My younger sister Bridget is the baker in our family for a reason.
When I bake, I usually spend more time eating the ingredients in my bowl than reading the careful measurements in my recipe. When Bridget bakes, she closely follows the instructions and somehow resists even the temptation to lick the spoon.
But this Thanksgiving, I find myself about 1,000 miles from the pies Bridget pulls out of the oven for our family table in Indiana. Looking for a taste of home (and some guidance), I turned to Kate McDermott’s “The Art of the Pie.” McDermott’s cookbook is born out of the pie-making workshops she teaches across the country, so I figured I was in the right place to learn.
At first, I flipped impatiently past the sections of prose in search of recipes. The hefty hardcover contains a wide range of choices, many accompanied by full-page photographs of the finished pies. McDermott is warm and welcoming and, at times, a bit wordy. (She seems to realize this. Her peach pie recipe has two options – a long version and a short version.)
I settled on making “The Quintessential Apple Pie,” and at the bottom of the recipe, I found a suggestion to try a cheddar cheese dough. That combination was new to me, but I was determined to outshine my sister’s aptitude for perfect crust. I consulted McDermott’s longer passages for tips.
“Chill your dough, the flour, the fats, your pastry cloth, the bowl you make your dough in, even the work bowl and blade of your food processor if you’re not doing it by hand … what am I missing here?” she writes in the introduction. “Only the most important chill of all. Yourself! Pie making, like life, can be approached in a number of different ways, and if you are uptight about your pie dough, fussing and fretting over every little tug and tear, you are probably expending energy you simply don’t need to.”
What I eventually found in those 350-plus pages was an assurance McDermott could teach me everything I would ever need to know about baking a pie.
The introduction includes an explainer on pastry cloths, a passage on caring for rolling pins and a guide to testing your oven for hot spots. Each section contains answers to questions I didn’t even know I had – how to weave a lattice top, how to make a gluten-free pie crust, how to alter a recipe for sour or sweet cherries, how to harvest rhubarb and more. A list of apple varietals warned me to steer away from Red Delicious, which don’t bake well. My chosen recipe gently suggested I not peel my apples, and I found the skins added a lovely tang and texture to my pie. A hurried baker might miss the finer points of these lessons by skipping the longer paragraphs, though the recipes themselves are detailed and easy to follow.
Now engrossed in these pages of practical tips, I also read about McDermott’s life in food. She wrote about school lunches from her childhood and shared meals with her son. She described her memories of making pies with her grandmother and once eating lunch with Julia Child. She mentioned she dedicates every single pie she bakes to a friend.
Buoyed by both the clear instructions and the kind manner of “The Art of the Pie,” I crafted my pie. I usually struggle with rolling out my crust, but I did find chilling the dough and equipment made the task much easier. My cheddar crust was a savory partner to the sweet filling. (I should have read even closer, as I cut into the finished product without letting the pie sit for the recommended hour. It was a juicy mess, albeit a delicious one.)
When I took the first warm bite, I raised my fork and dedicated it to Bridget. — MEGAN DOYLE
TRADITIONAL ‘ART OF THE PIE’ CHEDDAR CHEESE DOUGH
Baker’s note: To make the dough workable, I needed more water than the recipe called for.
Makes 1 double-crust pie or 2 single-crust pies
21/2 cups (363 grams) all-purpose flour, unbleached
1/2 teaspoon (3 grams) salt
1/4 pound (115 grams) Kerrygold Dubliner Cheese or other sharp cheddar cheese, grated and chopped fine with a knife (about 1 cup grated)
8 tablespoons (112 grams) salted or unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon-size pieces
6-8 tablespoons (88-118 grams) ice water
Additional flour for rolling out dough
1. Combine all ingredients but ice water in a large bowl. With clean hands or a pastry cutter, blend the mixture together until it looks like coarse meal with some lumps in it.
2. Sprinkle ice water over the mixture and stir lightly with a fork.
3. Squeeze a handful of dough together. Mix in a bit more water as needed.
4. Divide the dough in half and make 2 chubby discs about 5 inches (12 centimeters) across. Wrap the discs separately in plastic wrap and chill for an hour.
THE QUINTESSENTIAL APPLE PIE
About 10 cups heritage apples (skin on), quartered and cored, to mound up high in the pie pan
1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar
1/2 teaspoon (3 grams) salt
1 teaspoon (2 grams) cinnamon
2 gratings nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon (1 gram) allspice
1 tablespoon (12 grams) artisan apple cider vinegar or 1-2 tablespoons (5-10 grams) freshly squeezed lemon juice
1-2 tablespoons (15-30 grams) Calvados or other apple liqueur (optional but really good)
1/2 cup (73 grams) flour
1 recipe double-crust pie dough
1 knob butter, the size of a small walnut, cut into small pieces for dotting the top of the filling
1-2 teaspoons (4-8 grams) sugar, for sprinkling on top of the pie
For an egg wash, 1 egg white plus 1 tablespoon (15 grams) water, fork beaten
1. Slice the apples into 1/2-inch (1.5 centimeters) thick slices, or chunk them up into pieces you can comfortably get into your mouth.
2. In a large mixing bowl, put the apples, sugar, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, vinegar, Calvados and flour, and mix lightly until most of the surfaces are covered with what looks like wet sand.
3. Roll out the bottom pie crust on a well-floured surface to be 1 to 2 inches larger than your pie pan, then lay it carefully in the pan. Pour the filling into the unbaked pie crust, mounding it, and dot with butter.
4. Roll out the remaining dough, lay it over the fruit, and cut 5 to 6 vents on top. Trim the excess dough from the edges and crimp.
5. Cover the pie and chill in refrigerator while you preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
6. Lightly brush some of the egg white wash over the entire pie, including the edges, and bake on the middle rack of the oven for 20 minutes.
7. Reduce the heat to 375 degrees F and bake for 30 minutes longer.
8. Open the oven and carefully sprinkle sugar evenly on top of the pie, then continue baking for 10 minutes more.
9. Look for steam and a slight bit of juice coming out of the vents before removing the pie from the oven. Get your ear right down almost to the top of the pie and listen for the sizzle-whump, which McDermott calls the pie’s heartbeat. (Her cookbook includes a glossary of pie-making terms.)
10. Cool the pie for at least an hour.