A little friendly competition between professional pie-baker Kate McDermott (apple) and The Seatttle Times' Kathleen Triesch Saul (banana cream) is handled with great taste.
AT FIRST IT was just a friendly rivalry. A tease here, a dare there. Then, things turned serious. She got attention from a national magazine. I labored on in anonymity.
When I heard she’d been consorting with food queen Ruth Reichl, that was it. The last straw.
I e-mailed her: It’s time for the smackdown. My pie or your pie? Your place or mine?
Who really makes the best?
I’ve known Kate McDermott more than half a dozen years, since she met and married Jon Rowley, a guy I’d gotten to know back in the days I was writing about food full time. Rowley was, and is, a virtual encyclopedia of wisdom on all things seafood and more. So I’d run into the two of them now and then at events for food fetishists like us.
Somehow, Kate and I got to talking about pie. I said I was renowned for mine; she allowed as how hers was pretty darn good, too. Some day, we said, we’ll have to make pie and see who rules.
This went on for awhile. Until I saw a gorgeous picture on the cover of Saveur magazine in February 2008. It was her blackberry pie! And inside, a flattering little item about it. Then the news this year that Reichl, filming with Rowley for a public-TV series, “Gourmet’s Adventures with Ruth,” asked to make pie with Kate.
She said she’d play. We set the date and place: my house, where we could settle this once and for all. Kate suggested we make the pies that meant the most to us. Hers would be apple; mine, banana cream.
As the day of reckoning loomed, it occurred to me: Was I nuts?
Kate’s pies were golden visions of perfection. She was even teaching classes in “The Art of the Pie.”
Suddenly, I knew the kind of intimidation that others say they feel when facing the mere idea of baking a pie. I was reminded that there are two kinds of people: those who make pie and those who wouldn’t dare. They just couldn’t face the failure, the chance that their crust would fall apart, turn into a tepid mass of sog or a chewy thud in the gut. Nearly always, it was the crust that scared them most.
And here I was, scared, too. Perhaps there’s a lesson in this, I tried to tell myself. And as it turned out, there was. It would be revealed in the afternoon of our smackdown.
As we gathered to prepare for battle, we paused to talk pie and personal history.
I learned to bake from my mother. Banana cream was my first. It’s what I make to console and comfort, to celebrate and share. For 25 years, I’ve made the pies for our annual gathering of friends on New Year’s Eve. It’s all about traditions.
Kate came to pie-making much later in life. She’d baked since she was a girl, but not pie. In her 40s, she made pies from berries on the farm where she lived, but there wasn’t much passion in it. Then she met Rowley. One day he asked if she’d bake a pie. Pie for the gourmand? Yow. That was daunting. And his reaction — a polite “how about we work on the crust” — could have squelched it all right then and there. Instead, it inspired a two-year pursuit of the perfect apple pie and, along the way, her initiation into the pie-making fold.
Back at the kitchen counter, it was time. We faced each other and began, tackling that seemingly most formidable of challenges, the crust.
Right away, differences. She uses lard; I stick with Crisco. But we both add butter. Quickly, we’re mixing our shortening with flour and a pinch of salt — working it just enough so that pea-sized clumps form and it all starts hanging together. “Don’t mess with it too much,” we both advise our little audience of fans. Then, we stir in ice-cold water. Gotta be cold, we agree.
Form the dough into balls and we’re rolling — she with her tapered wooden pin, me with my marble one in a cheesecloth sleeve. We discover our crusts look nearly identical — bits of butter scattered here and there, ragged around the edges. Not perfect at all. They may well tear as we slide them into the pans. No matter. We know not to fuss.
Because I have just a single crust, I get the oven first. While it’s baking, I’ll start my filling. Kate will stash her dough in the fridge for further chilling, then turn to her apples.
Time flies as she whips out her Veg-O-Matic and whacks them up (six kinds, all from local farmers markets, skins left on). She’s used a tool called a refractometer to poke each apple and check its sugar content. As she stirs in spices, a dash of vinegar (not lemon juice), a little flour and just 2/3 cup of sugar for a prodigious 4 pounds of apples, their tingly tart-sweet aroma reaches me 8 feet away at the stove, where I’m stirring my filling with a new sense of urgency.
I say with bravado that my filling will be light and silky, thanks to my whisking the milk and cornstarch, sugar and eggs into a frothy frenzy.
Then my crust is done, looking good, flaking off around the edges as I pull it from the oven.
Kate has loaded the apples into her pan; they’re piled half a foot or more above the rim! Then she layers the top crust over all. Deftly, she rolls bottom crust to top around the rim, and it’s her turn at the oven.
We stand and wait, chatting while my filling cools, her apples bake. She wants to get a pastry cloth like mine for rolling out the dough. I love how she seals her edges. Isn’t it crazy that we both use wooden baskets to haul our pies around, that friends give us “pie stuff” all the time. And wasn’t this fun?
