With the holiday season upon us, I thought it would be fun to talk further with my colleague and friend, Chef Peter Gilhooly. Chef Peter leads the culinary team at Chartwells K12 and we work collaboratively to design menus and share our passion about food with students across the country.
Today, we’re cooking up a few recipes in schools that we thought you and your families might enjoy: Apple-Cranberry Crisp and Sweet Potato Biscuits. We both believe that giving kids the opportunities to cook at an early age is one of the best ways to inspire healthy eating and a love of family mealtime.
I asked Chef Peter a few questions; read on for more of his insights from our conversation:
Margie: As a kid, what was your favorite food to eat at the holidays? Do you have a fond food memory from the holidays?
Chef Peter: Every family has a treasured dish and for me, it’s always been my mom’s sweet potato casserole. This is one of those family-favorite recipes that’s been passed down through the generations. I always look forward to the crunchiness of the toasted pecans, the roasted sweet potatoes and the aromas of cinnamon, nutmeg and lightly caramelized brown sugar, all filling the house! That dish is always a holiday treat—no matter what your age!
What makes this recipe so special is that it’s a once-a-year event. The holidays are the only time you see, smell and taste this dish and it’s something that my family and I look forward to every year. Does your family have a dish that’s been passed down from generation to generation? If not, now’s the time to start. Even if you do, it’s never too late to add a new one into the holiday meal repertoire.
Margie: It’s always fun to mix the traditional holiday foods that everyone is always looking for with some new holiday recipes. What are some kid-friendly recipes you serve in our schools that parents can easily replicate?
Chef Peter: Two favorites that we serve at school and have become favorites in my own house, as well, include: Apple Cranberry Crisp—it’s full of fall flavors and local apples such as Jonah Gold, Pink Lady or Fuji, this recipe is both simple and sophisticated even for the youngest palates. Apples, cranberries, oats and cinnamon are the standouts of this dish. Sweet Potato Biscuits—cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and roasted sweet potatoes give you a twist on a traditional biscuit that is special for the holidays or throughout the year
I’d say that parents can certainly make them at home, but they’re even better for a family baking activity which can become a holiday tradition in and of itself. As you know, there’s something about baking that goes a long way with kids! A perfect way to get kids excited about cooking and tasting new foods.
(Recipes for Apple Cranberry Crisps and Sweet Potato Biscuits at the bottom of this article.)
Margie: Once you get the kids in the kitchen, what are your tips for getting them involved in the prep process?
Chef Peter: First and foremost, make cooking fun and keep it fun no matter the spills or the recipe hiccups. That’s been key with students in our schools and my own daughter. I’ve also found that the more you show kids the tools you use to cook, the more they love the process.
As chefs, we call it mis en place (French term for everything in its place), but kids love to see the cutting boards, rubber spatulas, whisks, measuring cups, etc. The list goes on and on. I always talk about each item and how it’s used. It’s not just the food but the art and assembly of putting together a recipe.
A secret to cooking is that it can be really educational. You put math skills to the test by measuring ingredients. See science in action when you blend ingredients. My favorite is that cooking is often the best test of all five senses. Perfect for even the littlest of kids to learn.
It’s also important to let kids know where their food comes from. For example, many kids are amazed when they learn that the sweet potatoes we use in our biscuits grow underground or that cranberries are grown in a bog. This is how you get kids engaged in the process.
Last, but not least, tell stories. And then tell more stories. Every recipe has a story and cooking at the holidays is a time to immerse yourself in the tradition of food and family. I always think that time spent together in the kitchen is a good time to keep electronics by the wayside (I’ll give you an exception to take a photo of the finished product at the end!).
Margie: What are some tips to get kids to try a new food during the holiday?
Chef Peter: Margie, you’re the expert here on getting kids to try foods year-round, but I’ll tell you that the Sweet Potato Biscuits are a great example of introducing a new food and flavor in something that is both familiar and loved by kids. I always think it’s important to involve kids in the cooking process—let them taste the different ingredients as you’re cooking so it becomes fun and not formal.
