Pie a la McDermott mode, or how to know when dessert is done

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.

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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.

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.”

RECIPES:

Apricot Pie

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.

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