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.
However, my fingers do not flutter through the flour mixture like hers, creating the crucial combo of pieces in sizes of “almonds, peas and cracker crumbs” before the ice water is dispersed in tablespoon sweeps. A dough comes together under my hand, a tad soft and almost smooth. Gewertz, a journalist who blogs about pies and bakes them for fun and profit as CurvyMama Pies, diagnoses and brings McDermott over to confirm: No evidence of butter and lard bits suspended in the field of raw pastry. Out it goes.
Merriam has done about the same, although her proximity to the heated stove must factor into her example of overly incorporated fats. We both start over, with a lighter touch and more attention to detail. Kahl and Sun are cruising.
The filling tutorial is short and sweet. We fill our empty pie plates with the lovely apricots; about a dozen do the job for a nine-incher, although this way of measuring should work for other fruit as well. (I toss in raspberries among the apricot slices, just for color.) We taste the fruit to judge how much sugar we’ll have to stir in, which is another large lesson to take away: It’s a case-by-case basis when you’re dealing with fruit. The dough bits left in our mixing bowls will help “snug up” our pie filling, McDermott says, as will additional flour and a bit of tapioca. Important additions: a squeeze of lemon juice and two — no more — Microplaned swipes of a nutmeg. Those go into every fruit pie, she says.
We roll out bottom and top crusts and brush them free of excess flour, working as fast as we can. Sun’s pie is packed high and camera-ready. (She had been the most anxious among us? Harrumph.) Egg-white wash, slight shower of sugar on top. Our four pies hit the oven at 425 degrees, but only for 15 minutes before the temperature is reduced to 375 for the next 35 minutes or so.
Meanwhile, McDermott pours champagne and cuts slices of the pies she and Gewertz made in the morning. Her mixed berry pie’s not perfect — another result of the wilting weather she’s not used to back home. Still, each bite contains fruit that’s just sweet enough, and tender crust that stands up to the fruits’ juices.
We gab and clean up. She proclaims we are in the pie sisterhood. Before you know it, it’s time to listen to our own creations.
They look maybe five to seven minutes away from being done. Get beyond the visual, McDermott says. What do we want to hear? The bubbling sizzle of the fruit through the pie’s vents, and then. . .wait for it: the soft “whump” of the filling mass, perhaps hitting the inside of the top crust before it settles.
The group lines up for a photo. McDermott surveys our handiwork. Mine’s the homeliest of the bunch. “These are not cookie-cutter pies,” she says. “They are artisan pies. When I’m looking at someone’s pie, I see what is inside of them. You’re putting the best things of yourself in. Bake it up. It always turns out.”
Later on, Merriam confirms that her pie suffered no TSA turbulence on her trip home. Did she get what she came for?
“I have filled a spot inside me that connects to an early, early memory of my grandmother making pies and truly hanging on to the apron strings of the apron I was wearing while I learned to make the best pie I have ever had,” she writes in an e-mail. “My family all thought my escapade to Bethesda . . . was worth every penny.”
Shaker Lemon Pie
Fresh Fruit and Mascarpone Pie With Gluten-Free Crust
Thai Chicken Potpies
McDermott’s Pie Camp runs July 26-30 in Port Angeles. She will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.