My 'pie guys' belie the stereotype

I admit it. I exploited a stereotype when I advertised my Friday elective course: that boys don't bake. Beyond the fact that plenty of men are extraordinary chefs, I wanted to make it cool for the boys at my school to be perceived as bakers. So I appealed to their team instinct. If the course was for boys only, they'd come to the kitchen-team practice. It worked. Nine of them signed up.

They were all eighth-graders of varying shapes and sizes, all curious to see what their principal would select to bake. But most of all, they were eager to eat at the end of the school day. For several of them, this was the best day of the week, the day they looked forward to most. And they even did their homework.

As it turned out, my group of baking boys belied the stereotype ... mostly.

At our first class meeting, I established a few ground rules. Rule No. 1: Everyone gets something to eat at the end of the afternoon. If you follow directions, it'll be something good to eat. Rule No. 2: Wash your hands, don't fool around, respect the ingredients, the hot stoves, and sharp utensils. I needed to assure both order and, most important, clean-up.

I had signed a surety bond for Lisa, the head cook, to guarantee her overriding rule: The kitchen would be left spotless. The boys signed a contract and immediately set about testing the fooling-around clause. Stephen spent the first class sitting on the bench, having snapped Adam with a dish towel.

Then we sat down to plan the menu. Everyone had a suggestion - favorite baked goods that they loved to eat, but didn't know how to make. Brownies, cakes, cookies, Jell-O ... the list went on and on. Dan, in particular, seemed full of advanced recipes. It would keep us busy till the next school year, or fully stock the Ladies Auxiliary bake sale at the next town election!

We started with sticky buns, based on my theory that the course ought to have some curricular integrity in addition to calories. We would understand the chemistry of baking: how humble ingredients are coaxed to perform magical feats such as expanding and rising. I started a sweet yeast dough at home the night before class and let it expand overnight, slowed by refrigeration.

When I got to school, I set the bowl of dough in the warm spot on top of Lisa's refrigerator in the kitchen and checked it periodically as it began to rise more rapidly. By midmorning, the yeasty aroma was wafting down the hall toward the office and started everyone anticipating a treat at the end of the day. The dough was threatening to expand skyward over the top of some very large bowls.

"This is called 'leavening,' " I explained to the group, punching down the finished dough that afternoon. "Yeast reacts to sugar and leavens the flour. It'll fluff up with air." It didn't take me long to exhaust my chemical knowledge.

The boys paired up and set to work rolling out the dough, sprinkling it with sugar and cinnamon, making a thick caramel topping, and finally putting trays of gooey, swirled buns into the oven.

Then the second test of Rule No. 2: clean-up. As the buns baked, the boys had to render the kitchen spotless. Now, I have learned that boys are fond of power tools and will clean all manner of nooks and crannies if motors or engines are put to use. (I know this because I clean the oven at home with the vacuum.)

So at school, we borrowed the custodian's shop vacuum, which did an admirable job, without any special attachments, cleaning flour and sugar from the countertops and stove-top burners.

Those first buns set the baking bar pretty high: light, gooey with brown sugar and nuts, eminently edible, and evidence of culinary potential. The rest of the school was crowding the kitchen door. Every member of the class insisted on carefully wrapping their one-ninth share of the product to bring home to show their parents. I doubt that any of the buns survived the half-hour bus ride home.

Next came Baklava Day, which gave me the first glimmer that a few of my young cooks had been withholding prior experience. Shawn took the lead. Baklava takes some finesse, with its many layers of thin pastry requiring patient basting with butter. Shawn went to work and turned out a tasty and beautiful piece of work.

After a few weeks of muffins and cookies, we had an established routine. It was time to give homework. It was time for Pie Day. I asked each of my bakers to bring in a filling for his favorite pie.

Even though the class wouldn't meet for another week, Shawn came back the next day with frozen apples peeled and ready for baking, picked from his own orchard. Shawn never did his homework on time in his other subjects, much less a week in advance. And his mother probably did not know that her freezer was short one apple-pie filling. When school included baking, Shawn revised his commitment to school.

It was Dan, however, who took the cake on Pie Day. He arrived at school with his grandmother's recipes, plus the makings for three pies. Dan quietly set to work on not one but three pies: strawberry, banana cream, and lemon meringue. He also issued a challenge: "I dare anyone to a pie-making contest." Boston cream pie was the ace up his sleeve.

Clearly, Dan was a pie-making ringer, leavening my stereotypes of baking ... and of boys.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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