I’ve never been intimidated by any aspect of cooking. My attitude has always been, I can read, so, of course, I can cook. My obsession with cookbooks started in my late teens and only eased off a few years ago.
As I enter my third decade as a cook my habits are changing and with them my cooking style. I’m using recipes less and less and relying more on instinct. Part of this comes from shopping at the farmer’s market and belonging to a CSA, but my style has been evolving in this direction for a long time.
This approach can be disastrous for baking, which as we’ve all been told over and over, is more of an exact science than any other culinary pursuit. The shape of your measuring cups (what, you don’t weigh your dry ingredients!), the hardness of your water, all these things can and will affect your baking.
This is the kind of thing I was expecting to learn in Kate McDermott’s famous Art of the Pie class. Kate has taught pie making to more people than I can count, many of them local and national food celebrities. (And her class has been featured in many other blogs, too.) Last summer, my mother-in-law and I, along with two other students spent a morning at Diane’s Market Kitchen in the Pike Place Market learning her secrets.
Class was a revelation – not at all what I expected – and I’ve been making pie, and thinking about pie ever since. I’ve made peach pies, blackberry-lemon pies, apple pies, pluot pies, pumpkin pies, and a killer chocolate-bourbon-pecan pie. Even as I am working on this post, there are two cranberry-pear-almond pies baking in my oven, soon to be given away as pre-Christmas gifts.
It’s not like I’d never made my own pie crust before; the first time I remember making pie was after a friend and I went apple picking in NY state, and needed to use up all those apples in one weekend. I found a recipe, and I made a few pies, not a problem. I worked on the retail side of a famous bakery in Boston many years ago, and learned enough there to form strong opinions about pie crust (crunchy, all-butter). And my pies were good enough, sometimes even great. But my crust was inconsistent, perfect one time, heavy and without good flake the next.
I never expected my pies to measure up to those of the one legendary pie maker I knew – my great-aunt. No one in my mother’s family will ever forget Aunty Emma’s pies. My favorite was pineapple-cream, her grandson’s the blackberry. But we all agree it was the crust that elevated those pies to another level.
Kate’s attitude towards pie crust and infectious love of her craft has certainly changed everything about the way I make pies. It isn’t all about her recipe, (which makes a great crust, don’t get me wrong) but the way she approaches the task. Kate doesn’t use a baking scale, measuring cups or spoons, or any special equipment in class, beyond your eyes, and your hands. Just like my Aunty Emma. What she does do is instill her students with confidence, demonstrating exactly what to do in every situation. Crust falling apart? Not a problem, roll it back together. Dough rips as you top the pie? Just make that into a creative vent hole.
I wasn’t the star student in class –in fact, that was my mother-in-law. At home I’ve yet to have a crust come out like the perfect pastry you would see in pie making video. Usually they fall apart in the rolling stage, and break into pieces when I form the pie. And I just keep going. And every pie crust has been spectacular- consistently light, flaky, and rich at the same time. Every time I taste one, I remember my great-aunt, and the self-confidence, and generosity she radiated in every aspect of her life. And, as it turns out, that’s why her pie was so spectacular – just like Kate’s.