Cookies for thought

A student baker gets ready to bake cookies at the Classik’s Food Products kitchen in Palur, Tiruchi. Photo: M. Moorthy   | Photo Credit: M_Moorthy

The fragrance of baking perfumes the air in this workshop in the third storey of a residence in Shankar Nagar in the Tiruchi suburb of Palur.

Aluminium pans are being greased by a team of youngsters who are bursting with barely suppressed excitement over demonstrating their baking skills to visitors.

A bubble of noise erupts as everyone checks the other to see if they’ve got their aprons, chef’s toques and cooking gloves on. And then, to the serious task of cutting out cookies as the photographer takes pictures.

What makes these bakers stand out is their enthusiasm and excitement. The fact that they are young adults with special needs who are being trained for a more self-reliant future, adds to the sense of accomplishment.

“With the right kind of support, baking can be a good career opportunity for children with special needs,” says G. Praveena Carmel, principal of Dolphin Special School and Centre in Tiruchi. The Thillai Nagar-based institution has partnered with Palur resident and entrepreneur S. Killivalavan to set up Classik’s Food Products.

Under Killivalavan’s supervision, Dolphin’s students are assisted by special educators and a professional baker in weekly sessions at the custom-built kitchen equipped with locally manufactured industrial equipment that has been set up at his residence.

“We accept special children above the age of 16, and prioritise those who are not able to cope with academics. Currently we have trained 20 special students – 14 boys and 6 girls – and their parents or other family members, in baking,” says Praveena. Course graduates are free to set up their own outlets if they have the infrastructure, she adds.

Though commercial baking is thriving in India, products that cater to people with specific dietary restrictions are still not available as easily as snack foods.

“Parents with children who have special needs are often unaware of food that triggers behavioural and neurological problems in their kids,” says Dr. M. K. Valli, nutrition consultant of Dolphin School. “The casein protein in milk, for example, can cause hyperactivity in autistic children. Similarly, wheat and sugar are also trigger foods. Before we increase nutrition education among parents, we must insist on clearer labelling by industrial bakers,” she adds.

Dr. Valli’s specially formulated millet flours enriched with Omega 3 fatty acids form the core of the cookies that are being made by Dolphin students. “It took me two years to come up with the right recipe components because I was determined to avoid wheat, sugar and butter,” she says. Low-fat margarine, honey and date pulp (also sourced locally), are used as substitutes.

Dr. Valli’s recipes are the result of her doctoral research carried out in 2012, where she studied the effect of a non-gluten and non-casein diet on a core group of 60 children with special needs.

To prevent the flour formulation from getting commercialised, Dr. Valli has applied for a patent with the Chennai office of the Controller General of Patents, Designs and Trademarks (CGPDTM).

Says G. Annathurai, baking and confectionary specialist and an instructor at State Institute of Hotel Management and Catering Technology, Thuvakudi, “Differently-abled people, especially those with special needs, tend to be very observant when they are being taught to cook. So you cannot lie to them, or modify recipes as you wish, because they will want to reproduce the exact result.”

Annathurai trained the Dolphin students to make over 30 regular baked goods from scratch for a month, and was the sole expert to agree to work with the special diet ingredients.

“We went through nearly 40 professional bakers before we met Mr. Annathurai,” recalls Praveena. “Nobody was willing to touch recipes without the standard ‘maida, butter and sugar’ formula.”

Last year, the school had organised a month-long baking tutorial conducted by Rural Self-Employment Training Institute (RSETI) under the sponsorship of Indian Overseas Bank, for 30 people, including children with special needs, their parents, and special educators, which served as an inspiration for the bakery project.

Currently producing small orders of the special diet biscuits a week (in four flavours), the Dolphin teaching team remembers learning the ropes by burning entire batches of the stuff. “It was only then we realised that an industrial oven is not meant to be used like a home appliance. Now we focus on getting all the items ready so that they can be baked simultaneously,” says Praveena.

As volunteers help out with getting the next set of pans ready, students pack the diet cookies carefully in round boxes, after they weigh the goodies on an electronic scale.

Parents and friends, some of who have travelled long distances to be here, help out where they can. Paper cups of hot tea are served out frequently to keep everyone on an even keel.

“Perhaps not all the children can take charge of the baking process, but we equip them with enough skills to run a unit,” says Praveena. “These children are special, and they deserve a chance at a dignified future.”

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Printable version | Aug 6, 2021 3:51:25 AM |

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