Kate McDermott, the Pie Lady and author of Pie Camp, discusses secrets to making pie crust with David and Renee.
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Renee Schettler: David, would you consider yourself a pastry phobe?
David: A pastry phobe? You mean pastry phobic?
Random Voice: Oh, God, look, a pastry! Run!
David: No. I absolutely adore pastry. As a matter of fact, I prefer to make pastry more than any other dough. I prefer to make it more than bread. Bread, I think is harder to make than pastry.
Renee: I agree.
David: What about you? Are you a pastry phobe?
Renee: No, no, no, not at all. I learned a long time ago from my grandma. I mean, some days it turns out differently than others, right? Depending on the humidity, the barometric pressure, probably if it’s a new moon or not, who knows…
David: Exactly. Yeah, it’s true.
Renee: I do have a foolproof recipe that I have committed to memory. It’s just so simple and it has never let me down.
David: Which one is that?
Renee: It’s just butter, lard, flour, salt, a little sugar, ice water. But in just the right proportions. And it works.
David: Is it equal fat, equal lard?
Renee: No, it’s roughly double, I think, parts butter to lard. You add the butter first and the lard a little later because the lard stays a little squishier in the freezer than the butter does.
David: Yeah, it does. Yeah, because the butter has all that water in it. Well, it would have been better if you said to me you were really pastry phobic, because then I would have a really good line to follow up with that. But for those that…
Renee: Wait, you can’t just say that and then not say the line…
David: Well, I’m going to say the line. I’m going to say that, for those listeners who maybe are a pastry phobe, as you said, or pastry phobic, we have the equivalent of the pie-chiatrist.
Renee: Ohhhhhhhh, how long did you spend on that one?!
David: A long time. The pie-chiatrist with us today.
Random Voice: That’s not a thing.
David: Kate McDermott is the author of the new and wonderful book Pie Camp: The Skills You Need to Make Any Pie You Want. So you’re going to want to stick around.
Renee: He’s pointing at you, listeners, in case you couldn’t tell. He’s pointing at you. I’m Renee Schettler, Editor in Chief of Leite’s Culinaria.
David: And I’m David Leite, its founder. And this is Talking With My Mouth Full, a podcast devoted to all things food, the people who make it, and the stories that make the people. Welcome to the show, Kate.
Renee: Thanks for being here, Kate.
Kate: I’m just delighted to be here. It’s always good to be with you both.
Why are so many of us scared of making pie crust?
David: So let’s talk pastry. Let’s talk pie crust. Why do you think so many people are so pastry phobic?
Kate: Oh gosh. First of all, it’s the biggest fear that people have when they come into my classes. And I think it’s because we have this idea that we have to have a pie crust that’s going to look like what we see in a magazine. And I am the first person who will say that my crusts very rarely look like the ones in the magazines. I make perfectly imperfect pies and perfectly imperfect crust. They’re unique. And I like to call them artisan crusts.
David: Oh, there you go.
Renee: Love that word.
David: That covers a lot of ground.
Kate: I think if we let go of perfection and allow a dough to do what it’s going to do on any given day, because every day they’re different…
David: They are.
Renee: Absolutely. Well, and they can smell fear, in my experience. I feel like pastry dough is like a dog. It can smell when I’m scared.
Kate: Yes, yes.
Renee: I’m convinced of that.
David: Oh my, we have to talk about that one later, Renee.
Renee: Kate, you’ve mentioned in your previous podcast with us, that you learned at the elbow of your grandmother. And so it became intuitive. And I learned pie making the same way, same exact way. And you don’t think about it. You feel it.
Kate: Yes, you do. You feel your way through things. We feel our way through life. And I think pie dough on some days you say, “Oh my gosh, it’s rolled out beautifully.” And then you say, “Well, how did I do that?” And then other days, it’s maybe, the dough is too hard, and what we need to be thinking of is, well, maybe I need to let it sit for a little while and maybe I need to have a cup of tea while I’m letting it sit. But I think we have a little bag of tricks that we collect over our experience of rolling doughs and making pies. And I’ve often said to my students that the only difference between you and me is that maybe I’ve made a few more pies, but there’s no difference. I just continue to roll out and you will, too.
