One of the highlights of my recent cherry trip to Washington was an evening spent with Kate McDermott, a master pie maker and incredibly warm personality who shared her tips and tricks for making flaky, fruity, scrumptious pies. Far from intimidating, the process really can be "easy as pie."
Glowing accolades for McDermott's pies have come from people like Ruth Reichl, Kim O'Donnel, and the grateful students who have taken her classes in Seattle and elsewhere around the country. Although she has baked since childhood, McDermott isn't formally trained, which might just be her secret. Free from rules, she works from the heart – and hands-on experience. Over a period of two-and-a-half years, she experimented a lot ("it was an obsession," she says) to figure out which ingredients and techniques work best, which often means using her senses more than exact measurements. (This was a revelation for Reichl, who said making pies with Kate was a "liberating experience.")
McDermott makes at least one pie every day, often sharing them with friends and neighbors. "It's like a meditation for me. If I don't make a pie, it's like I haven't done my practice for the day," she says. I was absolutely charmed by McDermott's passion for pies, her generosity, and warm, fun way of teaching.
Here are a few tips I learned, but to really get the full Kate experience, I highly recommend taking one of her classes.
• Chill everything: McDermott says this is the number one rule to remember. From the ingredients to the bowl to yourself, keep it cool!
• Set your intention: Before mixing the dough, McDermott quietly puts her intention into the bowl. It might sound corny, but I love this idea.
• Crust ingredients: After much experimentation, McDermott now recommends using 2 1/2 cups King Arthur or Giusto's flour for their consistent, higher protein content; 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt ground in the palm of your hand; and about 8 tablespoons each leaf lard and Kerrygold Irish butter – salted or unsalted, it doesn't matter. (For an all-butter version, she uses about 13 1/2 tablespoons.) Does she worry about precises measurements? Not really. "If one tablespoon is big, make the next one small," she says.
• Get your hands dirty: When mixing the dough, McDermott suggest using your fingers to quickly smoosh the ingredients together into a variety of sizes ("crumbs, peas, almonds, and a walnut!"). Then add a little bit of ice water at a time (it make take anywhere from 3-15 tablespoons depending on the day), squeezing and wiggling your fingers after each addition until the dough just comes together into a ball.
• Don't toss the leftover bits: Little pieces of dough left in the bowl or on your counter top can be added to the filling to thicken it up.
• Filling ingredients: "Anyone can taste sugar and seasoning," McDermott says. "You really want to taste fruit first." Mixing the filling is really about tasting it rather than adhering to exact measurements. However, do be conservative at first, as it's easier to add than remove ingredients! For a cherry pie, Kate might use around 3/4 cup sugar, a pinch of salt, 1/2 teaspoon of lemon juice, 2 grates of nutmeg, and 2 teaspoons of quick-cooking tapioca. But again, it all depends on the ingredients you're using, so rely on your senses. "You're the final judge; what does it need?" says McDermott.
• Rolling the crust: McDermott rolls her crust on a chilled pastry cloth using a French-style rolling pin. She also recommends putting down a healthy amount of flour; any excess flour can simply be wiped off the dough with a pastry brush.
• The pie dish: McDermott likes using all kinds of pie dishes from ceramic to glass to metal. The only kind she wouldn't recommend is disposable aluminum. Her favorite size is an 8-9" pan; larger sizes may make it difficult to cook the crust and fruit properly.
• Abandon perfection: When cutting lattice strips, McDermott eyeballs rather than measures. If the crust is patchy, she simply "superglues" extra bits of dough on using water. It's about the joy of making and sharing the pie, not the promise of perfection. And yet, I'd say McDermott's pies look and taste pretty superb!
Have you ever tasted a Kate McDermott pie or taken one of her classes? Check out her website for tips, videos, and class schedules.
• Learn more: Art Of the Pie
(Information for this post was gathered during a press trip to Washington sponsored by Northwest Cherries and the Washington State Fruit Commission. All views and opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author.)
(Images: Emily Ho)