Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The scientific method of pie

I have two kids in middle and high school now, which means each of them is being taught the hallowed "Scientific Method" in their respective Chemistry and Life Science classes.

For those of you who have been out of school for a while, I quote here from the Science Buddies website:

  • The scientific method is a way to ask and answer scientific questions by making observations and doing experiments.
  • The steps of the scientific method are to:
    • Ask a Question
    • Do Background Research
    • Construct a Hypothesis
    • Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment
    • Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion
    • Communicate Your Results
  • It is important for your experiment to be a fair test. A "fair test" occurs when you change only one factor (variable) and keep all other conditions the same.
Undeterred by the complete mayhem of my experience last year at KCRW's Good Food Pie Contest, I found myself once again clicking on that "enter your pie" link.  But this year, things were different.

First of all, I did not enter out of some frivolous emotional impulse ("Hey, this'll be fun!"), or a deep-seated need for redemption or revenge.  Nor was I "putting the band back together", as my fellow Fabulous Baker Girls were unavailable*.  No, I entered strictly for the free Emile Henry Ceramic Pie Dish (retail value: $50), which I totally needed.  Clear, logical thinking.  I was doing this for profit.

I didn't stop there.  I decided to apply my newfound discipline to the pie contest itself.  I would use...

The Scientific Method of Pie!

Part 1:  Ask a question
Here's my question:  How can I win?

Part 2: Do some background research
My research covered several key areas.

What pie has been successful in the past?
Last year's winning pie was yucky**.  Should I make a yucky pie? Although the data supports this approach, the sample size is too small to be valid.  Plus, making a bad pie would be a violation of everything I stand for as a human being.

Why didn't I win last year?
I have no idea.  My pie kicked ass. Everyone who ate it, loved it.  However, with hindsight, I did notice that I was in the most crowded category (fruit pies) of the contest, so purely on a statistical basis (which of course, I should have used before), I may have been handicapped going in.

How good is the competition? 
Last year, many of the contestants were professional bakers.  Science tells us that (most) people do not take up professions that they are bad at.  Therefore, at least some of the competition also probably made pies that kicked ass***.   However, many of the professional bakers also did not win.  Therefore, there is no apparent correlation between being a professional and winning the contest, but there is strong evidence that competition is likely to be stiff.

I felt I now had enough information to move on.

Part 3:  Construct a hypothesis
My theory:  Make a kick ass pie, but in a different category, and you could win.
I also made a note:  It should not be necessary for me to become a professional baker in order for my theory to be true.

However, the Scientific Method also requires that a hypothesis needs to be testable***.  I was a little concerned that the phrase "kick ass pie" might be too vague to test objectively, so I refined things a little further by proposing a sub-hypothesis:

A kick ass pie has an awesome crust and a super tasty filling.****

That seemed to add some much-needed specificity. My revised hypothesis was now ready:

Make a pie with an awesome crust and a super tasty filling, but in a different category, and you could win. 

Part 4:  Test your hypothesis by doing an experiment.
It is important for your experiment to be a fair test. A fair test occurs when you change only one variable, and keep all other conditions the same.

My first variable was the awesome crust, and I think I did a really fair test.  I made 4 different crusts.
  • My mom's tried and true all shortening crust, which uses boiling water and milk as the liquid.
  • The crust I have in my cookbook, which is cold butter, a little shortening, and a combination of vodka and ice water as the liquid.
  • The recipe from The Foster's Market Cookbook, which is 1/2 cold butter, 1/2 shortening, an egg, and a combination of ice water and vinegar as the liquid.
  • An all butter crust with just ice water as the liquid.


I bagged them up, labelled them, and put 'em in the fridge overnight.

The next day, I was back in the lab.  I rolled out two small circles of each kind, labelled the sheet so I could remember which was which, and baked up my samples.

I tried to take some photos.  And then I gave up and just ate.  I mean, tested.

The one with the egg

The all butter

Mom's all shortening

The Cheesy Pennies Mix

In order to avoid bias, I got a second opinion from my daughter.  She liked the one with the egg. I thought the texture there was too hard and flat, so I dismissed her as a statistical outlier. I loved the all-butter, a result that was consistent with tests conducted at an outside lab.  I also felt the mostly-butter Cheesy Pennies crust was a very close second.  Both were flaky, very tender, and flavorful without being overwhelming.  My mom's crust was right up there, too, but was a little crumbly. When being served by a stranger, it could display breakage on the plate.  I had no hard evidence that presentation was a factor, but I had to believe it would count for something.

Several pounds of butter and shortening later, I had two viable candidates for the awesome crust part of my hypothesis, and a bunch of extra dough for another time.  This was working out very well.

Moving on to the second variable.  The super tasty filling.

I had two possible custard mixtures, three possible add-ins, and two different kinds of pecans.  I also needed to put my crust candidates into a real life filling situation.  Doing the math****, I would clearly need at least a couple of muffin tins worth of mini pies to do a fair test.

The custard options:
  • My go-to recipe for the last several years, involving softened butter, brown sugar, whole eggs, vanilla and a mixture of light and dark corn syrup, mixed with an electric mixer.
  • A recipe from Darn Good Sweet, a New Orleans cookbook that has never let me down, involving cane syrup, brown sugar, mostly egg yolks, cream, bourbon and vanilla, done by cooking a caramel on the stove and whisking that into the eggs like a more traditional custard.
The add-in options:
  • Candied pepper bacon bits
  • Bittersweet chocolate chips
  • Both

The pecan options:
  • Raw pecan bits and halves
  • Roasted and salted pecans
This is why God invented Sharpies******.  So I could write on my muffin tin.

This second, more in depth tasting phase was conducted right there in the lab setting. I should have taken notes, but I was too busy stuffing my face.  

