Just a wheat field away from the North Carolina farm their mom grew up on, 3-year-old twins Theo and Florence teeter atop stools in their family’s modern farmhouse kitchen. The petite sous chefs are helping their mom, Vivian Howard, reinvent family cookie recipes to make them healthier but just as down-home appealing. Grandma’s pecan meringues—with a little less sugar—get piped onto baking sheets while applesauce goes into much-loved ginger snaps. Such tradition with a twist is what Howard is known for—both at home and at her acclaimed Southern restaurant down the road.
As the owner, with her husband, Ben Knight, of Chef and the Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina, Howard hunts down seasonal ingredients, then churns out inventive dishes—all while being filmed for her PBS reality series, A Chef’s Life.
For the show’s holiday special, airing on PBS on December 16 at 10 p.m. EST, Howard will whip up dishes like Grandma Hill’s candied yams, which she and her three sisters always devoured at Christmas dinner. With her husband’s side of the family, she’ll make Jewish specialties like cholent, “which I mispronounced for an entire episode,” Howard says in typical self-deprecating fashion.
Passing on these special holiday dishes is part of giving Theo and Florence a sense of their roots. “We want our kids to understand who they are,” Howard says. “I think recognizing and honoring their diverse background will go a long way toward making them complete people.”
As for the cookies they’re baking now, they represent tradition, too—Howard remembers sneaking extra meringues when she visited her grandmother’s house. And tweaking the recipes to make them healthier, she says, is her answer to a new parenting challenge— Florence’s sweet tooth. After making the twins’ baby food herself and exposing them to a wide range of foods, her son is “open to anything we put on his plate,” while her daughter “basically only likes carbs and sugar!” As a result, when baking anything sweet, Howard makes healthy substitutes or folds in something beneficial like flax meal or veggies.
Now, with the twins just old enough to help in the kitchen, Howard is going even more local than she does in her restaurant—by creating what you might call kid-to- table cuisine. “I love to see them excited to participate,” says Howard. “Plus, I feel good because I get to share what I love to do with my kids.” And at those times when batter ends up on the floor—or all over Florence’s face—Howard reminds herself that this is not about getting through the dinner rush at her restaurant. Rather, it’s about creating memories that will last long after the final bite of cookie.
- Apple Ginger Snaps: These are sneaky because they’re good for you, won’t make your kids have a sugar crash, and taste like a cookie should.
- Pecan Clouds: Howard’s take on a really simple cookie her grandmother used to make is a lightly sweetened, crunchy meringue mounted with chopped pecans.
- Peppermint Bark: This treat just screams holiday! Plus, the no-bake recipe is easy to make with kids.