Baking Pies with the Girl Scouts

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By Emily Paster

Zuzu's Girl Scout troop has done a wide variety of activities over the years from touring a local bank to singing for residents of a nursing home. And, of course, they sell those famous cookies. (More on that another time.) But this year, when asked what kind of activity they wanted to do, the girls said that they wanted do something related to cooking. Lucky for our troop, the family of one of the girls happens to own a beloved Oak Park restaurant: Buzz Café. And so, earlier this week, I volunteered to help Buzz Cafe's owner, Laura Maychruk teach the Girls Scouts how to make blueberry pie. The girls had a terrific time making their own individual pies and I picked up some tips on pastry-making from a master.

We began by measuring our dry ingredients. Laura instructed the girls to keep their flour nice and fluffy, and not to pack it too tightly into the measuring cups. To that end, each bowl of flour was equipped with two measuring cups, one big and one small. We used the smaller cup to scoop flour into the larger cup rather than using the larger measuring cup to dig down into the flour which can compact it. The girls were surprised when Laura told them to add salt to their flour. Of course, salt doesn't always make things salty; it merely enhances the other flavors in the crust.

For fat, Laura recommends a mix of butter and lard. In her experience, the combination gives the pie crust just the right amount of taste and flakiness. Because the girls were bringing their pies home to bake, and because our house has a no-pork rule, Zuzu had to use all butter in her crust. So, I can't comment on the effects of using both butter and lard. I will say that Zuzu's all-butter crust came out pretty darn flaky. But those of you with no objection to lard will surely want to try Laura's recommendation. For many of the girls, this was their first time using a pastry cutter, or as Zuzu called it "a butter thingie." They were definitely impressed with the amount of elbow grease it took to cut the cold fat into the dry ingredients. I fielded a lot of "is mine done?" questions long before the dough resembled the coarse crumbs that we had told the girls was their goal. I shudder to think how our girls would have fared 100 years ago when told to churn butter!

We then added some ice water to each girl's bowl and told them to gently stir the dough with a fork until it began to come together. This was also a challenge for the girls. I suspect many of them have made cookies and quick breads before and they were expecting a smoother, more elastic dough. A lot of them asked for more water when it seemed plain to me that their dough was coming together just fine. So we cautioned patience and explained that pie dough was best when it just barely holds together. The girls were pleasantly surprised when their crumbs slowly began to turn into a ball of dough.

At the same time, it was also a challenge to convince the girls not to overwork their dough. I reminded them several times that less is more when it comes to pastry, but these 9 and 10 year old girls couldn't resist rolling and patting their dough into perfect circles and disks...and then doing it again. This was my challenge: to let go of my perfectionist tendencies and let the girls just have fun. Who cares if their pie crusts don't come out perfectly flaky? No one was entering her pie in the county fair. Much as teachers don't stop to correct every spelling and grammar mistake when kids are writing, it is important when cooking with kids not to over-correct. Sure, the result won't be as tasty or pretty as if an experienced cook had made it, but the goal here is not the perfect pie crust. Rather, it is to let the girls experience the satisfaction of making something with their own hands. (I say this now, but at the time, I was all over the girls telling them not to mess with their pastry. Letting go is not my strong suit.)

After girls had rolled out their bottom crust and gently transferred it into the small pie tin, we made the filling. It is definitely not blueberry season in Chicago, so we used frozen berries, which Laura pointed out are perfectly fine for baking. For flavor, we added some sugar and the zest and juice of half a lemon. It was a heart-warming sight to see two dozen 4th graders zesting lemons with little microplane graters! To make the filling gel, Laura's secret is to use a tablespoon of Minute Tapioca. For those of you not familiar with this product, it is a coarse granular form of tapioca. Although weren't able to do this with the girls, Laura explained that at home or at the restaurant, she grinds the tapioca even further to achieve a finer texture.

The girls carefully poured the filling into their prepared pie pans -- which in an ideal world would have been kept cold until ready to be filled -- and then rolled out the top crust. They carefully laid the top crust over the filling and pinched the two crusts together. Some of the girls got fancy and made fluted and crimped edges on their pies. Last, they cut a small cross in the top crust to act a vent, and then it was time to wrap up the pies to bring home.

In short, while my two hours making pies with 25 Girl Scouts was messy, noisy and sometimes frustrating, I would not have missed doing it for the world. Seeing these girls' pride at their finished products was truly thrilling. And it felt like we were participating in a great American tradition. For hundreds of years, American girls have been learning from their mothers and grandmothers and aunts the secrets of making a great pie. It is nice to know that this tradition lives on to this day. (And these days, I hope some boys are learning as well.) What a great Girl Scout activity too! Maybe not every girl in that troop has someone in their family who can make a pie, but all we needed to pass on the tradition was one mom who was willing to share her expertise. Who knows? Maybe a future pastry chef was minted that day.

So, if you have a special skill or talent, culinary or otherwise, consider sharing it with the children in your community. School clubs, Scout troops, church and temple youth groups -- all of these would welcome a volunteer willing to share his or her knowledge with the next generation.

Buzz Cafe Blueberry Pie
This recipe makes a small individual-sized pie with plenty of leftover dough.

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 TB sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
6 TB cold butter, cut into cubes
4 TB lard, cut into cubes
2 TB ice water

1 cup blueberries
Zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
2 TB sugar
1 TB Minute tapioca

Combine dry ingredients in a bowl. Add the cubed butter and lard and blend into dry ingredients with a pastry cutter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Leave visible pieces of fat; don't create a paste. Add water and mix with a fork until the dough begins to come together. Gather dough into a ball and cut in half. Set aside or refrigerate one half. Pat second half into a disk and roll out on a well-floured surface until approximately 1/8 inch thick. Place dough into small pie tin and form dough around rim. Trim off excess, reserving scraps. Refrigerate crust if desired. To make filling, combine blueberries, lemon zest, lemon juice, sugar and tapioca in a bowl. Pour into prepared pie tin. Roll out second half of pie crust and place on top of filling. Trim excess. Pinch two crusts together and form an edge. (You can use dough scraps to decorate your pie crust.) Cut a vent in top crust. Bake at 400 degrees until golden brown and the filling is bubbling. Serve with ice cream or whipped cream.

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