David: And I think that’s part of the problem, that people, on average, I would assume, make two pies or three pies a year—something in the summer, something at Thanksgiving—and that’s basically it. So they’re not having that daily or that weekly ritual. Like Alan’s grandmother, my partner’s grandmother, she would bake something every single day for dessert. That’s just the way she was. And so she was really adept at that.
The most common mistakes people make
David: So what do you think, Kate, if you’re thinking about the mistakes people make and you probably see all the mistakes in your pie camp, that you have both, before, in-person, and a lot of it now virtually, what are the biggest mistakes that people make?
Kate: Well, I think one of the biggest mistakes, David, is thinking of it as a mistake instead of an opportunity for creativity. If I have a place in the dough where it is cracking and falling apart into a number of different pieces, I call this the “jigsaw puzzle pie,” where I’ll just glue it together with a little bit of water. And let me tell you, that jigsaw puzzle pie, I have seen those firsthand. There was a student in one of my classes who was an editor for a magazine. The dough was just falling apart into 20 different pieces. And I said, “Not to worry, not to worry.” We glued it very lightly together with some water and that pie made the cover of the magazine.
David: Really? How wonderful.
Kate: Yes. If we let go of perfection and allow the personality of our pie come through and celebrate it and, actually, there’s the other thing of, if somebody compliments you on that pie, please try not to say, “Oh my gosh, you should have seen what happened.” Just say, “Thank you. You’re so very kind. Thank you.”
Kate: Because that most important ingredient, yes, it’s the dough. Yes, of course, and the filling. But the most important ingredient that we’re putting in that is love. Who can fault that?
David: I agree.
Renee: And there’s that beautiful Japanese philosophy of kintsugi where pottery that’s broken becomes more beautiful for being mended at the crack.
Kate: Yeah. There is one little tip that I do. If I may, at the end of eating an entire pie, I actually do what I call a post-mortem on the pie pan. And I look to see, is there dough stuck? Is there baked-on crust on the bottom? Do I see a lot of moisture or the fruit juice on there or the fruity filling or whatever it is. And then that lets me know that I had a weak point in my dough or a hole in my dough. That’s kind of something that we don’t think about, as we’re learning this craft, to actually take a look all the way through, not only at the beginning of rolling it out and getting it into the pan, but actually all the way through to the end, when the pie has completely been eaten. And we look to see, how did my pie crust do?
3 simple rules for pie crust (and life)
Renee: I think that’s really insightful. Well, you’ve distilled down the essence of pie-making into about three simple rules that you say apply not just to pie crust, but to life.
Kate: Yes, these are the rules that work for me. They say you teach what you need to learn. And for me, it is keep everything chilled, especially yourself. Keep your boundaries—not to overfill that pie pan because all that stuff will go onto the floor of the oven and burn and then you have to clean the oven pie. And then to vent. And I think venting appropriately, perhaps with a pie, is something that is a pretty cool way to keep ourselves with an equilibrium that we’re not boiling over.
David: So again, just for everyone, that’s keep everything chilled.
David: Especially yourself. Keep your boundaries—don’t overfill. And to vent, to vent properly. And that’s something that I need to learn. I do not vent properly. My pies are beautifully vented. My life is very poorly vented.
Renee: I can vouch for that.
David: There’s a lot of spillover in my life because I’m not vented properly.
Renee: We’re talking about pastry, David. We’re talking about pastry.
David: Yes. Back to life here.
Renee: Okay. Keeping things chilled. I think everybody knows they should be using really cold butter or lard. But do you have any other tips or tricks for that?
Kate: For keeping things chilled? Oh gosh. Yeah. Small things, like turning off the lights in your kitchen on a hot day. Turn them on when you need it. Make sure that you do have some light, you don’t want to be making pie in the dark. Well, maybe you could. You want to wait to preheat the oven, so you can take the time to allow your dough and yourself to chill out and rest. The dough would be, of course, the pie would be in the fridge while your oven is preheating. And then you can enjoy a little breather. That’s keeping yourself chilled. How about if you have hot hands, hold some ice cubes so that your hands, if you’re using your hands to be making your dough, of course…
Kate: …so that’s just one small thing. You can get the temperature of your hands down really, really quickly. I freeze butter if it’s a hot day and grate it, so that I don’t have to worry about melted butter. Or I freeze my flour.
