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Foodbuzz 24×24: School’s IN for Summer!

My students and I wait all year to hear the words, “School’s out for summer!” but this year is a little different for me, because I was chosen to host a June Foodbuzz 24×24 party. The Foodbuzz 24×24 “highlights unique meals occurring around the globe during a 24-hour period.”

For my unique meal, I wanted to create a whimsical, nostalgic picnic celebrating my memories of elementary school. The best part was the guest list: a handful of ladies I went to elementary school with and hadn’t seen since! School’s IN for Summer!

It was the early 90s. I was in elementary school, jamming out to Ace of Base on my walkman, collecting everything that had anything to do with cats, and rocking one-shoulder-unhooked overalls. I’m not even going to bother apologizing for those, because I know you were wearing them, too. And probably poofy bangs. So shut up.


Don’t, like, do your hair for picture day or anything, Julie.

My entrepreneurial spirit was strong even back then — over the years I created a stuffed animal school, a stuffed animal savings bank, and a lotion company (wherein I mixed several of my mother’s lotions together and sold the result with a handmade label. Sorry, mom.)

I was also already a writer (albeit of questionable quality). I started writing a collection of stories on my toy typewriter called Julie and the Strawberry Point Patrol that I was sure would eventually be a profitable series of detective novels. I also, in all seriousness, sent off a handwritten/drawn book manuscript to Harper Collins. I was That Kid. If only I’d had some thick coke-bottle glasses.

Those were definitely days worth remembering, but more importantly, there are so many people worth remembering. That’s why this past weekend, I threw an elementary school mini-reunion picnic and invited three lovely ladies I hadn’t seen in years. I wish all of Lebanon Road Elementary School class of 1996 could’ve been there, too, because it was so much fun.

I set the picnic table in bright primary colors with sunflowers, foam ABCs, striped party straws, and gigantic candy jars full of nostalgic treats: Ring Pops, Pixie Stix, Dubble Bubble gumballs, Pez dispensers, Nik-L-Nips, and Tootsie Pops. A homemade party banner and some balloons stretched over our picnic table. Everyone brought childhood photos, elementary school yearbooks, mementos, and tons of fun memories to share.

The Cast of Characters:

Amber was a pint-sized dynamo in elementary school. She was tiny, but she took gymnastics and could do all sorts of amazing things. I remember thinking Amber was the sweetest friend in 4th grade, when we were both in Ms. Oatman’s class together.


Amber, then and now.

Now, Amber is married to her high school sweetheart, Patrick. She’s a nurse and lives in Charlotte with her zoo: 4 dogs and 2 cats!


Amber in elementary school.

Oh, yeah, and she’s still a dedicated athlete. Amber’s now a powerlifter, and, um, she could totally kick your butt:


Photo by Jeff “Boomer” Alred

Alisha was my BFF from second grade until distance finally got the best of us: she moved away in the middle of fifth grade. We lived down the street from each other, so almost every day would find me scuttling off to her house to play with her and her sister, Lauren. Her mom, Loretta, is also so important to me — she drove me to church youth events with Alisha when I was little, in addition to driving us home from school, driving us to get ice cream, driving us to the moon and back. You get the idea.


Alisha lovvvved Bradley Hood — well, most of the time.

Alisha and I were the perfect pair of friends: she was the cute, social one and I was the strategic, nerdy one. When our powers combined, we could tackle anything. I still remember the day 6 or 7 years ago when she called me and told me she was going to be a mommy! Here was the girl I’d played in the creek with at 7 years old, and she was going to have a baby of her own. Now Alisha and her daughter Olivia live in Mt. Pleasant, where Alisha works at an eye doctor’s office.


Alisha and Olivia

Ashley was so sweet in elementary school (and still is)! She lived down the street from my friend Tamara, and in fifth and sixth grade I’d go over to their neighborhood and we’d all hang out. She jokes that she had horrible hair in elementary school, but I always thought her hair was adorable.


Ashley, then and now.

Today, Ashley works in sales at a software company and is married to — get this — a guy we went to elementary school with! His name is Scott, and he was my buddy in second grade, before he moved to another school. Though he and Ashley are both from North Carolina, they actually reunited in Georgia after college. Now that they’re married, they live with their dog and their pet pig, Clyde.


Ashley and her future husband, Scott, in elementary school.

The Menu: School Lunch Redux

I set a nice table and invited a fun bunch, but a picnic’s not a picnic without the food! To make the menu match the theme, I took foods you might remember from your cafeteria tray or lunchbox and updated them for adult tastes. Thanks to my coworker Anne for this fun idea!

