Like hundreds of other dutiful students before me, I am listening to a pie.
With my head cocked a few inches above a golden-crusted beauty just out of the oven, my ear is filling with steam heat — new sensation! — as I wait for the sounds of doneness prescribed by Kate McDermott. She’s the Seattle pie guru who is channeling her Pacific Northwest vibe into the Bethesda kitchen of Catherine Gewertz, where one of two intimate weekend workshops already has taken place.
McDermott is a known quantity in pie circles. Her blackberry pie appeared on the cover of Saveur in 2007. Its recipe prompted the magazine’s kitchen director to use the words “perfect” and “accurate on the first try” in an e-mail to its maker, which is something that probably doesn’t happen all that often in the test-kitchen universe. Ruth Reichl made pie with McDermott during her tenure as Gourmet’s editor-in-chief and declared it “liberating.” Pie grads testify with similar enthusiasm on McDermott’s Art of the Pie site. They are empowered.
“They think they’re coming to make pie. But maybe they’re coming to make a deeper connection. . . . Pie is a kind of avenue into what they are seeking,” McDermott says.
She makes it clear, before any substance gets sprinkled over any surface, that this four-hour session on a sticky Sunday afternoon in June will be about much more than making dessert.
McDermott has asked us to bring a box for hot-pie transport, a pie plate and a mixing bowl. She’s providing the flawlessly ripe Frog Hollow Farm apricots, King Arthur flour, foil-wrapped bricks of European butter, tubs of creamy Pennsylvania leaf lard and some slender Vic Firth rolling pins for us to use. She sits us down for The Talk.
We’re each making one pie, and we’re learning how to make one kind of crust, she begins. It’s a crust that has taken her years to develop, and she apologizes for the inclusion of leaf lard, because it’s not widely available. (See the related recipe.) Combined with the high-fat butter, it makes a dough that bakes up reliably flaky. Our questions help her assess where each of us is, pie-wise.
“The ingredient amounts for this pie are easy to commit to memory,” she says, “but I don’t want you to think in terms of memorizing them, or in exact measurements. You’ll feel it. You’ll know when the dough is working. You’ll fill your pie plate with the whole fruit, and that’s about how much will fit for the filling. You will see.”
Her demo ends after she forms two chubby pucks of dough, plastic-wrapped for 30 minutes of refrigerated rest. She is patient and unpretentious, wearing no makeup and seemingly unconcerned about what middle age can do to the look of an upper arm. And now she wants us to get moving, before the heat wreaks further havoc on her mission.
We nod, even if some of our piemaking challenges remain, like the humid air, uncomfortably close. We’re already schvitzing, standing at our appointed workspaces. Susan Merriam has flown in from Sharon, Mass., and is wearing her grandmother’s embroidered apron. (Surely, this 57-year-old mother and massage therapist knows from pie.) Financial analyst Ann Sun, 31, of the District, is approaching the task tentatively. To the left of the sink is Barbara Kahl, 59, a retired federal attorney and neighbor of Gewertz’s who has been told she’s a pretty good baker but admittedly is not adept at pies.
My issue is as obvious as the thumb-immobilizing cast on my left arm. Touch means all at this stage, and I am five fingers shy of replicating our instructor’s technique. “Sure, you can,” McDermott says. “I’ve had clients who couldn’t maneuver around as well as you.”
The 59-year-old divorced mother of two has conducted pie workshops since 2008, mostly in her cozy home, dubbed Pie Cottage, in Port Angeles, Wash. Long before that, though, McDermott came to understand the significance of artisan craft. When she was a teen in Santa Barbara, Calif., she learned to bake alongside a talented home breadmaker named Jackie Meek Potter. “For me, it was spiritual. I found that in making things with my hands I would think about different people,” she says.
In 2005, McDermott was still married to Jon Rowley, the Seattle culinary expert behind the success of Copper River king salmon. (McDermott calls him “the single most knowledgeable person about oysters and fish and fish quality.”) He asked whether she could make a pie, and the pair collaborated on recipe development. She got better at it, baking for community events. Eventually she began teaching upon request; good reviews spread in the media and through food blogs.
The price of her class has inched up along the way. Our group paid $200 each to watch at the master’s elbow.