David: I love that, I saw that.
Kate: That is just small little things. Just cooling down your rolling surface, putting bags of frozen peas on there or bags of ice or something on your rolling surface.
Renee: Maybe sticking your rolling pin in the freezer.
Kate: Yeah. Many, many different things can help your dough and you stay chill and not to worry about it too much. This is not rocket science. This is pie.
How to smoosh fat into flour
David: Right. Well, you have a very interesting section in your book on the pastry section. Shall I say, quite technical and filled with jargon. You have a section that’s called How to Smoosh Fat into Flour.
Renee: Do you include a pronunciation of “smoosh” with that?
David: I think that’s so technical and so jargony, smoosh. Can you talk to us about the proper way to smoosh fat into flour?
Kate: Yes, I can. Smooshing is something that I love to do. We take the cold fat and smoosh it into the cold flour with our cold hands. We smoosh it and it’s a way to just get that fat so it is flat and you can do this with your fingertips and quickly rub the fat in or you could even take your knuckles and push down. And you want it to be just an incompletely mixed, smooshy mess. We want to have some places where it still looks floury and some places where it looks like the fat’s smooshed in. And there’s just such a wonderful feeling of just smooshing.
Renee: It could almost be borderline in the vent section. As you get your energy out on the…
Kate: Yes, yes. Yeah. David, how do make pie crust? I would love to know.
David: Well it’s different. I don’t make it this way all the time, but I cut my butter into half-tablespoon pieces. I don’t cube them. And I mix them with the flour and the salt and I put it on the counter and I roll my rolling pin over it. So I’m flattening them and I sprinkle with more water. And then I use my bench scraper and fold it over and do it again, almost as if working with laminated dough. And the more you do that, these layers of butter get longer, eight inches, nine inches longer, and you fold them over and you get all these incredible layers. I got that from Shirley Corriher. And I started doing that. And my gosh, it was almost like having a puff pastry for my pie crust. It was amazing.
Kate: Yes. I keep learning about dough over the years. So the main dough that I did in Art of the Pie, I have some new doughs that are in Pie Camp, of doing some of those things, David, of folding over and folding over and getting those wonderful layers that steam apart. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t think there is anything quite as beautiful as cutting into a pie and seeing those beautiful layers. Those beautiful golden layers that have steamed apart.
David: I absolutely agree with you on that. I adore pie. Pie is one of my absolute favorite desserts. That and layer cakes.
Kate: Now David, pie is a food group all of its own.
David: I agree with you.
Kate: And it’s a guilt-free food because all of the calories have been baked out and replaced with love.
Sneaky alternatives to pie crust
Renee: And even if someone doesn’t have time or the personal stamina to make pastry, Kate, you’ve got an entire chapter in your book about “the other pies,” right? The ones that don’t call for pie crusts.
Kate: Yeah. So these are cousins of pies. Pie cousins. The pie family is wide and varied and they all use the same ingredients. We have flour and sugar and fat and fruit and custards and all of these things can be made in different ways and cobbled together to make other fruit and non-fruit desserts sometimes…
Kate: And they’re all wonderful. I actually have had times where a pie experiment went awry.
Renee: It happens.
Kate: It does, so I got out the lasagna pan and I turned it into there and took my spoon through it roughly and took it to a potluck. And nobody didn’t even blink twice. And I did not say, “Oh, this was my pie mistake.” I said, “Oh here, here’s my pie cousin.” And I said it was a crumble. And so I think so many times, like the pandowdy is a very rustic pie. It’s got the fruit filling on the bottom and then it’s got a pie-type crust on the top that is roughly cut and broken up. It’s a dowdy-looking pie.
David: Dowdy looking pie in a pan.
Renee: Very much so.
How to evenly brown your pie crust
David: Getting back to baking a pie, I do have a question. How do you make sure that the bottom of your pies are nicely brown and not that flaccid white pasty pastry?
Kate: Hey, David, could you say that five times fast, please?
David: I was seeing when I could get the word “flaccid” in there. So I got the word flaccid…
Renee: I knew, I knew that was your objective!
David: I was trying to get that one in.