My testing of the sub hypothesis had come to an end.  I analyzed my data, and drew a conclusion: The following combination resulted in the most verifiably kick ass pie:

All butter crust
New Orleans-style custard
Bittersweet chocolate chips
Salted pecans

The fateful morning arrived, and with it, the most critical part of the experiment:  Making my kick ass pie, and entering it into the contest.

As before, the array of entries was formidable.
As before, the pies were sliced and judged by a panel of "experts"*******.
And, as before, I did not win.

Part 5:  Analyze the Data and Draw a Conclusion
The line of eager pie tasters snaked back to Wilshire Blvd.  I looked down at my non-victorious, kick ass pie.  Then at all the other gorgeous, luscious pies that also did not win a ribbon that day. I was in great company, it was a fabulous, sunny day, and lots of regular people were gobbling up my pie quite happily.  The data was maddeningly inconclusive!

As I served the last sliver to a guy who closed his eyes in happiness when he took a bite, I tried a little of what was left on the plate, and wrinkled my nose.  It was a tiny bit too salty, and with a margin of error this small, I at last had a scientific explanation I could cling to:

Too much NaCl.

Part 6: Communicate the Results

As a bonus, check out this slideshow of the fantastic array of pies this year.  You can also see a recipe from the Best in Show winner here, and see a version of her winning pie on her website********.  The full list of winners is here, and this inside story from one of the judges makes a very fun read.

Kick Ass Black Bottom Bourbon Pecan Pie
Adapted from Darn Good Sweet. Makes one nine inch pie and zero blue ribbons.

For the crust:
1 1/2 c. flour
2 Tbs. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 sticks (12 Tbs) butter, chilled and cut into small cubes
5 Tbs. ice water, plus a little more as needed

Combine the flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse to combine.  Add half of the butter cubes, and pulse several times until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.  Then add the rest of the butter cubes, and pulse just a couple of times. You should have larger pieces among the crumbs, but all the butter should be lightly coated with flour.  Turn out into a mixing bowl, and sprinkle with the ice water.  Using a wooden spoon or your hands, mix just until the dough begins to come together.  If you pick up a small portion and squeeze it between your fingers and it sticks, you're good.  Add more water, a little at a time, as needed.  Gather gently into a ball, flatten into a disk about 1/2 an inch high, and refrigerate for at least an hour and as long as a few days.

When you are ready to make your pie, roll the crust out between two sheets of waxed paper, working from the center out.   To measure for size, turn your pie plate upside down on top of the rolled out crust.  You should have at least an inch of extra dough all around the edge of your pie plate.   Turn the pie plate right side up, peel off one of the pieces of waxed paper, and position your crust, paper side up, in the center of the plate. Peel off the rest of the waxed paper, and carefully press the crust into the pan, moving any air bubbles out.  Trim the edge with scissors, leaving about 1/2 an inch of overhang all around the edge.  Turn the edge under, and use your fingers or a fork to create a decorative pattern all around.  Place the prepared crust in the fridge, and make your filling.  Hopefully it will get to re-chill for at least 15-20 minutes before baking.

Preheat the oven to 325, and set a rack about 1/3 of the way up in the oven (so there's extra space above it).

For the filling:
1 large egg
5 large egg yolks
2/3 c. dark corn syrup (original recipe calls for Steen's cane syrup)
1/3 c. raw turbinado sugar
1/3 c. dark brown sugar
1/2 c. heavy cream
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 c. (1 stick) butter, cut into pieces
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 Tbs. bourbon

1/2 c. bittersweet chocolate chips
3/4 c. chopped toasted pecans - UNSALTED! (my mistake!)
about 1/2 c. roasted and salted pecan halves

In a large mixing bowl, whisk the egg and egg yolks together until light colored and smooth.  Set aside.  Place corn syrup, sugars, cream and salt into a medium sauce pan. Add the butter, and stir over medium heat until sugar has dissolved, butter has melted and mixture is completely smooth.  Continue to cook until mixture is hot but not bubbling, about 1 more minute.  Whisk the sugar mixture into the egg yolk mixture, a little at a time, just until the bottom of the mixing bowl is slightly warm to the touch.  Whisk in the rest of the sugar mixture.  Add the vanilla and the bourbon, and allow mixture to cool for about 5-10 minutes while you prepare the pie plate.

Take the crust out of the fridge, and arrange the chocolate chips on the bottom.  You don't want to overwhelm the pie, but you do want every bite to have a little chocolate in it.   Stir the pecan pieces into the caramel custard, and pour the cooled custard over the chocolate chips.  Carefully arrange the pecan halves on top.  They may sink a little, but hopefully not too much.

Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the center of pie is basically set and moves very little (like firm jello) when you shake it gently.  If the crust edges begin to get too brown, cover with foil, but hopefully by using the lower rack setting, you won't have to do this.

Cool for at least one hour, and serve.  You may not win a ribbon, but you'll make your guests very very happy.  And that's a scientific fact.

Click to Print this Recipe!

* SOPO was 3,000 miles away, and IN was so traumatized by the fate of her pies last year that she was emotionally unavailable to be smacked down again.
** The woman mail ordered a pack of dried fruit and added water.
*** By the way, this is advanced stuff here.  Not on Science Buddies.
**** The thing I was noticing about this method was that these hypotheses were ridiculously obvious.  Hopefully in actual science labs they're working on ones that are more exciting.  Made a note to ask the kids what's up at their school.
***** There were (num crusts) x (num fillings) x (num add-ins) x (num pecans) possible combinations to test.  2 x 3 x 2 x 2 = 24
****** Of course, as I scientist, I know God didn't invent Sharpies.  They evolved from regular felt pens.
******* None of them, I should point out, were scientists.
******** She is a professional pastry chef, so next year, I'll have to factor that into the analysis somehow.

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