The Pie Whisperer
I have never lived in a small town, but I’ve always longed for the small-town feel of a quilting bee, sitting with older wise woman, as we share secrets about quilting and life. And I feel the same way about baking pies. It reminds me of small towns and real people and cooking with love. But I have never had the desire to actually make a pie in real life: they seem a sort of mystery that is not accessible to me. Plus, I am lucky enough to have my friend Carol make me a perfect pie every year, and I happily trade for one of my own culinary specialties. I feel the love she puts into her perfect pie–unlike my own potential pie endeavor which would likely be filled with pie-anxiety.
I’ve noticed in the cooking world that most people are good at either cooking, or baking. What I prefer about cooking is the free form feel, creating it in the moment. I look at a recipe as a guide and for inspiration, but then I’m off to the races and off the page with my own version of the dish. I cook from my heart and use all my senses, a pinch of this and a pinch of that, watching the food as I go, smelling as I cook, knowing what my family and friends enjoy–that’s what turns a basic recipe into my own special creation. It’s about using your senses and not being afraid to fail along the way. I get it, and I love it. But baking is another story. It seems hard to do, takes a level of concentration and precision, and seems to require kung fu moves that I don’t understand.
That being said, I’ve long loved pie, so when I heard about Kate McDermott and the Art of the Pie, founded in 2008, my interest was piqued. Kate is a legend in the pie community (in case you didn’t know, there’s a pie community) who teaches pie workshops to thousands across the United States and at her home, Pie Cottage, in Western Washington. Yes: pie school! Just what I needed, a pie mentor! She is an award-winning, self-taught, home baker. I have tried for some time to attend one of her classes but believe it or not, they are always full with a waiting list (call now, because she’s booking for 2016!), so instead I invited Kate to my home to teach me and five of my foodie friends to “lose their fear of dough, pick up their rolling pins, and make pie.” (And maybe get a couple great pictures for my Instagram.)
Kate arrived, suitcase in tow, with an arsenal containing enough rolling pins that I’m not quite sure how she made it through security. I would describe her as woman with a pioneer spirit in the best of ways. She’s from a lineage of pie makers, and it’s her legacy to teach this ancient art and have it spread from generation to generation. She teaches that those who will eat the pie will taste the intention you put into it. She teaches that food is love, and that pie is one of the loveliest things you can make for someone–truly my kind of gal. She is so enthusiastic and passionate, down to earth and zany.
A true master of her craft, Kate practically has a pie PhD; she’s like the nutty professor of pies as she whips around my kitchen “supergluing” crust together and encouraging my chatty friend Michelle to stay focused, spontaneously grabbing Rachel’s carefully rolled-out crust and balling it back up, saying, you always get two chances! “What happens between you and your pie stays between you and your pie,” says Kate as well, but here we were in our little pie-making community sharing the love and the lore and our secrets. She had many useful tips that seemed to have double meanings, such as: Chill. Vent. Keep your boundaries.
“Feel guilty about something else, but not pie,” says Kate.
Kate has had more than 2,000 pie students–if you haven’t heard of her, get ready to, because her book comes out in 2016. Lest you think I am overly impressed, here are the words of Ruth Reichl, Former Editor in Chief of Gourmet Magazine: “I’ve been baking pies my entire life, but making them with Kate was a liberating experience. With pioneer spirit she throws the textbook out the window and comes up with absolutely perfect crust filled with fruit that actually sings to you, telling you when it’s ready to be removed from the oven.” Kate’s been talking about pies for a long time and people are listening, including Real Simple, USA Today, The New York Times, Washington Post, Saveur Magazine, and thekitchn.com; Kate has been a contributor to the Kerrygold blog, the Le Creuset Blog, and Tasting Table.
“Pie is nothing more than common sense,” according to Kate.
Kate really demystifies the pie experience and takes it from feeling like it’s sort of untouchable and requires a certain kind of magic that I don’t possess, to: it’s common sense, and it’s about your senses. How can you tell when the pie is done? Use all of your senses–does the color look right? Walk out the front door and walk back in, and if you can smell the pie partially from the outside, then the pie is almost done. And there’s the steady bubbling of fruit, which you can see and hear.
Kate says she once heard someone say that there are three kinds of people: pie eaters pie makers, and pie seekers. Now the truth is, I may never make another pie again, without Kate holding my hand through the process and a circle of friends surrounding me. But if I ever do, Kate makes it easy by breaking it down to these simple elements:
Four things in the dough: Flour. Fat. Salt. Water. Four things in the filling: Fruit. Sweetener. Seasoning. Thickener. Kate has all the recipes here, including the fabulous gluten-free versions which a couple of us baked. One of Kate’s magic potions is that she uses equal parts rendered leaf lard (the rendered fat around the pig’s kidneys) and butter in the crust, and the resulting taste and texture is simply amazing. More of her words of wisdom: keep everything chilled, including your hands, but most especially yourself.
What I was most taken by was how much her craft is like a calling for her. Kate says that pie is an ancient memory, and that “teaching pie is the hope of a future moment. Everyone has a wonderful memory of pie, or of the person in their family who is the pie maker. Teaching it to someone makes a future memory for their kids, and they will possibly pass it on to their kids.” When people see their pie come out of the oven, she says, they experience “pie love.” And that we did: each of us made our own pie, with Kate’s enthusiastic guidance. All six pies fit in my two ovens, so we snacked and chatted about the topic of the day until the moment of truth was upon us. Every single pie was gorgeous and uniquely reflected the pie-personality of its maker. The crust was flaky and moist and buttery and the filling was spectacular–the kind of pie that you just can’t get enough of. One friend had so many pieces she had to lie to her husband and say she gave some to the neighbors. Our workshop and our pies exceeded my expectations. My cherry pie was the best I’ve ever had. Pie love indeed.
Look out for “ART OF THE PIE: A Down to Earth, Homemade, Practical Guide to Artisan Pie Making and Life” featuring seasonal fruit pie, the craft of crust, and inspirational stories. It will be published Fall 2016 by The Countryman Press–W.W. Norton. Photos by Andrew Scrivani (Photographer/Director. New York Times contributor) and styling by Soo Jeong Kang (New York Times Visual Editor).
Teri Turner is ReadSource’s contributing food expert. Follow her on Instagram here: @nocrumbsleft for more delicious recipes and photographs sure to make your mouth water. Have a question or just want to say hello? Email Teri here.