I’ve always found that the more kids are involved in the prep process from beginning, the more willing they are to try the finished product in the end. Kids really do take pride in what they make and presenting a dish to a relative saying “I made that” is the perfect way to empower a kid to try something on their own. It doesn’t become something you have to eat; instead, it’s a new food you want to eat and are proud to share.
Margie: The holidays are a time when many families cook lots of food and much of it from scratch which inevitably creates more food waste. Do you have any suggestions for keeping food waste to a minimum?
Chef Peter: I think it’s important to teach kids to be mindful of where food comes from. Then, look for creative ways to use leftovers or items that may be sitting by the wayside in the refrigerator. While we share an apple-cranberry crisp recipe here today, many other fruits can be added or substituted to use what you have available. Be creative!
For example, if you roast a turkey, challenge kids to think of different ways they would like to eat it again—in a sandwich or panini with creative ingredients or open-faced sandwiches with stuffing. Perhaps create a turkey bowl with mashed potatoes as a base and then add lots of veggies. The opportunities are endless!
Margie: The holidays are a special time in our schools. What does your team of chefs and cooks do to make the holidays special in schools across the country?
Chef Peter: There are so many things we love to do in schools. From creating special menus and sharing special recipes with students to cook at home, to inviting families to join students in our cafeterias and volunteering in the community, we make sure that mealtime is festive.
In addition, our chefs and cooks also actively participate in so many community activities—organizing food drives, delivering meals to those in need and volunteering at local nonprofit organizations. The holidays are special times for our students, our schools and our communities and it’s an honor for our team to play a role in making them memorable for all.
Apple Cranberry Crisp Recipe
Makes: 6 Servings
For the Crumble Topping
6 tbsp. All-purpose flour
3½ tbsp. Light brown sugar
½ tsp. Ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp. Kosher salt
¾ cup Quick dry oats
4 tbsp. Unsalted butter
- Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix together until crumbly and set aside.
For the Filling
3 tbsp. Apple juice
As needed Hot water (enough to cover dried cranberries to reconstitute them)
1 ounce Dried Cranberries
1 ½ cups Sliced fresh local apples (such as braeburn, honeycrisp or granny smith)
1 ½ tbsp. Granulated sugar
1/8 tsp. Ground cinnamon
1 tsp. Fresh lemon juice
- Place cranberries in a bowl and cover with enough hot water to soften them until they slightly soften, which will take only a minute or 2 and drain them.
- Combine the cranberries and sliced apples in a baking dish and sprinkle with granulated sugar, ground cinnamon and lemon juice. Stir to combine.
- Pour the apple juice over the apples.
Assembly & Baking
- Evenly sprinkle the crumb topping over the filling.
- Bake until golden brown: Traditional oven at 425 degrees for about 35—45 minutes or Convection oven at 350 degrees for about 25—35 minutes.
- This crisp is BEST served warm, but it may also be served cold.
Sweet Potato Biscuit Recipe
Makes: 8 – 10 Biscuits
1 medium Fresh local sweet potato
½ tsp. Honey
2 cups All-purpose flour
2 tbsp. Light brown sugar
¼ tsp. Ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. Ground ginger
Pinch Ground nutmeg
½ tsp. Salt
6 tbsp. Cold diced butter
3 tbsp. Milk
- Bake the sweet potato at 350 degrees until it is soft, about an hour. Remove and discard the skin and mash or puree the flesh until it is smooth. Add the honey and mix.
- While preheating your oven to 400 degrees, combine in a bowl the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and salt. Mix well to remove lumps.
- Add the butter and use a pastry blender to cut the butter into the dry mixture until it becomes small pebble size.
- Add milk and pureed sweet potato and stir just until it forms a dough (do not over mix).
- Turn it out in a ball onto a lightly floured work surface.
- Knead the dough a few times until it is soft and uniform in texture.
- Roll it out into an inch thickness.
- Use biscuit cutters and press straight down to cut. Cut as close as possible for maximum yield. Place them on a greased or lined baking pan.
- Bake for approximately 15 minutes until they have golden brown color around the edges.