It happens every year. Early in the springtime, the Sunday comes when I find a neon card tucked inside of my church bulletin, scrounge around in my purse for a pen, and scrawl out some contact information. I drop the card in the jar in the lobby on my way out. I wait for the email telling me where to come for training, inevitably miss training, go to the makeup training. Finally, it's the first night of Vacation Bible School. I try to find some fun earrings to wear (for some reason, fun earrings have always struck me as a key tool in childcare), and head over to the church.
Last year there was a ranch theme, so every night was spent air-lassoing imaginary animals, tipping our imaginary cowperson hats, conducting chili tastings (I couldn't make this stuff up), playing with ranch paraphernalia foreign to many of those city kids, and hearing stories about Jesus.
I took great delight in dancing and singing wholeheartedly during worship while all of my third grade charges stared, trying to decide whether I was cool or embarrassing. No comment on their verdict. But we all had a lot of fun.
One of the boys last year (I'll call him John) stood out to me from the first night. He was subdued, and his freckled face wore the same blank expression no matter what the activity. He seemed guarded, like he had already reached the stage where he wasn't sure if it was still cool to have fun.
In music class, though, he was different. The music teacher (I'll call him Mr. Maestro) had a wry sense of humor that John responded to right away. As a result, John would chirrup witty responses to Mr. Maestro's questions and call out periodically in class. The interruptions were sometimes too frequent, and I could tell by the edge in Mr. Maestro's voice that he thought John was a bit of a troublemaker. I knew John was actually very sweet, but I wasn't concerned, since Mr. Maestro was never unfair, just firm.
As an aside, trying not to peg students as "the troublemaker" or "the clown" or "the slacker" is a constant, noble effort of good teachers everywhere. Kids are so dynamic, and most of them truly want to please the adults around them; for this reason, it's vital to continually give them a fresh slate and the opportunity to remake themselves. That doesn't mean it's not a struggle.
On the very last day in music class, Mr. Maestro made a lovely point about helping others. In response, John began enthusiastically, "I sometimes help my mom!" Before he could continue, Mr. Maestro responded, "Oh, do you? That's nice," to cut him off at the pass and get on with the lesson. Something turned over in my heart as I watched John disappointedly release the breath with which he had hoped to tell his story.
Before you judge Mr. Maestro too harshly, please think back to a time when you've been interrupted repeatedly by a child eager to tell a story. It can be taxing. Some days in my own class, I feel like 75% of my job is shutting down off-topic story telling. Some of those stories were about So-and-so's sister who ate half a gluestick, but some of them were probably truly charming, edifying additions to our class. We just don't always have the time. I just don't always have the energy. We're all human.
Nevertheless that night, seeing John's crestfallen face and remembering the emphasis in VBS training on listening to every child, I was determined to do something.
Back downstairs at worship at the end of the night, I was worried John would have long since forgotten his story. I screamed over the din of about a bajillion hyper children and the ecstatic worship music, "John, what was that you were saying about helping your mom?"
The way his face immediately lit up touched my heart; sure enough, this was a special story to him. He explained that his mom was sick and very tired, and so he sometimes swept the floor or did the dishes. With childlike sincerity, he revealed that he was glad he got to serve her.
I could tell he was thankful to share his story, but I was beyond thankful to hear it. It was a moment when God reminded me again (He does so often) that my job is to love Him with all of my heart, mind, and soul, and to love others just as much as I love myself.
Vacation Bible School started up again this week, and while John isn't in my class this year, I do have more than 20 fourth graders to lead. And you'd better believe I'm doing a ton of listening! So far I've heard about video games, making homemade ice cream, a dying grandfather, a new baby sister, and baseball. What serious, funny, sad, crazy, and important things they have to say!
So, in honor of all of those sweet little ones, here are some sweet little pies! I loved my Aunt Pat's Strawberry Cream Pie so much that I decided to make it in miniature -- and in blueberry! These little pies are bright, fresh, and creamy in addition to being adorable finger foods. They're an especially great first step for a home cook who's nervous about rolling out a pie crust, since there's no rolling involved. Happy summer!
Itsy Bitsy Berry Cream Pies
Recipe by: Adapted from my Aunt Pat's Strawberry Cream Pie recipe
Yields: about 56 mini pies
4 cups flour
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 cup cold shortening or lard
3/4 cup cold butter, chopped
6-8 tablespoons cold water
Cream Filling Ingredients:
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups milk
1 egg, slightly beaten
1/2 cup whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1.5 cups of diced fresh strawberries (or about 1.5 cups blueberries)
1 cup fresh strawberries (or blueberries)
1 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
4 teaspoons cornstarch
Note on timing: To make the preparation of these mini pies even more manageable, I prepared and baked the pie shells a day in advance. I then made the cream filling, diced the berries, and made my glaze on the day I was planning to serve them. They really benefit from at least a few hours in the fridge before serving.
Make the crust dough: Pulse flour and salt together to combine. Add scoops of lard and pulse into the mixture has the texture of coarse sand, about 10 seconds. Add in chunks of butter and pulse until butter pieces are no larger than small peas, about 10 pulses. Add minimum amount of water and pulse on low. If dough remains crumbly and doesn't come together, add another 2 tablespoons of water. Add as little as is required to enable the dough to be rolled into a ball. Form the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 20-30 minutes.
After the dough has chilled, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Take about 1/4 of the dough out of the fridge at a time. Pinch off walnut-sized balls. Place a ball in each well of an ungreased mini-muffin pan. Using your fingers, work the dough up the sides of each well. Use a fork to "dock" the bottom and sides of the dough --poke holes in it so that it doesn't puff up too much as it bakes. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool the mini pie shells in the pan for 5 minutes or so before gently removing them (you can use a table knife to help you lever them out) to a cooling rack to cool completely.
Make cream filling: While the crust bakes, prepare your cream filling. Prepare an ice water bath in a bowl big enough to accommodate your saucepan. Mix sugar, cornstarch, flour, and salt in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in the milk and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and cook until thickened, still stirring constantly. Spoon out about 1/4 cup of your hot mixture and gradually drizzle it into your beaten egg, whisking constantly. This will temper the egg so that when you add it back into the hot mixture, it won't cook. Add the egg into the hot mixture, continuing to stir constantly. Bring this just to boiling.
Set the saucepan in the ice water bath and stir it periodically as it cools. Once cool enough, chill the mixture in the refrigerator. During this time, whip the cream and vanilla together to stiff peaks. Take the chilled mixture from the fridge and beat it to break it up. Stir in about 1/3 of the cream to lighten it, and then gently fold in the rest of the cream until well combined. Chill until ready to use.
Assemble the pies: Using a piping bag (or a ziplock with the corner cut off), pipe cream into each pie shell. Top with diced strawberries or blueberries. Chill these while you make your glaze.
Make the glaze: Crush 1 cup of strawberries (or blueberries) and cook with water in a saucepan over medium-high heat for two minutes. Strain through a fine mesh sieve and discard the pulp. Add the juice back to the saucepan over medium-high heat and gradually stir in sugar and cornstarch. Cook until thickened. If you want, you can tint this glaze with food coloring to desired hue, but mine was plenty bright enough! Cool the glaze slightly, and then spoon over the top of your mini pies. Chill pies for at least a few hours for best results.