It's not really a secret that I'm a pie person. It's my thing. I can make a mean cake but it will never be pie. Pie is proof that somewhere in me lies the ability to be patient for all the right reasons. Pie requires me to know what I'm doing but hold it loosely without overthinking. All things I could stand to mimic in other nooks. But pie did not spring from a kitchenwomb fully formed. In the last few years, I've tried all butter crusts, half butter/half shortening crusts, crusts with ice water and crusts with ice vodka. Hand pies and lattice pies and pies that required a turkey baster to unjuice.
The pies themselves have been chocolate cream, lemon meringue, apple cheddar, cherry bourbon (Manhattan), cherry peach, strawberry rhubarb, coconut cream and, finally, peach straight up. All throughout my pie-making history I've made them for the people I loved and they consistently reflect the state of my non-pastry being. I'm a big believer in the ability to infuse food made by hand with a little bit of what you're going through at the time, a la Like Water for Chocolate. With pie crust, all ten fingers are literally in the dough- kneading and patting and shaping- how could you not lose track of a few stray pieces of love, lust, sad or worry? The crust- it knows.
But in August, I wasn't making pie at all. In the height of Midwestern fruit season, that was a signpost and all it said was "lost." I was at a fork in the road and I had nothing of substance to eat with that fork. No clear direction in the proverbial yellow wood.
Sometimes the light ahead appears from the least deliberate of places. Meet Kate. My pie angel and the voice of Art of the Pie, which incidentally sounds exactly like her speaking and you should read it regularly. I met her at the end of August when I headed up to Seattle for a pretty fantastic weekend at IFBC and some quality time with Pop Pop. The fact that there was a pie class offered through a conference I was technically attending as part of my job is yet another marker that I'm in the right line of work.
I signed up at the last minute and knew immediately that I was in the right place. Kate is every bit herself, but she reminded me of a cross between my friends Mary Beth and Janine in spirit.
Beyond introducing me to the pie crust I'd been looking for, she showed us that it just doesn't have to be that hard. No need to peel the peaches before slicing them, they're fine as they are. No fussing with a food processor when a couple forks and cold fingers would do. No crying over dry pie dough. It's almost always fixable and when it's not? You can start over. I didn't realize until then that I was looking for the permission to do exactly that.
The pie we made in class was a peach pie with peaches from Frog Hollow Farm. This is a place I was totally ignorant of until August and I'm not entirely sure how that happened. All I can offer by way of excuse is that my Southern/Midwestern life has been thousands of miles from the perfect groves of peaches, apples, pears and apricots. Kate passed an uncut peach around the class, followed by a plate of slices. You did not need to actually get your snout right down to the fuzz to smell the sweetness coming off the whole fruit. When the slices got to me, I knew why. Whoa. I'm a fan of more locally grown Michigan peaches but this was another hemisphere of flavor.
I don't know how they did it but I needed more peaches and I needed them fast. As a gift of timing, it turned out that we were in Seattle for the end of Peachorama at Seattle's City Markets which meant I could actually buy fresh Frog Hollow peaches while in town. The next chance I got, I was in line with my own pallet-o-peaches and everything I needed to recreate that pie for my grandfather (the perfect audience for all edible treasure).
Once the conference wrapped, I got myself straight back to Sammamish with all my treasures in tow. I couldn't rectify the leaf lard situation (Kate's reco) without some serious sourcing but there's nothing wrong with an all-butter crust so long as you're using a Euro-style butter (Kerrygold, Plugra).
Another little revelation beyond the leaf lard was the inclusion of tapioca with the fruit to hold the pie together. I'd never had anything with tapioca in it other than bubble tea and had also been a little wary of thickeners in my pie. Flour always seems to dull the flavors a bit and Arrowroot and Cream of Tartar can be detectable flavors if not stored correctly. Kate's pie actually sliced without hemorrhaging all the sauciness that makes a proper bite. Not a hint of minerality. I'm officially a believer, particularly for juicy fruits like high season peaches or cherries.
I sliced a peach for Pop to snack on while I worked out the crust with a floured wine bottle. By 8 we were happily couched watching Moonstruck and digging into a beautiful piece of pastry still warm in the middle. I was one slice into the first of my new pie life and actually brought peaches home to make another pie for friends immediately.
We may have had it cold for breakfast with a little yogurt before I left for the airport. These are the things one does with an unapologetically hedonistic grandfather. At least I know I come by it honestly.
Once I got back to Chicago, I got in touch with my pig people at Slagel Family Farm on the hunt for leaf lard (the fat between the kidneys on pigs) and they did not disappoint. Three days later I retrieved a 5 lb tub of lard from my customary pick-up at Mado. The waitstaff was just ramping up when I got there and I explained my plans to them. I still think I owe Rob and Allie a pie for opening up the connection with Slagel. Seems like an appropriate gift on the opening of there new butcher shop, Butcher and the Larder (all responsibly, sustainably raised animals). Note that the tub actually says "Jeffy" which amused Molly to no end. The lard is mostly tasteless but definitely has a subtle, savory hint of bacon. Can you imagine anything better to complement a sweet peach pie?
True to promise, Kate's crust recipe held up and my Chicago peach pie had the layers of crust I'd been looking for (thanks to the different melting points of the lard and butter). I know I sound dramatic here but I'd been working at it for years- this was big.
Now that I had my crust, it was game on for baking. I made a little chocolate cream pie just because the Dawson sisters stopped by.
I made a miniature coconut cream pie for Molly's birthday. By the by, these little pie dishes are a bargain and come in every color of the rainbow.
There was another little chocolate cream pie for Nicole and Jamie's visit to Chicago.
Then apple season arrived by the truckload from Michigan and Indiana.
The crust held up when latticed with ribbons of pastry puffing up in all the right places.
The crust held up in general. Tomorrow, Thanksgiving, marks the unofficial climax of pie season. I hope that those of you who are baking will take this crust into consideration and fill it with all the thanks you want to give to the people at your table. I'm thankful for the pies that got me to this one and the ones still ahead of me. I'm grateful for a kitchen consistently full of people I care about to eat the pies that are made there.
I know it sounds cheesy but it's not. It's pie. And pie is love.
Kate McDermott's Pie Crust Recipe can be found on her blog, Art of the Pie. If you are ever in the Seattle area and in need of spiritual pastry guidance, she meditates on 8 inch pie plates regularly.