Playing with your food
By PAMELA DAVIS and JANET K. KEELER
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 2000
The oven, which has been updated over the years and now looks like a microwave, was just the beginning. There are now toys that make pizza, bubble gum, snow cones and other treats.
"I think it's educational that kids learn to cook. It's important that they learn science, math, language and a lot of other things that are practiced through the experience of cooking," says child development authority Stevanne Auerbach.
Auerbach, who goes by "Dr. Toy," is the author of Toys for a Lifetime and Dr. Toy's Smart Play. She says it's not just the toy but the active playing that's a valuable learning experience.
"It's a good idea to use the playthings to segue into real foods that they enjoy making," Auerbach says.
Unlike other toys, however, foodmaking playthings need parental supervision.
"Most of them light up with an electric light bulb, and there is a problem with kids getting burned either on putting their hand in the oven or on the pans, which are very hot," said toy tester Joanne Oppenheim, co-author of the annual Oppenheim Toy Portfolio.
"Kids love them. The problem is that parents are busy and generally not available. The best advice we can give people who are going to buy (foodmaking toys) is that they really do need supervision," Oppenheim says.
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We had the best intentions when we set out to test some new foodmaking toys. We gathered five products, hauled them to a home kitchen and looked forward to seeing the culinary creations that would come out of them. Two 5-years-olds were brought in to taste our treats. The toys are all recommended for children 8 and older, and we would concur. Still, we wanted to see if adults could operate them.
That was the plan.
So many things went wrong in such a short period of time, we forgot we were dealing with toys. Frustrated, we came away thinking that it might be easier for parents to let the kids cook with real bowls, ingredients and appliances, as long as an an adult guided them. We did, however, remind ourselves that kids don't care how much of a mess they make and that they will want these things anyway.
If you're going to buy any of these toys as holiday presents, take the instructions from the boxes before you wrap them. We didn't open the boxes until the day we tested the playthings. This was a big mistake.
We didn't know that the Barbie Bake With Me Oven required one "standard frosted" 100-watt light bulb and that the bulb could NOT be "long life" or "soft white."
We didn't know we would need a screwdriver to open Barbie's oven to put the the light bulb inside.
We didn't know the Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream Bar Maker required half and half and almost a whole container of salt.
While we stayed behind to set up the toys and read the instruction manuals, our photographer went to the grocery store to buy light bulbs and cream. Though we told him the wattage, we forgot to tell him to avoid the "long life" and "soft white" varieties.
We ended up baking with a long-life 100-watt bulb. We're blaming the bulb, which may not have gotten hot enough, for our failure.
Here is the outcome of our tests:
Barbie Bake With Me Oven (Tara Toys, $20): On the down side, the toy's instructions are difficult to read because the type is small and scrunched together. Like the Easy Bake Oven, this toy operates on a push-in/pull-out method. The baking tin rests on the end of a long wand and is pushed into the baking compartment. Pulling it out is a little tricky, and when you do it too often, as we did to check for doneness when it seemed to be taking too long, bad things happen.
The cupcake tin flipped over a few times, and the frequent pushing and pulling got batter all over the cooking unit and the instruction manual. Frankly, it was a mess.
The good news is that even though the cupcakes came out uneven and sloppy, and the chocolate icing looked like a glop of mud, our kid taste-tester claimed them to be "not too bad."
The oven comes with lots of accessories, including mixes, an icing bag, a gift box, doilies and candy decorations.
Kellogg's Eggo Waffle Cakes Bake Set (Hasbro, $10): This new bake set is made for use in the Easy Bake Oven, and herein lies the problem. Just like the Barbie Bake With Me Oven, the Easy Bake Oven requires a 100-watt bulb that is neither "long life" or "soft white." A screwdriver is needed to open the light compartment.
The instructions for the wafflelike cake were easy to read and included step-by-step diagrams, helpful for children. The kit included cake batter, blueberry flavoring and marshmallow creme mix. The mixes can also be baked in a conventional oven.
We had that pesky "long life" bulb to contend with, so the waffle cake still wasn't fully cooked long after the required 12-minute baking time. Again, maybe this was our fault.
The batter tasted pretty good, though.
Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream Bar Factory (Wham-O, $30): The subname for the Ice Cream Bar Factory might be "No Pain, No Gain." For nine minutes, we cranked the handle on this toy to make "delicious Baskin-Robbins ice cream bars at home -- in LESS THAN 10 MINUTES." We made them in a few minutes more than 10, but our kid testers agreed that they were delicious. They weren't bothered by the dried milk-powder taste.
There are many pieces to this toy, and it's imperative to read the well-written and diagrammed directions closely. We put in a couple of pieces upside down, which prevented the crank from pushing the ice cream bar molds through the ice and the salt.
This toy is designed "with kids in mind," but an adult is needed to help with assembly, to pop ice cubes from trays (it took four trays of cubes) and to measure salt. One child might get bored turning the crank for so long, so be prepared to take a turn. Several kids playing together with this toy might have more fun.
The kit includes ice cream mixes, dipping sauces, sprinkles and ice cream bar sticks. When the ice cream bars are removed from the molds, they should go into the freezer if they aren't going to be eaten right away. No holder comes with the kit, so you'll have to prop them up in small glasses.
30-Second Cotton Candy Maker (General Creation International, $25): It was difficult to get all warm and fuzzy over this toy after finding that its battery had to be charged for six to eight hours before one bit of candy could be made. Visions of a very teary Christmas morning danced in our heads. This crucial information should be printed on the box.
After the battery had been charged for more than eight hours, we attempted to make cotton candy. A teaspoon of "FINE" sugar passed through the little funnel into the "sugar loading head." It wasn't clear if FINE sugar meant plain table sugar or superfine baking sugar. We used regular sugar. That seemed fine.
The dome lid of the cotton candy maker has copper contacts on it, and they must align exactly with the contacts on the bottom piece. This is easier said than done. You'll know if you don't have the lid on right, because the machine won't come on. If you lift your finger off the on button, the machine stops and can't be turned on again unless you unscrew the lid and screw it on again. Why? Was it the Dixie Crystals sugar?
We never got more than a cotton ball-size amount of cotton candy from this toy. To clean it, you must submerge it upside down in water, but just to a certain point so as not to get the motor wet. The machine must be thoroughly dry before using again, or the sugar will get stuck.
And it looks so great on TV.
Be warned, they will not be making them. An adult will.
The gummy base mixture and water are heated in a microwave on high power. The mixture and plastic containers get very, very hot. Little hands could easily get burned pouring the goop into the molds.
We sprayed the molds with vegetable spray as instructed but still were able to remove only two of the eight gummy bugs without ripping them apart. The caterpillar and snail popped right out, but the poor butterfly was torn wing from wing.
They tasted sugary and gummy, just like store-bought ones. Even the mangled bugs were yummy.
The rubbery mixture hardened on the cup, and the instructions gave no tips on how to clean it up. Twenty dollars is a lot to pay for a disposable toy.
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