Pie Day

It was the week before my wedding, and my logistical and emotional to-do lists weren’t getting any shorter. I was in the thick of managing vendor communications, delivery schedules, ceremony and reception timelines and packing lists when my dad had a sudden health scare that threatened to keep him from attending our wedding at all.

Ultimately, he would end up walking me down the aisle—and later, having a successful surgery to unblock one of his carotid arteries—but on that sunny Saturday morning, the outcome was still very much in question. I could’ve coped by buckling down and focusing on unfinished wedding projects; instead, I found myself making a six-hour road trip to the Olympic peninsula in order to spend a day learning from pie goddess Kate McDermott. It ended up being exactly what I needed.

Kate lives in a beautiful little home she calls the Pie Cottage, so named because of the sheer number of desserts her oven has produced. The cottage rests on a hilltop overlooking the Salish Sea; out back, she has a garden blooming with pie fillings like rhubarb and Shuksan strawberries. She makes her living there as a cookbook author and teacher. That’s how I found myself making a pilgrimage to Port Angeles: I wanted to understand how to approach the one dessert that, despite more than a decade of serious practice as a home cook and baker, still terrified and mystified me.

If you’re looking for Kate’s secrets, just pick up Art of the Pie—you’ll find every technique and trick you need to know. But baking with her offered something more transcendent than the simple details of what fats she uses in her dough (half Kerrygold butter, half cold-rendered leaf lard) or her four-step formula for improvising the perfect fruit pie filling. That’s because Kate approaches pies as a metaphor for life.

Before attending Kate’s class, I approached pie dough with trepidation and anxiety, like a series of impending problems that would need to be fixed. On my worst days, I have a tendency to approach life that way, too. But I left armed with Kate’s three rules that shifted my approach to pie-baking and, perhaps, everything else:

  1. Keep everything chilled, especially yourself. Because butter starts melting at 59 degrees Fahrenheit. And if you’re consumed by perfectionism, you’ll make every step so much harder than it needs to be.
  2. Keep your boundaries. Because if your pie crust extends past the edge of your pie plate, it’s liable to burn. And if you’re busy caring for everyone but yourself, you’ll burn…out.
  3. Vent. Because if you don’t allow steam to escape the crust through one or more well-placed vents, your pie will actually explode. And without the appropriate emotional outlets during stressful times, you might, too.

As the summer unfolded, each shift in the season brought new types of fruit to the markets and farmstands of the Pacific Northwest, and new opportunities to test my fledgling pie skills. I made blueberry pie after visiting the U-pick fields of Bow Hill Blueberries. And on a drive home from North Cascades National Park, we made a U-turn after spotting a handmade sign advertising “$15/GALLON BLACKBERRIES,” finding a cooler full of Ziploc gallon bags, each bursting with jewel-like berries, and an honor jar to collect our cash payment. When we celebrated the end of the grape harvest in Walla Walla with Kelsey and Kai, they brought us along to a dinner party with their winemaker friends; our hosts made a showstopping cassoulet, and I offered up blackberry pie for dessert.

By the time November rolled around, I felt ready to volunteer for Thanksgiving pie duty. I was turning 32 years old, but hadn’t ever contributed to my family’s holiday feast, so this was an opportunity to step up my #adulting. I chose a classic pumpkin and Sister Pie’s bourbon pecan, and there were zero leftovers.

Today, I’m proud to say that I can throw together a pie at the drop of a hat, without having to give myself a pep talk first. It seems I’ve finally internalized Kate’s three rules—and my pies and my life are both the better for it.

Camera: Canon 6D