Weekend Highlights

Published November 16, 2011
At Home & Living

The Secret Ingredient for Perfect Pie

by Rebekah Denn
seattle child article photo
Graduates of Kate McDermott's pie-making class.

This season, let's gather with our kids and reclaim the phrase “easy as pie.”

After all, some people I know are as likely to ask their kids to deep-fry a turducken as to drape dough into a 9-inch pan. They're far more likely to rely on frozen crusts (or just bake cookies) than deal with finicky, persnickety directions about ice water and pea-size bits of butter.

But here's the surprise, as I learned from Seattle-area pie maven Kate McDermott: Kids can indeed make pie – great pie. It's not even a big deal for them to make great pie, and it doesn't require fanatical precision. What it does take, by McDermott's measure, is a good recipe, a basic understanding of how the crust should look and feel, and a good dose of confidence, trust and love.

“Mama, do you HAVE to put love in the pie?” my 8-year-old asked after we took an “Art of the Pie” class together, where McDermott told everyone to do just that. I said, “yes.”

Making pie crust involves mixing flour, salt, fat, and ice water into dough, shaping it into a ball or disk, chilling it to a firm texture, and then rolling it flat. It scares people off because it requires more than just mixing the correct ingredients: If the dough is too dry it will crack, if it gets too warm the crust won't be flaky, if it's overworked it'll be tough.

McDermott's pie skills have been featured on TV and in glossy food magazines. Her “Mom and Dad and Me” classes are less expensive than her adult ones, but, at $125 for kid and parent, they still aren't cheap. Luckily, she's provided her recipe, philosophy, and step-by-step photos for free online (http://artofthepie.com/wordpress/?p=1027).

My son and I did take the class, and I found McDermott's hands-on advice a straightforward guide. She's tamed my own fear of pie dough. My son will hopefully never get it.

For the most part, McDermott doesn't see many differences between teaching kids and adults to make pie. Where they do differ is that kids are less concerned about imperfections. If the dough tears, or isn't perfectly shaped, they're fine with it – and, so is she. They can accept that dough, like life, doesn't always have a smooth path. And they learn that in pie, also like life, mistakes can usually be forgiven.

“(Kids) have no fear, no pre-conceived ideas that they can or can't do it,” McDermott said. “It's amazing to me that some of them have ‘the feel' for dough and for rolling out on their first try.”

Having taken the class, I can share some of the lessons my son and I learned in her kitchen, which a fellow participant said was as much a therapy session as a cooking lesson. We may not be crust-masters even now, but my heart warms up like a preheating oven when I ask my boy what we should do for the day, and he muses and replies, “We could make some pie.”

Ingredients matter: McDermott swears by Kerrygold or other European-style butters, which have a higher butterfat content and less moisture than most American butters. (She stocks up on Kerrygold at Trader Joe's.) She also gets the best results using King Arthur all-purpose flour (available in most supermarkets, including QFC), which has a slightly higher protein content than average. Her “secret ingredient” for crust is lard, which she uses in a 50-50 mix with butter. (Others, like my own mom, use a butter-Crisco blend; McDermott calls the latter “the-stuff-in-the-blue-can-which-shall-remain-nameless.”) She mail orders lard from a Pennsylvania shop (http://dietrichsmeats.com); it's often available locally from farmers' market vendors such as Sea Breeze Farm (http://seabreezefarm.net).

Tools Don't Really matter: McDermott prefers a nimble, tapered French rolling pin, but the kids used pins from a play cooking set, and she says that even canning jars will work in a pinch.

Keep Cool: McDermott keeps her mixing bowl and flour in the freezer. She also dips her hands in ice water and dries them before handling the dough.

Roll from the Center: When rolling out the dough, the pin should start in the center of the dough each time and extend out to the end. Roll from the center to the edge farthest from you, then from the center to the edge closest to you, then rotate the dough a quarter-turn and repeat. It's hard to force your hands or your children's hands into that pattern; they naturally want to run back and forth over the entire length of the dough. Consciously override that instinct.

Dough, Just Like Life, Can Be Patched: If the crust tears, it's not a problem. Water is our “glue,” McDermott told our class, and it's easy to dab a bit of water on the tear and stick a new piece of dough on top.

Think Good Thoughts: McDermott urged us to talk to the dough, to “wake it up” after its stint in the fridge with a rap of the rolling pin, to tell it that it would be as beautiful as the flowers in the vase on the counter. As we added ingredients, she had us all pause and focus on putting our love into the pie. Did it make a difference – more than even the lard – in our wondrous flaky crust? As I told my son, I think it must have.

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Kate McDermott’s Old Fashioned Apple Pie

Crust (enough for 9-inch pie, double crust)
2.5 cups flour
1 cup or 16 tablespoons mix of butter, shortening, or leaf lard or a mix
1/2 teaspoon salt
Enough ice water to mix (between 3 to 15 tablespoons)

Cut fat into dry ingredients until fat pieces looks like cracker crumbs to small walnut size. Add enough water to hold together. Form into a round ball and then cut in half. Form the two hemispheres of dough into chubby discs; wrap and chill in refrigerator for at least one hour. Roll out on floured board.

Technique for Crust
All ingredients should be cold
Use a light touch and don't overwork.

Line a 9-inch pie pan with bottom crust. In large bowl mix 8 to 10 cups of sliced or chopped apples (about 2.5 to 3 pounds), 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon allspice, a little salt, pinch of nutmeg, flour (1/4 to 1/2 cup), 1 Tablespoon of cider vinegar and as much or as little sugar as needed depending on the sweetness of the apples (1/4 to 1 cup). 

Dot with butter and cover with top crust. Cut vents. Crimp edges. Brush with egg white wash and sprinkle with sugar. Bake in a hot oven for 20 minutes and then in a medium hot oven until done. (See oven temperature notes below.)

Apple Notes
Use a mix of organic heritage apples, unpeeled for flavor and color.
Lemon juice can be substituted for apple cider vinegar.

Baking Notes
Ovens temperatures vary.
Hot oven: 425-450 degrees F.
Medium hot oven: 350-375 degrees F

Kate McDermott/Art of the Pie