The timer beeped, and Liz Lee Heinecke handed her 13-year-old daughter, Sarah, two oven mitts. Her latest science experiment was ready.
Sarah opened the door of the oven and took out a silvery pan containing the result of a chemical reaction that demonstrated how heat turns water into steam: popovers.
Heinecke plucked one of the eggy rolls from a large muffin tin and tore it open so steam shot out of it. Then she slathered on a bit of butter and took a bite.
“Edible science,” Heinecke said with her mouth full.
Her popovers — airy buns that rise without a leavening agent due to the steam that forms when putting liquid batter into a hot pan — represent only one recipe in a book full of ways to teach kids about scientific principles, while also making dinner.
Heinecke is the author of “Kitchen Science Lab for Kids: Edible Edition.” It’s the Minnesota writer’s fifth book that helps parents use common objects found in the home to educate kids about chemistry, biology, botany and more. While her previous books’ lessons yielded more crafts and playthings — glue-based slime and self-inflating balloons, for example — her latest book contains step-by-step instructions with edible results.
“Cooking and baking are science,” Heinecke said. “Once you understand the basics — you can add an acid and it makes it taste a little sour and brings out the salt — it becomes second nature. So then you can say, ‘I know this experiment is going to work.’”
Heinecke herself grew up unafraid of the kitchen. Her mother ran a cooking school in their home in Kansas.
“We had a center island before center islands were cool,” Heinecke said.
She also grew up around science, with a physicist dad.
She became a biologist, doing bacteriology research. She was working in a lab on the day she went into labor with her first child, Charlie. He’s now going off to college.
Heinecke pivoted to the stay-at-home mom life with Charlie and two daughters, May and Sarah.
“When you’re with kids, you’re always looking for stuff to do,” she said.
She began infusing science into their activities, like examining bugs and plants outside. Each kid got their own notebook to record their experiments.
Applying science practically at home lets kids approach a big topic without the pressure or time constraints of school.
“It gives them the opportunity to be creative and to make mistakes, and no one is judging them,” Heinecke said. “I think science in school is essential and important, but it’s really a different kind of science.”
Heinecke began blogging about her experiments.
“No one else was writing about how to do science with your kids without making 20 trips to the store or having to buy an expensive kit,” she said.
In 2014, she wrote her first book in the series, “Kitchen Science Lab for Kids.” The “Edible Edition” came out this summer, and Heinecke is at work on her next two: One focuses on chemistry and another on biology.
After devouring the popovers, Heinecke and two neighborhood kids got to work on more experiments from her books. First, they learned about the crystalline structure of tempered chocolate by melting candy bars, dipping balloons into it and making bowls for ice cream.
Then, they took the purple water that’s a byproduct from boiling red cabbage and used it as a pH indicator. They changed its color by adding baking soda (a base, the water turns blue) and vinegar (an acid, the water turns pink), and then mixed the two solutions together to make a bubbly purple volcano.
Chocolate streaks, scattered sprinkles and fizzing water were all over Heinecke’s countertops. There was only one thing left to do.
“After you do a science experiment,” Heinecke asked the girls, “what is the best way to make sure your parents let you do it again?”
Divya Thammon, age 9, answered promptly: “Clean up.”
CHOCOLATE DOMES AND BOWLS
10-12 (5-inch) round balloons
12 ounces semisweet chocolate
4 ounces white chocolate
Blow up the balloons. Set glasses or ramekins on a baking sheet. Chop the semisweet chocolate into small pieces.
Melt the chocolate in the microwave for 30 seconds at a time, stirring for 30 seconds in between each heating until just melted and smooth. Alternatively, melt the chocolate in a pan over a larger pan of simmering water. The chocolate should not be too hot or it will melt the balloons.
Chop the white chocolate into small pieces, and melt as you did the semisweet.
Put the melted semisweet chocolate in a bowl slightly larger than the balloons, and dip the untied end of the balloon in, coating the lower third of the balloon with chocolate.
Flip the balloon over onto a ramekin or small glass to cool, keeping the chocolate on the top of the balloon.
Spoon some melted white chocolate into a plastic zipper bag, and cut off a tiny corner of the bag. Pipe the white chocolate in a design over the semisweet on the balloon.
Add sprinkles if you wish. Repeat with the rest of the balloons, reheating the chocolate if necessary.
Put the balloons in the freezer until the chocolate domes are solid and you’re ready to eat them.
Remove the domes from the freezer. Pop the balloons, and slowly pull them off the domes.
Use the domes as bowls for ice cream, or flip them over and hide a treat beneath.
Makes 6 large popovers or 12 small ones
Cooking spray, oil or butter for pan
2 eggs, room temperature
1 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon butter, melted
1 cup minus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
Lightly coat a popover pan or muffin tin with the oil, butter or spray.
Break the eggs into a bowl. Whisk the eggs and milk together. Stir in the melted butter.
Combine the flour and salt in a separate bowl, mix well, and then whisk them into the eggs and milk. Let the mixture rest at room temperature for around 1 hour.
Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Pop the empty pan into the oven for about 5 minutes to heat the metal.
Fill the cups in the hot pan about halfway full of popover batter. Bake for 10 minutes on the center rack.
Lower the temperature to 375 degrees, and continue baking until golden brown. Depending on the size of the pan, this will take another 25-35 minutes.
Remove the popovers from the pan, and serve hot with butter and honey or jam.