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Dillen Foster, 6, left, and Meredith Maschhoff, 7, react to the "secret ingredient" - a container of beets - to be used in Rockin' Red Velvet Pancakes during a cooking class taught by Sprouts Cooking at St. Nicholas School in Chattanooga.

Sprouts Cooking's ABC(DE)'s of Kitchen Behavior

• A - Always wash your hands

• B - Beware of hot or sharp appliances

• C - Check with a grown up before leaving the room for any reason

• D - Do it as a team

• E - Eat everything

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Allie Fincher is owner and chef instructor of Sprouts Cooking.

Rockin' Red Velvet Pancakes

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

2 tablespoons granulated white sugar

1/3 cup powdered sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups of precooked (or canned) beets

1 cup buttermilk

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons white vinegar.

2 tablespoons of room temperature softened butter

2 tablespoons of dark chocolate chips

Oil for skillet

Sweet orange cream cheese (recipe below)

Measure and mix all of the dry ingredients: flour, cocoa powder, sugar, powdered sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt together in a large bowl. Whisk thoroughly to combine until all lumps are gone.

In a separate bowl, thoroughly mix buttermilk (add a little more if the batter appears to be too thick), eggs, vanilla and vinegar.

Purée the precooked (or canned) beets in a blender until smooth. Add purée to the wet mix.

Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients bowl and add the beet mixture. Stir until mostly combined. Add room-temperature, softened butter and dark chocolate chips to the batter and gently mix.

Pour batter in 1/4 cup measurements onto well-oiled, heated skillet and let cook until bubbles form on top (about 2-3 minutes). Flip, then cook for 1 minute. Cook until all of the batter is gone. Makes about 24 small pancakes.

Sweet Orange Cream Cheese

8 ounces of softened cream cheese

4 ounces of ricotta cheese

1 orange

1/2 cup of honey

1 teaspoon of vanilla

In medium bowl, whip softened cream cheese and ricotta cheese until smooth. Using a fine cheese grater, zest and squeeze the juice of one orange.

Add honey and vanilla extract and mix until smooth.

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Instructor chef Meredith Hill sets up a hot plate before a cooking class.
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Aleyna Patel, 9, measures buttermilk for the Rockin' Red Velvet Pancakes.

It's a testament to the legitimacy of Allie Fincher's mission that the young chefs in her cooking academy for kids initially are mystified by their first encounter with a beet.

Seated around a stumpy black table at St. Nicholas School, the four students - some with grimaces of baffled disgust - pass around a plastic container and take turns attempting to identify its weepy red contents.

"Radish?" asks 11-year-old Joshua Lefkoff.

Meredith Hill, an instructor in Fincher's Sprouts Cooking after-school program, tells him he's on the right track, but he's got the wrong vegetable.

Hedging her bets, Dillen Foster, 6, pipes up with a slightly more specific answer.

"Blood radish?" she says, hopefully.

On her left, Meredith Maschhoff, 7, can't remember what the enigmatic food is called, but she's confident about its flavor.

"They're like little meats, but they're made from jam," she says sagely, before adding, "And they taste delicious."

On her second attempt, Dillen nails it, although she offers up "turnips" with "beets" in a rushed, two-for-one guess.

Mystery solved, Hill then passes around the container so the students can sample the beets before using them as a base for the afternoon's dish: Rockin' Red Velvet Pancakes with Sweet Orange Cream Cheese.

Thus begins another weekly session of Sprouts Cooking, which Fincher started this spring with the goal of teaching kids basic cooking skills while preparing dishes that substitute locally grown ingredients for processed and sugary ones.

"In trying to get away from red [food] dye, we're using beets," she explains. Later in the class, she supervises Joshua and Aleyna Patel, 9, as they use a blender to purée the beets into a thick magenta paste that Meredith agrees looks "like velvet."

"I really want to educate kids about whole foods and show that whole foods and fresh ingredients really do taste great," says Fincher, a 36-year-old mother of two. "They may not have ever thought about beets and the flavors it has or that it can be mixed with powdered sugar and flour and eggs and be turned into pancakes.

"It's experimental, but it's fun."

As they start preparing the pancakes, the students divide into two groups. Half begin measuring and blending the dry ingredients while the other half mix the wet ones.

