Do you find pastry intimidating? Children don't! Any child who has played with modeling dough will be eager to use the same techniques to create a pastry-based snack. And any parent can make it happen, with ready-made pie crust, realistic expectations, and Montessori-style step-by-step skill-building.
Fiddling with scraps of pastry dough while Granny made the cherry pie was the highlight of our family holidays when I was a child. Granny knew nothing about Montessori, had never taken an early childhood education class nor read a single book about how to teach a child to work alongside her in the kitchen.
Nevertheless, she stood me on a chair to wash my hands, let me choose my favorite apron, then set up my work surface on a kitchen chair (where I could reach it), right next to where she was working.
I got to roll the scraps by myself and eventually learned to top and bake them. I daresay they were as tough as shoe leather, given that I rolled and re-rolled the very same pastry over and over while Granny filled and topped holiday pies. We didn't mind. We dipped them in milk!
Even if you are an accomplished baker, start the children with ready-made dough. Your light and lovely home-made pastry will be neither by the time children are done rolling (and rolling and rolling...). I took the easy road when I introduced my own children to pastry—pre-frozen and ready-to-roll.
The better frozen pastry comes in sticks. Pie crusts that come in pans are generally less expensive but they hold together less well. Thaw to room temperature, pull dough out of the pans if needed, divide and shape into balls, then chill before rolling.
Over several weeks or months, each time you bake with your child, introduce one new, more complex skill. Offer plenty of chances to practice the new technique before trying the next. You should handle the advanced techniques while your child is learning (divide the dough into balls, transfer the rolled pastry to a baking sheet). For the safety of younger children, an adult should always move baking sheets in and out of the oven and remove pastry to cool.
1. Learn to roll with a rolling pin. Offer walnut-size pastry balls. The balls will end up in many interesting shapes after freestyle rolling! Serve cooled pastry like a cracker (plain or with a soft spread) or for dipping in soup.
2. Learn to cut pastry with a pizza cutter. Offer egg-size pastry balls. After rolling, invite the child to cut the pastry into inch-wide strips with a child-safe pizza cutter. Serve cooled pastry like a cracker (plain or with a soft spread) or for dipping in soup. Variation: cut crosswise again to make squares or rectangles.
3. Sprinkle a topping. Offer walnut-sized pastry balls. Roll pastry freestyle or roll and cut in shapes. Give children a shaker-top container and let them shake on the topping before baking. Toppings: sea salt and dried herbs, sugar and cinnamon, chocolate sprinkles.
4. Brush on a topping. Offer walnut-sized pastry balls. Roll pastry freestyle or roll and cut in shapes. Give children a pastry brush and let them brush the topping on before baking. Toppings: melted butter, olive oil, beaten egg white. Variation: add any sprinkled topping after brushing.
5. Scoop and spread a topping. Offer egg-size pastry balls. Roll pastry freestyle or roll and cut in shapes. Give children a small spoon and a small dish to hold some jam (it's easier to scoop from a dish than a jar.) Show your child how to drop one spoonful in the center of each pastry, then use the back of the spoon to spread jam not quite to the edge. NOTE: let cool completely—the jam stays very hot for some time.
6. Roll pastry in a topping. Offer half of one pie crust (about 8 ounces of pastry). Warning: this is delightfully messy! Try this one yourself first, then show your child the sequence. Choose one combination of liquid and dry toppings from the list below and two shallow bowls. Place a small amount of each topping in its own bowl.
Toppings: melted butter and diced garlic, olive oil and grated cheese, beaten egg white and coarse salt, melted butter and cinnamon sugar, melted butter and cocoa mix.
Safety first! An adult should handle baking sheets until children have demonstrated they can work safely with hot pans. Only a child's own parent can judge safety readiness. When you feel the time is right, let the child practice with the cold oven first.
With the oven cold, show how to pull the rack out, lift out the baking sheet, set the baking sheet on a cooling rack, then push the oven rack in and shut the door (while using a potholder or oven mitt.) Children must learn early that water and potholders don't mix! They should always dry their hands thoroughly, then check the potholder (or mitt) to make sure it is completely dry before using it. To do otherwise risks a burn.
Experienced children who are ready and able to do it "all by myself" will be flabbergasted by a toaster oven they can learn to use independently. A toaster oven door and rack are so much easier to manage! Make sure the controls are simple for a child (not digital programming!) and lay in a supply of half-size baking sheets.
1. Form equal pastry balls. Check casually for readiness at meal or snack by talking about which portions are more, less, or the same. Talk about fractions whenever you cut a sandwich or divide other wholes into equal portions. When children can compare equivalents accurately most of the time, they are ready to divide a big ball of dough into smaller and smaller balls (half, then half again, etc.)
2. Transfer dough with a spatula. Provide a utensil with a short handle—an adult-length spatula handle is a lever (the pastry at the end gets heavier and the spatula harder to control.) It's important to start with small pastries that fit entirely on the spatula. Show children how to flour the spatula, gently push inward, then lift, transfer, and slide the pastry off. Untidy bits can be straightened on the baking sheet.
3. Make a tiny turnover. Also messy. By now, your pastry chef will have all the skills needed to make a tiny turnover except folding and sealing. Prepare the filling in advance.
Easy fillings: grated cheese, mashed potatoes, frozen peas, shredded lunchmeat, pizza sauce and cheese, fresh peach or apricot slices, shredded fresh apples, raisins, drained berries.
If you're worried that pastry-making with children may be biting off more than you can chew, remember that my Granny did not so much actively teach me to work with pastry as give me a chance to learn for myself. Any adult (regardless of baking experience) can do the same for their own children (or grandchildren!).
—by J.A. Beydler for Montessori Services; Ms. Beydler is a nationally published writer, parent, and former day care owner/operator. Her articles appear online and in regional parenting lifestyle publications.
—Originally Published 2011