Cookbook Review: Art of the Pie by Kate McDermott

At the beginning of February, I joined the Food52 Cookbook Club. It’s a cookbook club hosted on Facebook where all the members cook and bake from the same book, share pictures, stories, suggestions and ask questions all month long. At the end of the month, there is an all-day cookbook review for all the members along with the author to pop in and out and talk about the book on Food52’s Hotline page.

February was the inaugural month for the club, and we started with Art of the Pie: A Practical Guide to Homemade Crusts, Fillings, and Life by Kate McDermott. I enjoy baking, but I don’t feel like I can be as creative when I’m baking as I can with cooking. That may seem backwards – I know a lot of people are very creative with the aesthetic of baked goods, but I’m talking about the actual ingredients of a recipe. I’m always afraid that if I don’t follow a baking recipe closely, it won’t turn out. Too many unpredictable steps like rising, punching down, setting up, whisking vigorously, thickening, softening etc. Maybe I feel this way because I’m the worst at basic chocolate chip cookies – they rarely turn out! Anyone else with me here?

My favorite dessert is pumpkin pie (with fresh whipping cream of course), and luckily my birthday is in pumpkin season, so my husband Curt always spoils me with homemade pumpkin pie. We started making full butter crusts years ago to discard the blue cardboard container that shall not be named in our pantry; we haven’t missed it in our minds but, truthfully, maybe a little in our hearts. I can remember shopping in the baking aisle during Thanksgiving several years back and hearing a conversation between a mom and her young daughter going something like this – We have to buy shortening, not because I want you to eat it but because it’s the only way to make a flaky pie crust. Ugh – was she right? Curt usually makes the crust, and more often than not he is disappointed with the result. Even after tons of research it seems to always be either too hard, too tough or too chewy. “Easy as pie” – yeah right. We knew all-butter crusts weren’t as flaky as shortening crusts, but there is a local baker in town who bakes her pies with all butter crusts and they are TO. DIE. FOR, so we knew it was possible.

I think it was our somewhat negative experience with all-butter crusts that really excited me about Kate’s book. She throughly explains her crust making process with terms related to how the dough should feel and look because unfortunately there isn’t one exact recipe for a pie crust. I was feeling so anxious while making my first crust, not just about the pies but about life, and I knew I was going to mess things up if I didn’t take a minute to cool down. Believe it or not, I learned about this in Kate’s book. It’s so important, in fact, that it’s Rule #1 – Keep Everything Chilled, Especially Yourself. You see, the book is all about pie AND life, and that’s what is so endearing about Kate and her book. So I put everything back in the freezer, took a 10 minute cry nap, snuggled in my husband’s comforting arms, and got back to it. I was very skeptical even though I had read the descriptions at least 5 times and followed everything pretty closely. But I put those fears aside as I unwrapped my pie dough before rolling it out. I chanted my pie dough mantra in my head. “You’re going to be perfect. You hear me? You’re going to be perfect” – on repeat until my crust was safely tucked into its pan. It was so smooth and easy to roll out – my mantra really worked! And I’m sure Kate’s directions had something to do with it. I started at the opposite end and took a big its out of the crimped crust alone, and the best way to describe it is a combination of a savory shortbread cookie and a croissant. It was so buttery and incredibly flaky! Yessssss!

I have made Kate’s all-butter crust five more times since, and each time it turned out beautifully. Here are a few things I did differently than the book instructions along with pictures of how my dough looked at each step:

  • I filled a large cookie sheet or jelly roll pan with ice and set it on my quartz countertop for 3o minutes to cool my surface.
  • Kate suggests cooling your hands off in ice water before touching the dough, so I put a small bowl of ice water at my baking station with multiple dry paper towels. I was a bit obsessive about having cold hands.
  • I used frozen butter, set it on the counter for 20 minutes, and then cut it in 8 pieces as directed. Kate’s recipe calls for chilled butter. The frozen butter definitely makes the process harder, but I felt like I could keep my hands in the bowl a bit longer without the fear of softening the butter.
  • Kate is not a fan of the pastry blender, but I used it (10 minutes in the freezer first) because it really helped with the frozen butter.

Kate shares several recipes for pie crusts – Leaf Lard and Butter Dough, All-Butter Dough, Butter and Shortening Dough, Cheddar Cheese Dough, as well as the gluten-free option for each of these. Several cookbook clubbers just raved about the leaf lard and butter dough crust especially; maybe at some point I’ll try it out, but I’m too in love with the all-butter dough to even think about anything else right now.

With over 300 pages of information ranging from caring for your rolling pins to descriptions of 40 different varieties of apples, this book left me with the weirdest feeling – I didn’t have one question. Anyone who knows me knows I ask a lot of questions, but it’s all there, plus all the things I didn’t think about! Kate’s stories are engaging, thoughtful, and nostalgic. Her vivid descriptions took me back to those universal experiences most of us have as kids except with my own reality pictured in my mind. When I finished the book, I thought to myself, “How lucky am I that I get to read about her YEARS of experimenting, testing, and lessons learned. I can’t believe I only paid $20 for this.” Seriously though, where’s her tip jar?