While the mini-chefs work, Fincher and Hill - a former elementary school teacher and deli chef - patrol the room, offering informational tidbits about the secret ingredient and guidance on proper techniques for using various cooking implements, including specially designed, kid-friendly plastic knives.

"One thing about Sprouts is that we take a skill the first week and build on that the following week," Hill says. "Sometimes, it's things they've never done before, and we take those as teachable moments. Some of them might never have heard of sautéing before, and that's a moment when I can really explain to them what sautéing or puréeing is."

Although she has practiced cooking all her life, neither Fincher nor her chef instructors - Hill and Katie Baker - are professionally trained. The dishes that Sprouts Cooking students learn to make are all drawn from Fincher's own recipe book and are what she describes as "kid-friendly, if a little bit more sophisticated."

Some of the school's past projects include Black Bean Brownies, Sweet Potato Empanadas, Eggplant Parmesan Cups, Quinoa Pizza Bites and Bok Choy Rangoon.

"It's all about exploring new flavors and stepping a little bit out of their comfort zone," Fincher says. "No more chicken nuggets and mac and cheese."

A sense of ownership

Fincher says the idea for Sprouts took root when she noticed that her son, Silas, 6, was becoming uncharacteristically choosy at the dinner table.

"When he started getting picky, I thought, 'What can I do?'" she says. "He wouldn't touch anything that was green or a vegetable or real."

Meanwhile, her daughter, Rosie, 4, was open to eating almost anything and, since she was a toddler, she'd been in the kitchen helping her mom prepare meals.

Reading between the lines, Fincher says she suspected that part of her daughter's culinary adventurousness was due to a sense of participation and ownership in what she was eating. She decided to try involving Silas in the cooking process to see if she could achieve a similar effect.

"That was it," she says. "I saw that he would try the foods he made himself."

Seeing the difference that just being in the kitchen made for her own children, Fincher says she began dreaming up ways to bring cooking skills to other elementary school-age kids. In the process, she says, she hopes to make them aware of the nutritious value - or lack thereof - in the foods they eat.

"It's important to me, as a philosophy, to teach the kids to know where their food comes from," she says.

During its early, "passion project" stage, Fincher experimentally offered courses to children within her circle of friends as well as teaching classes on the side. Eventually, she decided it was time to expand and, lacking the resources to open a brick-and-mortar school, she decided to take her nutritional evangelism on the road.

Sprouts Cooking is a mobile institution. Schools or other organizations that are interested in outsourcing culinary education for their tykes can contact Fincher and arrange for her or one of her chef instructors to visit their campus. They bring the ingredients, the expertise, the lesson plan and the utensils; all the schools need to provide is a room with access to a sink and an electrical outlet.

"It all fits in the back of our vehicles," Fincher says. "We want to do as much of the heavy lifting as possible."

Sprouts Cooking offers weekly sessions at several private and magnet schools in Chattanooga, including Boyd-Buchanan School, Bright School, Chattanooga Christian School, Normal Park Elementary School and Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences. Fincher also has taught courses for birthdays, camps and other special events.

As a for-profit business, Fincher says, she's had difficulty making inroads in bringing Sprouts Cooking courses to area public schools, but she's investigating partnership options with local nonprofits to make the program more palatable to school administrators.

'Wet cement'

Although they went into the week's lesson with more than a bit of hesitancy about the secret ingredient, the students at St. Nicholas gave the beet-y pancakes rave reviews, even if Dillen suggests hers tasted more like corn than she expected.

While reaching even more students is an important goal for the program down the road, Fincher says it's even more important to make sure the students in her sessions now gain a bit of nutritional wisdom, an expanded palate and a bolstered sense of culinary confidence.

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Instructor chef Meredith Hill, left, helps Dillen Foster, center, and Meredith Maschhoff mix the dry ingredients.

Hopefully, she says, those traits will stick with them long after last dish is cleaned and packed away.

"They're so impressionable at this age," Fincher says. "I like to look at them like wet cement. The older they get, the harder it is; that wet cement kind of starts to harden, and it's hard to chip away at.

"If we can empower them now at an early age, ... as they grow, ... they'll be able to cook for themselves and know where their food comes from and what's going into their bodies. We're all about nourishing the body and the mind."

Contact Casey Phillips at or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.