MY PARENTS REJECTED my long-ago pleas for an Easy Bake Oven, and it turned out to be one of those unintentional decisions that become a child’s formative moment. Mom told me to use the real oven, so I did. Months later, nearly 6 years old, I entered a batch of biscuits into the county fair, and they were awarded second place among the adult entries. It’s safe to say my ego will never recover, although the decorating side of things never held much appeal, so everything looks extremely pre-Instagram homemade.
A young baker friend, Kaisa Dawson, is much more interested in “The Great British Bake Off” than wheedling a lightbulb-powered toy oven out of her parents, and we started baking together when she turned 8. (She would like you to know she is currently 11¾.) Our families vacation together regularly in a sizable group, and making dessert was an obvious fit with our favorite shared hobby.
We started with a one-bowl chocolate cake, and moved on to Irvin Lin’s spectacular marshmallow-filled cake from his excellent book “Marbled, Swirled, and Layered.” Last summer, it was Eton Mess, complete with a foraged blackberry taste test; Kaisa was thoughtful enough to use some meringue to pipe the first letter of everyone’s name for the group we were feeding, so they all could decorate their own desserts.
Kaisa has baked all kinds of things on her own over the years — muffins and cupcakes are the most frequent — including her own birthday cake. I’ve tasted some really good bread of hers, and laughed when she bemoaned a honey experiment that led to “The Great British Bake Off” dreaded “soggy bottom.” Somehow, though, she’d never made a pie crust. As anyone who has ever baked a pie knows, having someone coach you through the crust will help you get the hang of it.
So this summer, we baked galettes (flattish, rustic pies that are folded rather than baked in a pie pan) with four different fruit fillings, plus a pan of pie crust cookies. I tried to convince Kaisa that the Official Rules of Pie Making declare that these cookies are just for the baker and aren’t meant to be shared. I completely failed, because Kaisa is a much more generous person than I am. Her dad and younger sister Siiri got the first two.
Ever since our first cake, our very different personalities have worked well together in the kitchen. She generally follows rules and recipes precisely, while I shrug if we skip a step, or need to improvise. I also decided 11¾ years ago that becoming her honorary auntie didn’t mean I needed to set a perfect example, and goofball mistakes always provide a laugh rather than frustration. We’ve had a batch of meringue absolutely refuse to cooperate; discovered that compostable plastic is too fragile to use in piping bags unless you’re going for a “random explosion” look on your cake; and laughed over one of this year’s galettes, whose crust around the cherry filling partially unfolded while baking. Because I already had explained that I bake galettes on rimmed sheet pans for this very possibility, I could say, “See: If it weren’t on this pan, the smoke alarm would be screeching at all this.”
Rather than prepare five separate crusts together — baking with kids shouldn’t feel like a production line — I made four ahead of time. Well-wrapped, unrolled pie crust keeps in the fridge for several days; you just need to take it out of the fridge a little ahead of time. While they were warming up a bit, we prepped rhubarb, raspberry, strawberry and Morello cherry fillings.
These all followed a basic formula based on 2½ cups of fruit, but gave us a chance to talk about why I use tapioca starch to thicken fruit fillings (clear, tasteless, never gets gluey, easy to find these days), and how, when sweetening fruit, it’s better to go by tasting the fruit in question rather than exactly following recipes. Examples are easy: Her Finnish mom would prefer almost no-sugar-added berries, particularly when they’re peak season and locally grown, while my husband has more of a sweet tooth. Sure enough, when Kaisa ran a survey post-dessert, relative sweetness was what people mentioned most often in explaining their favorite and least favorite fillings.
A week after our vacation, she brought an absolutely delicious mixed berry galette to my house for a cookout. A couple days later, a text from her mom said that it seemed likely Kaisa would be bringing pie dough on all their trips from now on. After I read that, I posed in my kitchen like Megan Rapinoe after a goal — absolute beaming confidence that this was a job well done.