Published October 29, 2011
Juneau, AK – 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 ovewers 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 backyard, 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."