Denali Schijvens has been baking for longer than he can remember and he is only 4-years-old. His mother, Meilani Schijvens, owes it to his Montessori schooling, where toddlers helped bake cookies on a weekly basis. The Montessori cookies, as they are known in the Schijvens household, are oatmeal raisin cookies, though recipes aren’t used much these days.
“I’m just making recipes and using them,” explains Denali, animatedly gesturing at his head. He adds that he doesn’t know where the inspiration comes from, “It comes from outside my head.”
He bakes from scratch and without a recipe at hand. He measures ingredients, but seems to be guided only by an understanding of the ratios and consistencies necessary of baking. While making batter for a banana cake, his mom held a measuring spoon steady while Denali poured vanilla extract, overflowing slightly, into the mix.
Meilani Schijvens occasionally guides the conversation and shares some anecdotes, including the story behind the highly improvisational baking methods. “Pop-pop made some experimental sugar cookies, didn’t he?” coaxes Schijvens, while Denali nods in agreement. “They didn’t quite turn out quite right, though.”
Seeing that adults could experiment with baking and that less than perfect results weren’t truly disastrous, Denali determined that he could experiment as well. The family went from “Montessori cookies” twice a week, to whatever confectionary endeavors Denali could imagine.
One shouldn’t worry about the safety of a 4-year-old baking; Denali isn’t allowed to use the oven or knives yet, everything else, though, he can do himself. Sometimes he will get up early in the morning, before his parents or brother wake up, and concoct a batter. There are two secrets to his baking, it seems; one, silence, is not necessary, the other is love. Nobody prompted him to say “love,” 4-year-old Denali actually said it. How much love?
“As big is the world is. That’s how much I usually put in. That’s what makes it yum yum.”
It’s easy to see that Denali loves baking. He bakes multiple times a week and the treats are so plentiful sometimes they have to be shared with his grandparents, who live across the street. A bigger audience for his baking is in the future, as evidenced by his award winning baking at the Great Pumpkin Festival earlier in the month. He took home ribbons for best pumpkin cake and reserve grand champion overall. The competition wasn’t a gaggle of adorable children, either; he was competing with mostly adults.
The recipe for the winning cake, or what mom, Meilani Schijvens could record, is as follows:
•1 very small pie pumpkin — roasted in the oven for 1 hour and put through a food processor
• 1/3 cup sweetened condensed milk
• A dash of cinnamon
• 2/3 a stick of butter
• 3 eggs
• 2 1/2 cups flour
• 1.5 tsps baking soda
• 2/3rds cup dried cherries
• 2/3rds cup chocolate chips
• A dash of vanilla extract
• 1 cup brown sugar
• 1/2 cup white sugar
• Bake at 325 for 40 min in 2 cake pans
• 3 cups cream cheese
• Red and yellow food coloring to make orange
• 1 cup powdered sugar
• 1/2 tsp almond extract
• Blend in food processor
The whole process, including grocery shopping, took five hours total, reported Schijvens, who commented that Denali could be very focused during a baking project. This dedication isn’t without direction. Denali very adamantly wants to be a chef.
“I have to bake a lot if I’m going to be a chef when I grow up.” he states.
He plans to have a restaurant, which will have lots of toys, he says, and the currently favored name is “Salmon Tornado,” a play on the name of the restaurant “The Twisted Fish.” The proposed menu might need a little work for the future restaurant to make it, but there’s no denying the potential. The menu currently includes “salmon soup with salmon broth — that’s salmon blood — and dandelion flowers and dandelion leaves that you can eat.”
When Denali cooks, a lot of ingredients and inspiration comes from home. With a variety of berries in the back yard, he often picks his own to include in baking projects. His biggest fans so far are his immediate family and his grandparents. He bakes because he thinks it is fun and because he “loves sweet.” His first cake that he made independently was at age two, a birthday cake from a mix for his great grandmother’s 90th birthday. These days, he makes everyone’s birthday cakes from scratch.
To conclude, some parting words and sage advice from 4-year-old baking savant, Denali Schijvens:
“Eggshell is actually OK for you if you wash it. But it tastes disgusting.”
When asked if it was okay to make a pink cake, he replied, “I never made one.”
Knowing your audience is key, when baking for his grandparents, Denali notes “They like really old stuff.”
Do what feels right, he offers. “I just do what my body tells me.”
When given advice, Denali makes it clear that it’s not necessary to take it, just say, “No mama.”
And finally, he would probably recommend doing what you love. “I’m going to be a chef for my whole life.”