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

Crust Ingredients:
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)

Glaze Ingredients:
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.

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35 Comments on Itsy Bitsy Berry Cream Pies

  1. Maris(In Good Taste)
    June 22, 2011 at 4:30 am (12 years ago)

    I loved your story! These are so pretty. I am bookmarking them to make this weekend

  2. Anita Menon
    June 22, 2011 at 6:17 am (12 years ago)

    A beautiful post ! Loved reading it till the end. A teacher’s job is the most difficult and that is something I have come to appreciate after I became a parent.
    All my good wishes for all your teaching endeavours
    The cream pies look adoreable and cute!

  3. Becca
    June 22, 2011 at 7:17 am (12 years ago)

    Aw, the story made me tear up a little! At work, I used to end up in a lot of situations with kids living in residential facilities who I would only see once a month or so. Even though I wasn’t their counselor (just their case manager), I would try to give them a little “extra” time or attention, try to remember something specific about them to keep up with… you can tell just that 5 minute (or less) extra effort to show they matter can really make an impact. (Hey, it does for adults too!)

  4. Vanessa
    June 22, 2011 at 8:39 am (12 years ago)

    Those little pies are flippin adorable!! Cute story!! Fun fact: back in the day I volunteered at a VBS as a little assistant teacher. The kids were amazing and you form such bonds with them!!

  5. DessertForTwo
    June 22, 2011 at 9:29 am (12 years ago)

    What a sweet little story.
    You’re so right–kids need a constantly clean slate.
    I hope you brought these pies to your class 🙂

    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      June 22, 2011 at 2:22 pm (12 years ago)

      Aw, thank you!! I made these a couple of weeks before VBS, so sadly they didn’t get to munch on them. But they’re doing pretty well during snack time — yesterday they made “pizza in a bag” with cheez-its, pizza sauce, mozzarella, and pepperoni. So cute!

  6. Tandy
    June 22, 2011 at 10:48 am (12 years ago)

    it is so important to listen – every person we encounter has a story to tell and a moment to share!

  7. Sarah @ pão e queijo
    June 22, 2011 at 12:17 pm (12 years ago)

    These are adorable and perfect for this time of year! I remember sometime last year I tried little berry tarts like these and boy, were they tasty! I’ll have to try the recipe!

  8. Paula @ Cookware Cooking
    June 22, 2011 at 12:55 pm (12 years ago)

    Inspiring story! Children are so sweet when they share a part of themselves. I think I’ll see if my oldest granddaughter wants to help me make these delicious looking tarts!

  9. Joanne
    June 22, 2011 at 2:06 pm (12 years ago)

    It’s definitely hard to find a good balance with kids but it sounds like you’ve got it down. I can tell you’re an amazing teacher, Julie!

    These little cream pies are so darling! I can’t tell whether I want to hug or inhale them.

  10. Erin
    June 22, 2011 at 9:58 pm (12 years ago)

    I was scanning my list of blogs to read and I thought to myself, I am SO thankful for Julie. It’s a common thought… and I know I post on facebook once in a while but I really do mean it. Your love for people and your tenderness for God and the lessons He has for you ALWAYS inspire me and remind me to LOOK UP! <3 Thanks for taking time for these little people in VBS and all of us out here on the web! 🙂 Hope you have a good last few days of VBS… and thanks for sharing the cute lil pies… they look delicious!

    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      June 22, 2011 at 10:25 pm (12 years ago)

      Aw, thank you SO much, Erin! That means so much to me, and I feel the same way about you!

  11. Gena
    June 23, 2011 at 12:08 pm (12 years ago)

    Those look SOOOO yummy – and perfectly portioned!

  12. natalie (the sweets life)
    June 23, 2011 at 3:50 pm (12 years ago)

    Loved this story–you are totally one of those teachers that kids talk about 30 years later! Loved the pies too–adorable 🙂

  13. A_Boleyn
    June 24, 2011 at 3:58 pm (12 years ago)

    Your mini pies/tarts look very tasty. I was looking for a baking temperature to blind bake the shells and seem to have missed it in your recipe.

    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      June 24, 2011 at 6:21 pm (12 years ago)

      That’s because I accidentally left it out! Whoops! Should be 450 degrees F. Thanks for the catch!

  14. Maranda
    July 8, 2011 at 3:04 pm (12 years ago)

    These little pies are amazing! I love listening to kids talk about the important stuff in their lives. When else can you be so innocent as to think dinosaurs or friends finally liking pink are the most important things?? I love it! Thanks for sharing!


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