While her cookbook “The Art of the Pie” has won national attention during the past year, Kate McDermott is down-to-earth and welcoming as she opens the door to her cozy Pie Cottage in Port Angeles.
A freshly baked apple pie sits invitingly on the kitchen table, and there’s a request to use all of our senses to take in the presence of a simple yet magical circle of dough and fruit.
“First, there’s the sound,” McDermott says, while slicing into the warm crust, revealing 3 inches of baked apples glistening with butter, Calvados apple brandy, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. It has an appealing crunch.
A first bite and there’s a sigh of satisfaction as the delicious taste hits the tongue, creating a sense of well-being and connection. The smell of apples, cinnamon and dough add to the taste experience. The crust is flaky and its layers are illumined by a combination of butter and leaf lard.
During the holidays, we may imagine a circle of family and friends enjoying bonhomie around the table, and one of the ways to create the alchemy is by serving homemade pie baked with love. Yet it is surprising how many are intimidated by the idea of making simple pie crust.
With an affinity for teaching, McDermott taught music in Santa Barbara, Seattle and Port Angeles. Later, she discovered the joy of teaching others how to make pies.
“I’ve been a teacher all my life,” McDermott says. “There are teachers and there are lecturers. A lecturer has one way. A teacher has as many ways as it takes to connect. Five, 10, 15 new ways of learning – you stay with them until they get it.”
One student who got it is Gwen Brass, a court reporter who has attended McDermott’s “pie camps.”
“I’ve had the good fortune to attend not only one of Kate’s pie workshops, but also a weeklong pie camp on Whidbey Island and a Seattle pie demo she put on with her baker friend from France,” says Brass, who lives on Whidbey Island.
“She’s completely changed my view on making pies, from one of ‘Oh, no, that’s too much work and my crusts are horrid’ to ‘Yep, I’m a pie champ.’
“Her cookbook is so much more than a cookbook because, besides her excellent recipes, it’s filled with the stories that make Kate who she is,” says Brass. “I have many, many cookbooks, and ‘Art of the Pie’ is a standout. Not many cookbooks are so full of the author’s personality. It’s the kind of book you want to curl up with in front of a fire with a cup of tea. And, of course, a piece of pie.”
McDermott first moved to Port Angeles in 1985 and lived in a 300-square-foot cabin while she and her then husband built a post-and-beam home, complete with a custom kitchen. Their son, Duncan, was born there.
“Those were the good time, the magic times,” she recalls. “My husband built the kitchen according to my height and even designed a music stand to hold my cookbooks, with fishing line weights suspended by monofilament from the shelf above to keep my book open.”
It was the love for a new man that inspired McDermott to perfect her pie recipes.
“I worked two and a half years on this crust,” she says, pointing to her Quintessential Apple Pie sitting in front of us. After her son left home for college, McDermott shared a home with a man whom she later married in Seattle. There, she set about perfecting pie recipes and sharing her work with friends and neighbors.
In time, word got out that her pies were so good, she ought to teach others how to make them.
“I had closed my music studio and started teaching pie classes out of my Seattle kitchen, and started to get a following,” McDermott recalls. “Now, when my students come into my class, I say my goal is not only that they learn to make a dough and filling, but also that they will learn how to make a seasonal fruit pie without a recipe. A lot of people have pie-making anxiety. At the end of class, I ask if they can make a pie, and they say ‘Yes!’ and their fear is gone.”
As her popularity grew, McDermott was contacted by publishers. “It was flattering, but I wasn’t ready,” she recalls. “It was 2009. I’ve learned so much more from teaching over the years.”
Then, in a twist of fate, the book became the reality many an author dreams about.
McDermott was invited to Manhattan to teach a pie-making workshop in 2014. An earlier article in Alaska Airlines magazine describing her forte in making memorable pies and her satisfied students caught the attention of publishers at The Countryman Press, a division of W.W. Norton. They asked her to stop by their office on Fifth Avenue while she was in New York.
“I finished teaching and the next day walked down Fifth Avenue to talk with the publisher,” McDermott says. “I felt like a big girl. The night before, I had dinner with Andrew Scrivani, lead photographer for the New York Times food section [who later photographed the pies in ‘Art of the Pie’], and food blogger and cookbook author David Leite. Leite kindly made a connection to his own agent, who agreed to represent me. It was a magical experience working with the team. All the way along, it was the pie which spearheaded the project.”
Now, McDermott has been asked to write a second book and is busy working on “Kate’s Can-Do Cookbook: Easy as Pie Recipes for Everyday Cooking,” to be released in fall of 2018 and also published by The Countryman Press.
If she should find it hard to concentrate on writing the new book, McDermott will go into the kitchen and knead bread dough or make a pie and feel right with the world again.
With all the national attention, McDermott remains down-home, friendly and fun, a cozy gal friend in a little cottage with a piano, a German shepherd named Greta Pie, lots of books, stained glass made by her son and a new pair of ovens she calls “Thing One and Thing Two.”
McDermott says of her rising star: “I love teaching. It’s a gift. There are so many stories. If it all stopped now, I’d still have a great life.”