dispatched Jayla upstairs to find one of the nuns for advice.
Meanwhile, Maliyah, who had been toggling an egg back and forth between her hands, ready to start the corn muffins, saw it slip from her hands to the floor. Splat!
"It's OK," I said. "You have to be careful with eggs. They are fragile. Do you know what that means?"
"Yes, I know. Life is fragile . . . . My heart is fragile."
I stopped short. Wow.
"You do understand," I said. "OK, let's get it wiped up before someone falls."
Sister Mary appeared, quickly opened a window, and then produced a stick lighter. It did the trick, the burner was lit, and we preheated the oven with no problem.
Kayla was at the stove cooking the onions, Hope Wescott was chopping the peppers. Jayla was measuring out the spices, Chamya Davis opened the cans of tomatoes, we were clicking along - when I realized I had forgotten a can of kidney beans.
"Oh, that's the best part!" lamented Jayla. "Can I call my grandmom and see if she has a can?"
She did, and soon the track star and her buddy Kayla dashed out.
"Don't tarry, or I will worry," I told them.
They took my words to heart, and literally were back in three minutes flat.
"I do need to sit down and rest," said Jayla when she reappeared, panting, proudly holding the can of beans high in the air.
"Please thank your grandmother," I said. "She saved the day!"
Hope had taken over the onions, added the turkey, and once it was no longer pink, it was time to add the peppers.
"Now don't add too many," said Kayla. "We don't like it with too many vegetables," said Jayla.
"Remember last week with the cauliflower," said Kayla.
And Hope, bless her heart, came to my defense: "I really liked those potatoes with the cauliflower, I really did."
"I'm so glad, Hope!"
We compromised and added most of the peppers, and the girls sampled the rest of the chopped peppers raw.
"They're really not bad," said Chamya.
Maliyah had buttered the muffin tin, while Chamya was measuring the dry ingredients into a bowl. I showed them how to make a well in the center before adding the milk and the egg and the melted butter.
Maliyah was so looking forward to licking the spoon after everything was mixed, and I promised she could after filling the muffin tins.
But once she took a taste, she made a face. "It doesn't taste good."
I tried it myself, and I knew right away.
"Did you girls add the sugar?"
So all the batter had to be scooped out of the muffin tins, back in the bowl, sugar added, stirred, then back into the tins again. And then into the oven.
They came out just as the chili finished cooking.
Once we sat down to eat, Maliyah and Chamya found the chili just right, (and Maliyah actually ate most of it!) while Kayla, Jayla and Hope wanted more heat.
"That's the beauty, you can adjust it to your taste," I said, as I passed around the spices. "Just a little at a time."
They all wanted butter for the corn muffins. And a sprinkling of sugar on the top. I comforted myself with the thrust of Michael Pollan's new book, Cooked: Anytime you are cooking something yourself, it is better than processed or takeout food.
The girls seemed to agree. Here is what they wrote:
Kayla: "It was fantastic! And fun and so easy to make."
Hope: "The food was sooo good. I added a little cayenne for heat. I liked the corn bread a lot."
Jayla: "It was good. I added more cayenne because I like it spicy and it tasted just like by grandmom's."
Chamya: "I had fun making the corn bread. It was good after we added the sugar."
Maliyah: "I liked the beans and the sauce in the chili, and a few vegetables, too. The corn bread was so sweet and buttery. I loved it so much."
Makes 12 muffins
Butter to grease muffin tin
1 cup flour
3/4 cup cornmeal
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, melted
1. Preheat oven to 425° F. Grease pan with butter.
2. Mix together next five ingredients in a bowl.
3. Measure the milk into a glass measuring cup, add the egg, and whisk to combine.
4. Make a little well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the egg-milk mixture. Whisk until smooth.
5. Add melted butter and stir to combine.
6. Spoon the mixture into muffin tins and bake for 13 to 15 minutes, or until brown on top and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.
- From "The Art of Simple Food" by Alice Waters
Per serving: 124 calories, 5 grams of fat, 25 grams cholesterol, 143 grams sodium, 17 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram dietary fiber, 3 grams of sugar, 3 grams of protein.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
3 onions, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound ground turkey
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 red or orange bell peppers, cored,
seeded, and diced
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 (28-ounce) cans whole peeled plum tomatoes in puree, undrained
1 15.5 ounce can
2 tablespoons dried basil
Fresh ground black pepper
For serving: grated cheddar, sour cream (or Greek yogurt)
1. Cook the onions in the oil over medium-low heat for 10 minutes.
2. Add the ground turkey, and continue to cook until it is no longer pink.
3. Add the garlic and cook for 1 more minute.
4. Add the bell peppers, chili powder, cumin, red pepper flakes, cayenne, and salt. Cook for 1 minute.
5. Crush the tomatoes by hand. Add to the pot, along with the basil. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
6. Add the beans and cook 10 more minutes.
7. Serve with the toppings.
- Adapted from Ina Garten
Per serving:239 calories, 10 grams fat, 58 milligrams cholesterol, 674 milligrams sodium, 19 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams dietary fiber, 12 grams sugar, 19 grams protein.