I tend to think I make a pretty good pie. Last Easter I made a strawberry rhubarb pie that vanished within seconds, and the Easter before that the blackberry pie I baked caused grown women to wander around the house moaning softly with delight. Every Christmas I bake sweet potato pie with bourbon (one of my personal favorites), and my Missouri-born husband thinks I make the best pecan pie he’s ever had. That said, however, when Kate McDermott contacted me about taking one of her Art of the Pie classes, you can bet I didn’t turn her down. For every prize winner I’ve turned out, there’s also been a sodden mess somewhere along the line, and I’ve always been curious which things are truly important in pie baking, as opposed to simply customary. In other words, how does it all really work?
So last Sunday, on a muggy afternoon in downtown Seattle, I joined five other women (including my friend Patricia of the blog Cook Local – see her post on the class here), to learn more of the mysteries of pie. Kate sets aside four hours for these classes, which turns out to be about perfect. We sat down at 3, and by 7 we were all walking out with hot pies.
Unlike most cooking classes I’ve watched or participated in, this one really focused on learning to do things yourself. With so few students, we could all easily watch Kate as she demonstrated each step, and then we each made our own pie under her careful eye. There was plenty of time for questions, and she made it very clear that there was no wrong way to do it. She began with a pep talk on Crust Fear (a common phobia), then made a batch of dough to demonstrate. She bakes the way I do, with a general notion of quantities but without being a stickler for exact measurements. When we all got up to the counter to try making our own doughs, we were given one measuring spoon and a coffee cup to work with, and expected to eyeball the rest.
Kate’s crust is made from very specific ingredients: King Arthur flour, Kerrygold Irish butter, leaf lard, salt, and ice water, whereas I tend to use Stone Buhr Shepherd’s Grain flour and Challenge butter. The big difference between Kate’s crust and mine, though, is that hers is much shorter – that is, she uses twice as much shortening as I do. For a double crust pie, she adds 8 oz of butter and 8 Tbsp of lard. This makes a crust which is extremely tender, an approach I usually only take for tarts. It is, as you might expect, extremely tasty, and quite forgiving to work with. We all mixed up our doughs, patted them into rounds, wrapped them up in plastic and tucked them into the fridge while we started on fillings.
Since we’re not in any particular fruit season (rhubarb is past, strawberries yet to come, nowhere near apples), we each had a choice of frozen fruit: boysenberry, sour cherry or blueberry. One lucky person had the option of making a Shaker Lemon Pie, and Patricia jumped on that one (she then got to do lots of lemon slicing). I chose boysenberry. Our fillings, like the crusts, were not measured out very precisely – we simply dumped fruit into our pie pans to just below the rim, then put it into a mixing bowl with a handful of flour, a handful of tapioca, a pinch of salt and a grating of nutmeg. When our dough had chilled enough, we rolled it out and assembled our pies, then popped them all into the oven.
While our pies baked, checked frequently by Kate and making the kitchen (and the surrounding area outside, to judge by the number of passersby craning their necks) smell wonderful, we ate slices of a previously baked lemon pie and listened to Kate read us words of wisdom on the tao of pie baking. She believes firmly in the virtue of pie made with love and intention, and encourages us all to go out and share the knowledge of pie.
Everyone’s pies came out beautifully. We headed home with our finished pie, a tub of leaf lard to play with at home, a set of Kate’s recipes, and a fresh appreciation for the art of pie baking. And the car smelled wonderful the entire drive home.