Kate: That’s pretty good. Well, there are some tricks to getting a pie crust that is nicely browned and crisp. And you want to put a well-chilled pie into a hot oven. And when you put that pie in there, depending where your heating element is, if it’s down on the bottom, you can start your pie on the bottom rack. And then you can move it up maybe after 20, 25 minutes. You can also place a pizza stone in your oven while it is preheating and place that pie pan on there. And give that bottom a real blast. You could put your baking sheet, if you don’t have a pizza stone, put a sheet pan in there or a cookie tin and just get it hot. The main thing is to give that pie, that crust, the dough, you want the dough to become a crisp pie crust. And to do that, we need it to get a blast of heat on the bottom.
Kate: Now knowing your pie pans and knowing your oven are very important things. You just want to make sure that you know that your oven, if it says 425°F that it actually is 425°F and not 325°F.
David: And you do that by how, Kate?
Kate: You can to that by having a separate oven thermometer that you can put in there to double-check. In fact, I jokingly have said in classes, if you have three extra ones, three oven thermometers go in there and if two of them agree, then that’s the temperature.
Kate: But you can also do a little thing, I call it the toast test. The toast test allows me to find where I have hot and cool spots in the oven. Now that may not seem like it’s particularly something that you may not need, but just knowing information is…knowledge is power, as they say. So I want to be able to know what my oven is actually doing. So I take white bread, the stuff that you would get at the dollar store. And I lay it out directly on the oven rack. On my oven racks it takes 15 pieces of bread, five in each row. There are three rows and I turn my oven on to 325, and I let it toast. And then I pull it out and I have a visual record. I have a visual of what my oven is doing. I can look at that, all those 15 pieces of bread as if they were one large piece of toast.
Kate: And maybe I can see that where it is towards the front of my oven, maybe it gets a little browner there. And maybe towards the back left-hand side, it’s a little lighter. And maybe my interior part is just this beautiful color or not. And so that allows me then to see, well, maybe I have a hotspot up here in the upper part, or maybe I have a hotspot in the back part. I could use that information if I wanted to, to either avoid that hotspot or to use that hotspot.
Renee: That’s so smart.
David: That’s very smart. I’ve done that. And I was very shocked to find out that my very expensive oven had very uneven heating. And I had to have him come back several times to get it calibrated properly. But it made all the difference.
Kate: Wouldn’t it be great if we could test drive ovens like we can test drive cars?
David: That would be great.
Kate: I have the very good fortune of having been able to bake in ovens all across the country and in Europe and of all makes, models, and ovens that were entry-level ovens and ovens that are very, very expensive ovens, it doesn’t matter the name, it doesn’t matter the price, and you can have two ovens that are exactly the same, side by side, and they bake differently.
David: And that’s one of the greatest obstacles we as a website face, because people say I did exactly what you said, but their oven may be off. And definitely, I understand that completely.
Kate: So the words are, know your oven.
David: Know your oven. Well with that wonderful nugget of wisdom, thank you so much, Kate, for stopping by. Again, we always love having you on the show.
Kate: Thank you to both of you and be happy. Make pie.
Renee: Such a pleasure, Kate. Thanks.
David: Kate McDermott is a speaker, teacher, and the author of the James Beard award-nominated book, Art of the Pie. Her newest book, Pie Camp: The Skills You Need to Make Any Pie You Want, just came out. Kate is now teaching virtual pie camps, and you can find out more about that and all about Kate at artofthepie.com. Thanks so much, Kate.
Kate: Thank you.
David: This podcast is produced by Overit Studios and our producer is the sometimes crusty Adam Clairmont. You can reach Adam and Overit Studios at overitstudios.com. And remember to subscribe to Talking With My Mouth Full wherever you download your favorite podcasts.
David: And if you like what you hear and want to support us, consider leaving a review and rating on Apple Podcasts. We’d like to thank our sponsor, The Spice House. Remember, you can get a 10% discount on all their carefully curated world spices by going to thespicehouse.com and using the code LCSPICE. The offer expires November 1st, 2020. Chow.
David: A very frightened chow.
Renee: That look on your face.
David: Maybe you could pick up that “chow” from somewhere else. That’s a frightened chow. I must have looked like…
Renee: I wish you guys could have seen the look on his face. Oh my God.
David: Okay. Deer in headlights, oh my God, “Chow!”