When I was growing up, friends at my birthday parties knew that dinner would be as much part of our creative play as the sock-puppet show or improvised skits. We’d roll up our sleeves, don aprons and dig into a quirky, collective process that involved much more than grabbing snacks off paper plates.
Often, we assembled crepes. My mom would twirl batter in the pan, sliding out lacy-edged, golden disks we filled with ham and cheese, powdered sugar and walnuts, each to our own fancy.
Making individual pizzas was even more exciting. For the adventurous, pizza making is a delectable drama that unfolds in three acts, with each child master or mistress of his or her fate.
Begin at least two hours before the main action, depending on the recipe and atmospheric conditions. There’s something magical and inherently dramatic about the rise and burble of bread dough. In Maurice Sendak’s children’s book “In the Night Kitchen” (HarperCollins, 1996), the main character, Mickey, finds himself in the Night Kitchen, where he punches and prods bread dough into a propeller plane that flies him out of the frame. Dough provokes that sense of possibility and flight.
One of the simplest foods – just water, flour, salt and a pinch of sugar for the yeast – pizza makes the perfect learning-ground.
You sense its nerviness from the moment the yeast starts frothing and blooming in warm water (step aside, baking soda: this is no batch of cookies). Then it’s a few quick steps and the patience of waiting through one rise, as the dough domes under its tea towel on the counter.
Having kneaded and shaped and punched it down, a budding pizzaiolo has taken the same journey as Mickey and can never be intimidated by bread dough again.
The dough having risen ahead of time, little hands can now pat and roll their fist-sized lumps into whatever shape they please – squares, ovals or perfect circles.
The table, set with toppings, becomes an assembling stage, hands reaching, artists arranging, each person catering to whim and fancy. (Tomato sauce first, of course.) The finicky can choose just plain cheese; the color-hungry may reach for yellow bell peppers and pesto. Bowls of toppings multiply colors, shapes and flavors: zucchini rounds alongside pepperoni, basil, arugula, goat cheese and sausage.
The array is a natural invitation to experiment; there’s room for all tastes and predilections. (Note of caution: Don’t overload the pizzas, as their bottoms will be soggy.) With finishing touches in place, slide the creations onto baking sheets and into the oven (an adult job, most likely).
Then a 10-minute intermission before …
The oven timer dings and out they come, welcomed with squeals of excitement. Sometimes the kitty-cat face with olive eyes and bell-pepper whiskers has turned into an abstract-expressionist blob. Sometimes cheese has engulfed the carefully placed pepperoni and basil.
Any necessary archaeological excavation and identification occurs in the eating, which happens quickly, as soon as the tomato sauce cools.
Each pizza is unique, each result delicious, and, in my experience, encore performances are enthusiastically requested.
Eve Hill-Agnus is a teacher and freelance writer. Email her at