Cooking up fun at Thrive Academy

A zucchini ribbon tasting with instructor and author April Hamilton (left). Photos by Thrive Academy Photography Club.

When each of my daughters was in kindergarten, I loaded up my KitchenAid mixer, 10 pounds of flour and some yeast and strapped on my apron to make 25 loaves of bread with her class. The kids took home their loaf and the recipe and I came back for more, wishing for a dedicated cooking space at school.

My heart sang at the thought of starting a cooking club at a school in Baton Rouge. I learned about Thrive Academy and some of the club offerings at my kitchen table. Talking with Laura Miller, who has worked with Thrive’s club program through the Everybody Plays Foundation, I proposed a cooking club and she connected me with EP program director Erin Sullivan. My motto is “The kitchen is my playground.” We had a match.

Thrive Academy, the Louisiana State Charter School on Brightside Drive, offers a unique educational model to students who have obstacles in their lives that a boarding school can help them overcome. In addition to small class size and mentor-led dormitory living, the students thrive with after-school club activities.

We launched the cooking club as a pilot program with sixth-grade girls, an all-hands-on-deck Taco Tuesday spread in February. Throughout the semester, I cooked my way through every residential unit, working to get as many of the 160 students’ hands and hearts in the kitchen as possible.

Cooking Club launched officially at the start of this school year. So many students signed up to cook that we meet twice a week and start a new group every six to eight weeks. Aprons on, we peel, whisk, sizzle and feast. We talk about science and math, favorite flavors and discovering new tastes. I always sprinkle in some nutrition thoughts, asking them “Who wants to be strong, smart and successful?” reminding them the importance of making good food choices.

“Every year we evolve, working to match each student with activities that inspire, motivate and energize them,” says Sarah Broome, executive director of Thrive. Broome entrusted the cooking club to cater the celebration for the groundbreaking of the new school building in September. The guests were wowed, and the young chefs took tremendous pride in the accolades. When the current building is vacant, it’s our hope to dedicate one of the 12 rooms for the cooking club. Thrive Academy is paving a successful path for these students. It truly is a joy to play in the kitchen with them at this life-changing school.

Note: We cook from my cookbook, Counter Intelligence: The Best of April’s Kitchen, a lot. The recipes are fresh and un-fussy. We’ve done bakeshop with Perfect Biscuits and Best. Brownies. Ever. Three Cookies in One. We’ve made BLT Salad with Herbed Buttermilk Dressing, “Back to School Alphabet Soup” with homemade vegetable stock (we made this from saved-in-the-freezer vegetable trimmings), Inside Out Tacos, Quesadillas with Guacamole, and Breakfast Burritos. Buttermilk Pancakes. We sing songs and break bread (whole wheat!), and every kitchen session carries a different tune. It’s the best!


CHICKEN ALFREDO, THRIVE STYLE

2 medium zucchini
3 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
2 garlic cloves, minced or crushed, divided
1½ tsp. Cajun seasoning blend, divided
1 lb. boneless chicken breast tenders
12 oz. fettuccine pasta
1 Tbsp. flour
½ cup evaporated milk
1 cup milk
¾ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
Trim ends off zucchini and, using a vegetable peeler, thinly slice zucchini lengthwise into ribbons. Heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add half of garlic and the zucchini ribbons. Sprinkle in ½ tsp. Cajun seasoning and toss and cook until zucchini is just tender, about 3 minutes. Remove to a bowl.
Heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil in the skillet over medium heat. Sprinkle chicken on both sides with remaining 1 tsp. Cajun seasoning. Cook in batches until light golden and cooked through, about 3 minutes per side. Remove to a cutting board and slice into bite-size pieces when cool enough to handle.
Cook pasta al dente according to package directions. Drain and return to pasta pot.
Meanwhile, make sauce: In a small bowl, whisk flour into evaporated milk to blend.
Heat remaining 1 Tbsp. olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add remaining garlic and stir. Add the 1 cup milk and bring to a simmer, then whisk in evaporated milk-flour mixture. Stir until mixture thickens.
Pour sauce over drained pasta in pasta pot and toss together. Add zucchini ribbons and chicken and half each of the Parmesan cheese and parsley, stirring to combine.
Divide evenly among 6 bowls, sprinkle each with remaining Parmesan and parsley, and serve.
Adapted from Ellie Krieger’s Comfort Food Fix

MINI PUMPKIN CHEESECAKES

12 small round gingersnap cookies
8 oz. cream cheese
½ cup brown sugar
1 egg
½ cup canned pumpkin
1 Tbsp. sour cream
Pinch salt
1 tsp. vanilla
½ tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
1 cup heavy whipping cream, well chilled
1 Tbsp. powdered sugar
Additional cinnamon for sprinkling
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 12-cup standard-size muffin pan with paper liners, and place a gingersnap cookie in bottom of each.
Place cream cheese in a large bowl and blend with an electric mixer on low until creamy. Add brown sugar and egg, and blend to combine. Mix in pumpkin, sour cream, salt, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg. Mix on low until smooth. Evenly divide cheesecake mixture among muffin cups (a cookie dough scoop works great), and smooth tops with the back of a spoon. Bake until just set, about 15 minutes. Cool cheesecakes in pan on a rack for 30 minutes, then chill until cold and set, at least 1 hour and up to overnight.
While cheesecakes are chilling, whip cream: Pour cream into a large bowl and whisk in powdered sugar. Whisk until soft to stiff peaks form. (This is a great group project with a room full of kids! A large stainless bowl is light and unbreakable, perfect for passing around.) Spoon whipped cream into a large zip-top bag or pastry bag fitted with a star tip.
Remove cups from pan and pipe each with cream. Sprinkle with cinnamon and serve. (Keep any leftover cheesecakes chilled in a covered container for up to 3 days.)

April Hamilton, the author of Counter Intelligence: The Best of April’s Kitchen, is a happy transplant from West Virginia and now lives, cooks and eats in Baton Rouge with her husband and youngest daughter, where she blogs about her food experiences at aprilskitchencounter.com.

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