Here’s the lineup:

Cardboard-like, square lunchroom pizza became a homemade Fig and Prosciutto Pizza topped with fresh arugula and shaved Parmesan. Instead of a classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I made a bright Italian Pressed Sandwich. Baggies of grapes and potato chips morphed into Pickled Grapes with Goat Cheese and Savory Sour Cream and Fig Cookie Spirals, slathered with whipped cream cheese and fig jam. Fruit Roll-Ups and Hostess Cupcakes became homemade Straw-Raspberry Basil Fruit Leather and Fauxstess Cupcakes. We drank lemonade and root beer with our updated lunchroom fare.

During the picnic, we shared scores of memories. We talked about Terilyn Cunningham, our sweet friend who died from an asthma attack after elementary school. I remember her having an attack one day in gym class and the teacher asking me to walk with her to the classroom to get her inhaler. On the way, she explained what it felt like to be unable to breathe. In just a year or two, she was gone.

On happier notes, we laughed at our sixth grade newsletter, The Leopard’s Roar, written on an early 90s Word Processor with a big block font. Alisha recalled the field trip when I called out to Bobby Joe (and his dad, who was chaperoning) that she liked him. Oops. We remembered teachers and administrators — Mrs. Shaughnessy! Ms. Oatman! Mr. Meserve! Mrs. Foster! Mrs. Hildreth! Ms. Horne! Mrs. Borders! Mrs. Taylor! — as well as friends who’ve been flung far and wide over time.

The Inevitable Near-Disaster

Right smack in the middle of our meal, though, this happened:

Picnics and parties never seem to go off without a hitch, and this one was no exception. Though I’d made a point to check that the picnic area we were using hadn’t been reserved, turns out it had been! After all the work setting everything up, we had to quickly shuffle everything back into my car and relocate to another picnic table to finish up.

The girls didn’t miss a step before pitching in, and a helpful park employee assisted. In no time at all, we were laughing about the mess, eating, and picking up our conversation where we left off. The new picnic table might not have been decked out quite as nicely, but it was in the shade and turned out to be the perfect place to continue the festivities. All’s well that ends well, right?

And things did end well! The huge candy jars I filled for table centerpieces doubled as party favors. At the end of the picnic, each of us grabbed a treat box to fill full of candy. It might have been easier to sort through the candy when it was sitting on a pretty picnic table, but at this point, we weren’t above scrounging through the jars in the parking lot. Not even a little bit.

I had so much fun with these interesting, successful, strong, lovely ladies, and I can’t wait to see them again soon! Despite a few obstacles, the elementary school throwback was a fantastic blast from the past, and worth every ounce of this:


Tons of picnic planning.


Over the coming weeks, the following recipes and crafts will appear on Willow Bird Baking. I hope you enjoy these updated cafeteria classics as much as we did!

School’s IN for Summer:
Recipes and Crafts

  1. Homemade Red Berry Basil Fruit Leather
  2. Pickled Grapes with Goat Cheese
  3. Savory Sour Cream Fig Spiral Cookies
  4. Fig and Prosciutto Pizza
  5. Italian Pressed Sandwiches
  6. Fauxstess Cupcakes
  7. Easy Homemade Party Banner

P.S. A special thanks to Taylor Mathis for bringing his pretty blue tablecloth and gigantic diffuser to help me out!

What’s your favorite elementary school memory?

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Itsy Bitsy Berry Cream Pies

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

Directions:
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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(Freshly Picked!) Strawberry Cream Pie

Before we get to the pie: prayers go out for those of you in any of the areas affected by tornadoes this year — you are on our hearts and minds daily.

I just made perhaps the prettiest, most scrumptious pie I’ve had the privilege of shoveling into my mouth. Encased in a flaky, tender pie crust are billowy mounds of pastry cream, toasted almonds, and fresh glazed strawberry slices. Making it even sweeter (not as if it needed it or anything) is the source of the recipe. It comes from this lovely lady, my Aunt Pat, who’s also responsible for this lovely flower garden. Just call her a domestic genius:

My cousin sent me this recipe mounted on a gorgeous wooden plaque and it now sits by my computer desk as a reminder of my sweet family and all of the food memories that bind us — grandma’s homemade sausage gravy and biscuits, all the potluck Thanksgiving treats, and now, thankfully, this Strawberry Cream Pie.

Another sweet thing about this pie is that it comes to you during May, which is National Strawberry Month! The Charlotte Food Bloggers celebrated by going strawberry pickin’ at Miller’s Farm in South Carolina.


freshly picked strawberries!