Sausage and Apple Pie

We liked this pie, especially since it was our first pie with the new all-butter crust, but while it is intended to be a savory pie, it was incredibly sweet for us. The consensus on overly sweet versus just sweet enough seems to be split in the cookbook club. We thought it was way too sweet for a dinner pie, but that might be because I kept picking at the sausage while we were making the rest of the topping, so it didn’t have as much sausage as the recipe called for. Oops – that always was a problem for me, just ask my mom! I had a hard time reducing the liquid to a syrup. The first time we tried, it turned hard when we mixed it into the filling. We picked out the chunks, and tried again, but the second time it was too runny. Isabel, another club member, suggested switching out the apple cider for boiled cider. I’ll update you when someone tries it out! If you’re a meat and potatoes person who isn’t opposed to trying something a little different, this pie is for you!

 Blueberry Pie

Definitely my favorite pie that we made! We used fresh blueberries, freshly ground nutmeg (freshly ground nutmeg makes me swoon – so much better than factory ground), and minute tapioca. If I could have one pie the rest of my life, it would be this pie how it tasted the first night we made it. But that’s probably only because we haven’t made this all-butter crust with a pumpkin pie yet – can’t wait for my birthday! I wasn’t able to use all the filling for my largest pie pan, and I didn’t want to make a “Clean the Oven Pie” (I won’t spoil the recipe for you – you must read it yourself!), so I made mini pies with leftover dough and filling the next day. Speaking of the next day, I definitely had blueberry pie for breakfast. Luckily I gave several pieces away to friends so it wouldn’t tempt me for lunch and dinner. Or let’s be honest, for a morning snack and pre lunch snack. None of my pies looks incredibly beautiful, especially not in comparison to some of the other cookbook members (I’m talking about you, Ingrid, Sandra, and Ginger!), but they all had a fantastic flavor, and that all-butter pie curst… have I mentioned yet how much I love it?

Lemon Meringue Pie

This pie was really fun to make because I had a pie party with a few girlfriends over! I made hand pies stuffed with lemon curd and fresh, smashed blueberries for us to enjoy while we made the pies. Best hand pies of all time with my now favorite all-butter crust. Lindsay basically made the filling with a little help from us. Erika basically washed the dishes with no help from me – I’m obviously a terrible host! And I made the hand pies and fanned the room with the kitchen door to let out some of the smoke from the burning butter on the oven bottom. We all meringued our own pies though and had a blast wearing our aprons and baking together. xoxo. I would definitely recommend a pie party, especially starting it off by reading Kate’s 3 pie (and life) rules, which we did. You already know Rule #1 – I won’t spoil the other two for you!

I blind-baked the crusts beforehand to be ready. It was my first time blind-baking a crust, and it could have gone better. The crust slumped into the pan in a couple of places (solution: freezer longer), and I didn’t bake the first two long enough (solution: oven longer). Insert eye roll. Also our lemon meringue pies didn’t set up as much as we would have liked, and it turns out we aren’t alone. Several members from the cookbook club also experienced frustration with this step, so Kate provided us with this extra instruction:

For lemon meringue fillings that are not setting up, do this. Shirley Corridor in her book COOKWISe says that reheating the filling after the eggs are added kills alpha amylase, the enzyme in yolks that can thin starch custards. I know, I know… more info than you probably wanted. The egg yolks in starch custards must be heated almost to boiling to kill this enzyme. So, bring back to a boil and cook for 3-4 minutes, stirring constantly, to kill enzymes in the yolks that can thin the pie. Then remove from the heat and stir in the salt, butter, lemon juice, etc.

Chess Pie

Custard anything is right up my alley. While I had never heard of Chess Pie before reading this book, I had tasted buttermilk pie (and of course I loved it), so I knew I would love this pie. It was so simple to make – a food processor makes life so easy. I used buttermilk, less sugar than called for, and omitted the almond extract. It set up nicely, but I did wonder if I baked it longer than I should have; the top seemed a little dry. My oven usually takes a bit longer to bake, but I pulled this pie out of the oven within in the recommended time parameters. The separate cake and custard layers reminded me of a cake I used to make when we were first married. Curt was not a fan, so I ended up eating the entire thing all by myself, but the bottom layer was maple custard and the top layer was maple cake with corn kernels. Weird but so good. I had one slice after it had cooled that night and another for breakfast. Duh. I didn’t know it was possible to like this pie even more than I did at first bite, but it was even better cold. The cake layer didn’t feel dry and was denser – dense cake is also right up my alley – and custard is always delicious cold. Served with a hot tea, it’s the perfect hot / cold combo.   From what I have gathered from Kate’s book, she is a practical baker – no frills, down to earth, and unpretentious. In the book she has been described as a baker who breaks all the rules; I don’t even know this person, but that seems to fit perfectly. When I was deciding which pies to make, I felt like I was channeling her by deciding to make pies that didn’t require going to the store for ingredients. I would have never associated simplicity and practicality with pie making before reading Art of the Pie, but now the whole process seems so comfortable, run of the mill, and well… easy as pie! Discovering Kate’s kitchen vicariously through her cookbook has been a blast. You can purchase Kate’s book Art of the Pie here! I bet you won’t regret it!

March’s book is Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South by Vivian Howard. Buy it here, make some recipes all month long, join the Food52 Cookbook Club, and let’s review it together next month!

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  • Thank you so much for your wonderful words and photos! You’ve really captured the spirit and joy of making ART OF THE PIE.ReplyCancel

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