NOT SO LONG AGO, the casserole was the MVP in the American dinner lineup, an easy and economical supper without fuss.
Tuna-noodle; chicken and rice; ground beef and macaroni; these were the staples of many childhood dinners. But in this generation, many children have no familiarity with this comfort-food genre.
"All the kids were asking, 'What's a casserole?' " said Susan Munafo, a volunteer at after-school cooking class at William Loesche Elementary in Northeast Philadelphia. "I guess people don't make them anymore."
"That's what we all ate growing up," said the other volunteer, Jane Pupis.
Perhaps with the decline of home-cooked meals and the increase in frozen and take-out foods, this reliable go-to has lost favor.
All the more reason to teach these fifth graders how easy it is to make a casserole, especially a healthy one like the broccoli and cheese version on the menu last week.
Even though the kids weren't quite sure what they were making, they were enthusiastic about the preparation. "They all love chopping," said Pupis. "And they've gotten good. . . . The only one who cut herself? Me."
It was second nature for these two volunteers - both retired public school teachers - to manage these 10-year-olds, dividing up jobs and praising work along the way.
"I need two people for chopping broccoli, and someone for the onion. Who wants to crack the eggs?" Munafo said, ticking off the jobs.
Natasha Carvalho chopped broccoli with Andrea Cuadrao while Monika Mistry took on the onion and Angela Basha and Areeg Mustafa started cracking eggs.
As the students buckled down to their work, the school principal, Sherin Kurian, popped in for a visit. She had never seen the class before but had heard how much the children loved it.
"There are even parents who want to come," she said. And it seemed she was impressed with what she saw: "I'd actually love to come and learn myself."
Once the broccoli and onions were roasted, and the cheese was grated and stirred into the eggs, the casserole was assembled: The vegetables were spread on the bottom of the Pyrex pan, the eggs and cheese poured on top.
"Is it going to stay liquid like this?" asked Areeg.
"No, no, it will become like a custard," said Munafo.
Areeg carefully placed it in the oven, and a timer was set for 15 minutes, even though the recipe said 30. The school's convection oven, designed to heat up dozens of school lunches, is so powerful it cooks in a fraction of the time, Munafo explained. So the class always has to underestimate and then keep a close watch.
It's amazing to see how these intrepid volunteers adapt in the most challenging of kitchens to create a lovely family-style meal. In this case, they work without a stove and with an oven that is hard to predict. For a dinner table, the kids cover a stainless steel prep counter with a tablecloth, and then surround it with folding chairs and set a pretty table, complete with napkins folded into triangles.
Not only have these children learned resourcefulness, but they've also witnessed that you don't need a fancy kitchen to make a nice dinner.
Corn muffins were added to this week's meal, a repeat favorite from an earlier class, which also made use of the leftover corn meal, a good lesson in home economics.
One of the biggest challenges of cooking is to have all the elements of a meal finish at the same time. In this, the class succeeded, though the casserole browned up while still being a little jiggly, and the muffins baked nicely but did not brown.
As they sat down to the meal, the students were eager to tell me what they thought of the program.
"I love that we can do whatever jobs we want," said Monika. "At home, my mom tells me what jobs I have to do."
"I like it because I get to use the big knife," said Areeg.
"I really like cooking class because the grownups trust us," Natasha said.
Angela, who cooks with her parents and watches television cooking shows, loves "learning new methods." And she may be teaching the others a thing or two. One week, when her classmates didn't appreciate the apples in their quesadillas, Angela said, "I think the apple balances the spiciness of the chorizo."
In the end, the broccoli and cheese casserole was an easy sell; the students loved it, cleaned their plates and asked to take home leftovers. Everyone, that is, but Natasha. Her family is from Russia, and she likes only her mother's borscht.
"I'm a really picky eater," she said.
Her mother, however, has liked everything Natasha has made and taken home. After tasting a zucchini muffin, her mom asked her to make them for her, which she has - twice.
Natasha carefully wrapped up her portion of the casserole to take home. Even though she didn't like it, she knew her mother would. And she'd be eyeing the foil packet as soon as Natasha got in the car.