I’d never been strawberry picking, but the thought of dancing around the kitchen whipping up this pie spurred me along row by row, bush by bush. Along my journey, I realized that one could glean many a life lesson from the berry-picking process. Here are just a few:

Life Lessons from Strawberry Pickin’:

1. The best berries are in the middle of the bush. Sometimes the things in life that are worthwhile also require more effort. Sitting in the sunshine and playing in the sand is worth the hassle of loading the beach chairs into the car and slathering on sunscreen. Showing love to a friend is worth the time it takes to create a special dessert for them. Seeing your family is worth enduring an hours-long road trip and a few embarrassing childhood anecdotes. Go for what’s worthwhile, even if it’s hard.

2. There will be bugs. They’ll even, like, bite you and stuff. But the hard and annoying parts of your life are still parts of your life — not just times to get through, but times to experience! Every hardship is an opportunity to react with grace and integrity, and to grow as a person. And, in the case of bugs, to itch.

3. Don’t be afraid to get a little muddy. Life’s more relaxing when you stop trying to keep things perfect.

4. Pet the pig . . . You know, like “smell the roses,” except cuter. There were a few random animals at the farm that we decided to love on after our berry baskets were full: a porker aptly named Juicy, a goat, a duck, and a donkey. Don’t hurry past the fun parts of life.

5. . . . But watch out for the donkey, because he flippin’ bites, especially if you have strawberry juice on your fingers. This probably has no life application. But really, watch out for that beast.

6. Being “hot, sticky, sweet” is not all that Def Leppard made it out to be, but it does make you thankful for showers.

7. Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. Everything’s more fun when you’re purposeful about enjoying yourself. Optimism and positivity come naturally for some people — and some of us have to make it happen.

8. Sweet experiences are best enjoyed with people you love. And even the not-so-sweet experiences can be helped along by great company. Like these crazies:


Charlotte bloggers Crosby, Diana, Katie, and Erin pick berries (not pictured: Vanessa, Taylor, and Julia)

9. The early picker gets the berry. Plan ahead and keep your life organized according to the systems that work best for you. We went picking when the strawberries were just past their peak, so others nabbed the better berries. Next time, we’ll be proactive!

10. Use your strawberries before they go all mushy. Don’t wait for great things to happen, and don’t let your talents and energy be wasted on sitting around, fearing failure. If you think an endeavor is worthwhile, give it your all and make it happen.

This life lesson can also be translated as: get in the kitchen this instant make a Strawberry Cream Pie!

Have you ever been strawberry picking? What’s your favorite use for delectable strawbs?

Strawberry Cream Pie


Recipe by: Pat Howard
Yields: about 10 servings

Crust Ingredients:
2 cups flour
1 teaspoons salt
3/8 cup cold shortening or lard
3/8 cup cold butter, chopped
3-4 tablespoons cold water

Cream 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

Other Ingredients:
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1 1/2 cups fresh strawberries
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
red food coloring (optional; I skipped this)
mint leaves or whole strawberries for garnish (optional)

Directions:
Note on timing: There are several components of this pie, but their preparation fits together nicely. You can make the crust dough and while it’s chilling, toast your almonds and set them out to cool. While the crust is baking and cooling, make and refrigerate the cream and slice your strawberries. Assemble these things once the crust is cool, and chill your almost-completed pie while you whip up the glaze. Chill the whole concoction for a few hours before slicing for best results.

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.

Toast your almonds: While the crust dough is chilling, preheat your oven to 350 degrees F and spread your sliced almonds out on a baking sheet. Toast for about 4-6 minutes, using a spatula to gently flip and stir the almonds ever 2 minutes. They burn quickly, so keep a close watch on the nuts and remove them when they just start to get some color and are fragrant. Mine took about 5 minutes.

Finish making your crust: Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Roll disk of dough out to around 2 inches larger than your (9-inch) pie plate and transfer it, situating it in the plate. Fold the excess dough around the edges and crimp, trimming where necessary. Cover the dough with parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dried beans, pressing to the edges. Bake for around 20 minutes. Remove weights and paper, egg wash crust, and bake 5-10 minutes more, until golden brown (you won’t be baking it again, so make sure it has good color — shielding edges with foil if they begin getting too dark). Let crust 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 pie: Cover bottom of crust with toasted almonds, and then dollop in chilled cream mixture, spreading it smooth with an offset spatula or the back of a spoon. Slice about a cup of fresh strawberries and layer them in overlapping concentric circles on the top of your pie. Chill this while you make your glaze.

Make the glaze: Crush remaining 1/2 cup of strawberries 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 (I transferred mine to a heat-proof measuring cup with a pour spout to cool for a bit) and then pour over top of strawberry slices on your pie. Garnish with big mint leaves, if you’d like, or whole strawberries. Chill entire pie for at least a few hours for best results; cut with a knife held under hot water and then dried.


life’s too short — eat strawberries!

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