Making Mistakes & Learning In The Kitchen: A Recipe For Being Free

One of the things that I love about culinary work is that it provides meaningful and purposeful opportunities to engage in assessment. Reviewing what the results were, why you arrived at them, and what you might do differently next time is an integral part of the design process and of making the best possible food treats. What I love about introducing this concept to younger folks, is that it immediately creates freedom from all the emotional baggage that comes from the negative experiences of having been judged and tested. We can have the opportunity to experience how “testing” when employed for the purpose of skill building can give us meaningful feedback from which to learn from. 

design thinking

In July, I completed the first trial run of cooking workshops with my perfectly eclectic group of young people. I was delighted with the enthusiasm and joy that surrounded their explorations and experiments in the kitchen. At the end of it all, I shared with the group my gratefulness because I had experienced a positive and safe place to try out ideas, make mistakes and learn, so that I could improve my work and meet my goals. The thing about learning is that we have to make mistakes, and in the culinary realm when we make mistakes we refine our techniques, understand on a deeper level the why’s that explain success and failure, and we build our problem solving and flexible thinking. Moving together through the challenges that are encountered in the kitchen provides opportunities for modelling how staying encouraged, staying flexible, and looking for learning can lead to unexpected and awesome results. Kitchen work provides opportunities to reflect on how a positive relationship with making mistakes can help us to also meet learning goals in other areas. Using assessment and mistakes to learn in the kitchen is an effective strategy for building capacity in people to employ the design method in other areas of learning and life. 

The key ingredient for me to engage with my mistakes as an opportunity to learn, is my ability to laugh at myself. For example, if I am able to see my performance not as a commentary of who I am as a person -equating my value to my production- but rather to relate to my performance as an indicator of my current level of skills and therefore ability to reach my goals, I can learn. The kitchen, where I reframed for myself the value of making mistakes is the foundation that gave me this freedom.    



Decorated Cookie Adventures

I love accommodating all the different food sensitivities and allergies that a diverse group may have, while still attending to my commitment to use the least unprocessed ingredients as possible. So when I was recently making cookies with a group whom collectively covered all the major allergen bases, I was up for the challenge of making (yummy) gluten-free, vegan, refined-sugar free cookies topped with icing that met all the same requirements. As an extra fun step, I was also interested in learning how we could use natural dyes to colour the icing that we later used piping equipment to layer onto and decorate the cookies.

img_28581.jpgNow one thing that I know about myself is that I am perfect for these challenges because I want to do everything from scratch or use ingredients that are as unprocessed as possible – I don’t like using margarine for example, so I am of course going to experiment with making an alternative. I also know that my loyalty to using unprocessed ingredients in combination with also working with substitutions that accommodate numerous allergens can really back me into a dark alley with no exit if I am unable to demonstrate any flexibility.  For example, gluten-free or vegan on their own is not a big deal, but gluten-free and vegan in baked goods is a bigger reach, especially if you don’t want to use highly processed ingredients. 

The cookies were actually not a big challenge, especially since crunchy cookies are considered to be a good thing (the lack of egg has an undeniable effect on texture).  The real challenge and learning lesson had to do with creating an icing that was also dairy-free and refined-sugar free, and most importantly not yucky! Since I preferred to also skip the use of margarine, I was looking for an alternative.  I also was aiming for an icing that we could colour…so recipes that use thickeners like mashed sweet potato and cacao powder were not on the table (I know this sounds like the strangest icing recipe ever, but have a look at the end of this post for this recipe, try it, and you tell me it doesn’t taste amazing!).  These are certainly a lot of parameters to work with! 

IMG_2863My search for a base to the icing led me to explore and experiment with coconut butter.  What is coconut butter? It is not coconut oil. Basically you can end up with a butter like substance by putting dried coconut into the food processor, and with patience and scrapping down the sides you will eventually end up with a fantastic coconut butter – much the same as you would do to make a homemade nut butter.  What I didn’t do was force it through a sieve which would have helped pull out any of the remaining bits.  Now theoretically, at least according to my theories, this should have worked as a butter substitute to be then combined with standard icing sugar or icing sugar that I made from coconut sugar. But it didn’t. The consistency was far too heavy and liquid to make a good icing. In addition, mixing it with the coconut sugar icing sugar resulted in a product too dark for the natural food dyes.  Now in defence of the coconut butter – I would like to try using it in other things but I can guarantee you that if you like the flavour of coconut it is amazing on its own as a spread over crackers or toast.  And there are so many other possibilities for using it that I am also curious to explore. 

So, with the coconut butter and coconut sugar icing a no go…what did I do?  I went out and bought vegan margarine and mixed it with standard icing sugar.  In the end I was not able to find an icing alternative that we could add natural dyes to that was also dairy free, unrefined-sugar free, and did not rely on margarine.  So, if you have any ideas…please feel free to share them with me! One thing that I also know about myself is that I am a skilled learner because I am so capable of making mistakes!

The natural dyes that we used were all derived from plants! The differences in colour were exciting, but more in the palette of pastels rather than eye popping bright colours.

Natural Food Dye Ideas

Yellow: Turmeric

Green: Kale powder

Blue: blueberry juice

Pink: Hibiscus flower powder

Red/brown: Paprika powder

Brown: Cocoa powder


I am so grateful to these amazing young women for being up for the baking challenge with me!