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The Science of Pie

The Science of Pie
Featuring Christina Tosi & Zoe Nathan
May 19, 2013

At the world’s first scientific bakeoff, the students of the Science & Food undergraduate course presented results from their final projects, including a live taste test of apple pies. The final projects were judged by Chefs Christina Tosi and Zoe Nathan, food critics Jonathan Gold and Evan Kleiman, and UCLA Professors Andrea Kasko, and Sally Krasne.

Chefs Christina Tosi and Zoe Nathan also shared their perspectives on inventing desserts, with an emphasis on pie. Watch the entire lecture or check out some of the shorter highlights below.

Christina Tosi on…

…creating cereal milk

“Cereal milk, fortunately for us but unfortunately for the scientific process, was very simple to make . . . But a lot of the other things that we make at Milk Bar go through a much more vigorous question asking and testing process before we actually decide whether or not its successful.”

…crack pie and re-inventing pie crust

“Crack pie is our approach to pie. It very much embodies our approach to pie. We don’t use a traditional American pie crust . . . Pie crust is an opportunity to surprise and wow and provide texture and flavor that is beyond, perhaps, you standard traditional American pie crust.”

…creativity, curiosity, and the scientific process

Whether or not we’re aware of it, the scientific process is often an integral part of cooking and baking. When Christina Tosi describes her creative process at Milk Bar, she might as well be describing the process of scientific research and discovery:

“The second that I got out of school and I was able to have my own voice, I stepped back and I looked at everything that I was taught and listened to and followed  without questioning, and I questioned it. And not in a disrespectful way, just in a ‘Well, what if? Why and what if?’ And I think that that curiosity and that forcing yourself to question every single thing in the creative process is incredibly helpful … you really just need that wandering spirit and the courage to ask ‘Why?’ And then of course the momentum and the patience to test through and be willing to fail but also be excited when you succeed.”

Zoe Nathan on…

…being a traditional baker and working with simple ingredients

“A really good baker isn’t bored of flour, and isn’t bored of sugar, and isn’t bored of salt, and isn’t bored of butter. They just know that through process they can make an entirely different thing every single day using five ingredients.”

…how to create the most amazing pie

“My second biggest pet peeve as a baker is how people bake. They forget that this is also an ingredient. Color is flavor: without it, you don’t have flavor. It just doesn’t work. Color and baking time and how your pie looks needs to be treated as another ingredient. It’s just as important as salt, sugar, flour, or anything. If you forget your color, you didn’t make the thing. . . It’s like you don’t have chocolate for your chocolate chip cookies.”

…baking and being present

“I would wish for everybody to throw away their timers and to start to engage all of their senses.  Smell! Is it done? Look at it! Is it ready? . . . The whole thing about baking is that it makes you be present.”

The Science of Pie: 2013 Event Recap

On Sunday we held our third and final 2013 Science and Food public lecture: The Science of Pie. Renowned pastry chef Christina Tosi joined us all the way from New York to explain her process for creating new desserts, and Los Angeles native and super-star baker Zoe Nathan shared her tips for baking the perfect apple pie. Guests indulged in delicious goodies from Zoe Nathan’s Huckleberry Café, Compost Cookies from Momofuku Milk Bar, and espresso brewed by four talented baristas.

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Zoe Nathan and Christina Tosi answer questions from the audience after their lectures.

And, of course, there was pie.

For weeks, students from the UCLA Science and Food course have been studying the apple pie and using scientific inquiry and experimentation to try to create the “ultimate” apple pie experience. Students examined everything from how different apple varieties behave in pie filling to how the size and shape of the pie affects baking. Several students also played with unconventional ingredients, including avocado oil, yogurt, chia seeds, and whiskey.

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Students prepare their apple pies the morning of the event.

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Students share their research projects and apple pies with the public.

The students presented their research projects and pies at Sunday’s event. While the public enjoyed sampling the scientific treats, the pies were scrutinized by an esteemed panel of judges made up of chefs (Christina Tosi and Zoe Nathan), food critics (Evan Kleiman and Jonathan Gold), and scientists (UCLA Professors Andrea Kasko and Sally Krasne). After tasting the pies a talking with the students, the public voted for their favorite pie and the judges settled on three additional stand-outs. The lucky winners all took home wonderful prizes from our friends at Breville.

Best Overall Pie
Alia Welsh (Team Sablé)
Apple pie with shortbread crust and streusel topping.
This solo effort explored the vast parameter space of pie, studying the effect of fat content and temperature on the texture of the shortbread crust, as well as the effect of pH on the browning of the streusel topping. The final winning pie had shortbread made with room temperature standard American butter.

Best Tasting Pie
Stephan Phan, Kevin Yang, Amirari Diego (Team Apples to Apples)
Deconstructed apple pie with pie crust crumbs and spherified apples.
Using the technique of spherification, this team applied their knowledge of diffusion and gelation to prepare “reconstituted” apples. They found that optimizing both the calcium chloride concentration and gelation time was key to making a delicious modernist apple pie.

Judge’s Favorite Pie
Qiaoyi Wu, Qinqin Chen, Michelle Cheng (Team Aπ3)
Pie crust made with different liquids, including vodka, beer, and sparkling water.
Seeking to perfect pie crust texture, team Aπ3 experimented with different liquids that may impede the formation of gluten protein networks. Gluten gives structure and stability to pie dough, but can also make pie dough dense and tough when over-developed. The team examined the porousness, density, and browning of pie crusts prepared with three different liquids compared to water and concluded that vodka creates the flakiest pie crust.

People’s Choice Award
Elan Kramer, Caleb Turner (Team “Insert Team Name Here”)
Frozen apple pie with peanut butter mousse.
This student duo thought outside the box with this creative apple and peanut butter pie. To create the ultimate peanut butter experience, the team experimented with the effect of egg white content on the texture and density of the peanut butter mousse.

The Science of Pie was the perfect end to a fantastic lecture series. We are so grateful to our amazing lecturers and all the people and sponsors who made the lectures possible. And although the 2014 lectures might seem impossibly far away, don’t worry—the Science & Food blog is not going anywhere! Keep an eye on out for more exciting food science posts, profiles, recipes, and maybe even a few videos through the rest of the year.


Liz Roth-JohnsonAbout the author: Liz Roth-Johnson is a Ph.D. candidate in Molecular Biology at UCLA. If she’s not in the lab, you can usually find her experimenting in the kitchen.

Read more by Liz Roth-Johnson


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