Kate keeps saying, “It’s easy as pie.” But you’ll never know that if you don’t dare to try.
Kathleen Triesch Saul is associate editor of Pacific Northwest magazine. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
Makes one 9-inch pie
For the pastry
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose organic flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup cold shortening
5 tablespoons cold butter
3 tablespoons ice water
For the filling
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 shy cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup cold milk
2 1/4 cups hot milk
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
3 tablespoons butter
2 or 3 large ripe bananas
1/2 pint heavy whipping cream, whipped with 1 teaspoon sugar and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Caramel sauce for garnish, optional*
1. To prepare the pie crust: Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a mixing bowl, sift flour and salt. With a pastry blender or fork, cut in shortening and butter until the mixture forms into pea-sized bits. Sprinkle water over the mixture, then stir lightly with a fork, just until the dough is moistened throughout. Add a little more water if it isn’t staying together.
Gather the dough into a ball, then roll out on a floured wooden board. Slide a pancake turner under the crust and fold it in half. Use the turner to lift the crust into a 9-inch pan; then press the crust into the bottom and sides, pinching the edges. Use the fork to poke a few holes in the crust. Bake 10-12 minutes, until the crust turns light golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool on a rack.
2. To prepare the filling: Fill the bottom half of a double boiler with 1 1/2 inches water; turn the heat onto high and bring to a boil. In the top half of the double boiler, whisk together the cornstarch, sugar, salt and cold milk.
3. In a separate pan, heat the rest of the milk on the stove or in a bowl in the microwave; set aside.
4. In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs. When the sugar mixture is hot, dip a tablespoon of it into the eggs and whisk; then add the eggs to the sugar mixture, whisking briskly to thoroughly mix. Stir in the hot milk. Cook over the simmering water, stirring frequently, until the mixture is thickened and smooth.
5. Remove from heat and whisk in the vanilla and butter.
6. To assemble pie: Slice the bananas into the bottom of the pie crust; pour filling over the top. Gently spread whipped cream on top and garnish with caramel sauce if desired.
*I like either Fran’s or Mrs. Richardson’s brand caramel sauce; both available in local groceries.
Kate McDermott’s Apple Pie
Makes one 9-inch, deep-dish pie
For the crusts
2 1/2 cups unbleached white flour
8 tablespoons leaf lard*
8 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
6-8 tablespoons ice water
1. Combine flour, lard, butter and salt in a large bowl. With clean hands, blend the mixture together until it looks like coarse meal with some lumps in it. Sprinkle the ice water over the mixture and stir lightly with a fork just until it keeps together. Mix in a bit more water if it doesn’t. Divide the dough in half and make two chubby disks. Wrap each disk in plastic wrap and chill for about an hour.
2. Take out one disk and put it on a well-floured board. Sprinkle some flour on top of the disk; thump it with a rolling pin several times. Turn the disk over and thump the other side. Sprinkle more flour on top if needed to keep the pin from sticking, and roll the crust out from the center in all directions. When it is an inch or so larger than your pie pan, fold the dough over the top of the pin and lay it in the pan. Don’t worry if the crust needs to be patched together; just gently press a piece of dough in place. Repeat the rolling process with the other disk, and set aside for the top.
* Note: You can get unrendered leaf lard from: Lopez Island Farm (193 Cross Rd., Lopez Island, WA; 360-468-4620; www.lopezislandfarm.com); Skagit River Ranch (28778 Utopia Road, Sedro-Woolley, WA; 360-856-0722; www.skagitriverranch.com) or Sea Breeze Farm (17635 100th Ave. S.W., Vashon; www.seabreezefarm.net). They can explain how simple it is to render it. To mail-order rendered leaf lard, try Dietrich’s Meats and Farm Store, www.dietrichsmeats.com.
For the filling
8 to 10 cups organic heritage apples (skin on), sliced into 1/2-inch pieces**
1/2 cup flour
1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar (depending on sweetness of apples)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 tablespoon butter, divided into small pieces
For the egg wash
1 egg white mixed with 2-3 tablespoons water
1-2 tablespoons sugar
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
2. In a large mixing bowl, stir together the apples, flour, sugar, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and vinegar. Pour into the unbaked pie crust, mounding high. Dot with the butter.
3. Place the second crust on top; roll edges together or crimp with a fork. Cut a few vent holes in the crust. Paint with the egg-white wash, and sprinkle the sugar on top.
4. Bake for 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 375 degrees and bake another 40 minutes. Pull the pie out of the oven and listen for a sizzle and deep, subtle whump-whump bubbling sound. If you hear it, remove pie from the oven and let cool for at least 1 hour.
Note that oven temps vary, so adjust as needed.
** A mix of local apples such as Golden Russet, Jonathan, King David and Newtown Pippin is best. A Veg-O-Matic works great to cut them into slices.
Kate McDermott, 2009