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Boozy Apple Pie

On foraging for local ingredients in your college dormitory…

Our Judge’s Favorite winner of the 2013 Science of Pie event showed how beer and vodka affect pie crust color and texture. But they weren’t the only students who experimented with alcohol in their pies. Two other teams—Team Super Rum and the Beam Team—also used alcohol to create flaky, tender crusts. The Beam Team even added Kentucky bourbon whiskey (Jim Beam, of course) to their pie filling for an extra punch of flavor.

So why all the alcohol? According to the Beam Team:

“Our group was inspired by Alex Atala’s process of going out into the Amazon Forest and finding local plants to use as ingredients. As college students, we decided that our ‘native’ ingredient is alcohol since it is easily found in abundant quantities all around us, so we used our two favorite types of hard alcohol: whiskey and vodka.”

There’s another (more scientific) reason for boozing up a pie crust: alcohol creates a more tender, flaky crust than can be easily achieved with water alone. This happens because alcohol and water have very different effects on the formation of springy gluten networks in pie dough.

Gluten develops when two wheat proteins in flour, glutenin and gliadin, are mixed with water. Because parts of these proteins do not like to interact with water, the proteins begin to stick to each other much in the same way oil droplets come together when suspended in water. As a flour-water dough is mixed, the glutenin and gliadin molecules interact to form an extensive elastic network [1].

Gluten development during dough formation. Scanning electron micrographs of gluten networks during early (A), middle (B), and late (C) stages of dough mixing [2]. The development of these gluten networks requires water.

While gluten networks are great for chewy bread dough, they are less than ideal for flaky, tender pie crust. An ideal pie dough has as just enough gluten to hold everything in the dough together. And while gluten development can be minimized by adding only scant amounts of water and handling the dough as little as possible, this is easier said than done.

A more practical solution is to replace some of the water with a liquid that does not promote gluten formation. Unlike water, alcohol inhibits gluten formation. By interacting with the gluten proteins, alcohol molecules limit their ability to stick to each other and form springy networks [1]. Using alcohol in the place of water allows more liquid to be added to the dough while still restricting gluten formation. This results in a softer, more pliable dough that becomes tender and flaky when baked.

TeamSuperRum

Team Super Rum serves their pie and presents their work at the Science of Pie even (left). Test pies made with rum pie crust (top right) or bourbon apple filling (bottom right).

Like the recipe below, the Beam Team paired a vodka pie crust with a decadent bourbon and apple filling. Although vodka is typically used for its subtle flavor, any type of alcohol will prevent gluten formation. As their name suggests, Team Super Rum used rum instead of vodka to create a flaky and uniquely flavored crust. And we bet there are many more delicious possibilities in the realm of alcohol-based pie crusts. If you try this recipe with something other than vodka, share your new pie crust concoction with us in the comments below!


Foolproof Vodka Pie Crust

Cook’s Illustrated, November 2007

2 1/2 cups (12 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp table salt
2 tbsp sugar
12 tbsp (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces
1/4 cup cold vodka
1/4 cup cold water

Process 1 1/2 cups flour, salt, and sugar in a food processor until combined, about 2 one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until homogeneous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 15 seconds (dough will resemble cottage cheese curds and there should be no uncoated flour). Scrape bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Empty mixture into medium bowl.

Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together. Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.


Bourbon Apple Pie Filling

2 tbsp all-purpose flour
6 or 7 apples, mix of tart and sweet
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup bourbon whiskey
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp butter cut into small pieces

Preheat oven to 425. Place bottom crust in pie plate.

Peel, core, and halve the apples. Cut into 1/4-inch thick slices, about 7 or 8 cups.

In a 4 quart saucepan, whisk together sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. Whisk in bourbon whiskey and lemon juice until evenly blended. Cook over medium heat, whisking frequently until the mixture boils and thickens slightly. Add apples and stir until evenly coated. Continue cooking, stirring continuously, for 3 minutes. Set aside to cool, stirring once or twice for 20 minutes.

Pour apple mixture into the pie shell, mounding apples slightly in the center. Dot with butter and add the top crust. Cut several steam vents into top crust.

Bake 25 minutes at 425. Reduce temperature to 350 and bake 45 minutes longer or until crust is brown and juices are bubbling.

Serve warm or chilled with whipped cream or ice cream.


Online Resources

  1. Pie crust recipe from Cook’s Illustrated via Serious Eats
  2. Bourbon apple pie filling recipe adapted from Group Recipes


References Cited

  1. Technology of breadmaking (2007). 2nd ed. New York: Springer. 397 p.
  2. Amend T (1995) The mechanism of dough forming: Efforts in the field of molecular structure. Getreide Mehl Brot 49: 359–362.

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


René Redzepi and Lars Williams on Deliciousness

René Redzepi and Lars Williams of Noma and Nordic Food Lab finally made it to UCLA!

We had quite an adventure leading up to their lecture, which involved mole crabs, sand fleas, live crickets, lost luggage, liquid-nitrogen-seaweed ice cream, and much more.

René Redzepi spoke about the pursuit of ‘deliciousness’:

“It’s not about creating dishes, but understanding deliciousness…to provide knowledge and scientific concepts for chefs.”

René’s ideology was born when he had a eureka-moment while grating and preparing horseradish.

“Some days the horseradish was sweet, some days it was acidic, some days, spicy to the point where I had to walk away. Sometimes the shape was short, sometimes long. How is it that we’d be able to create a consistent menu, with such variable changes week by week, season by season?”

He voiced what he thought was the answer.

“A chef’s intuition, combined with scientific know-how.”

Hence, the birth of the Nordic Food Lab. This is Redzepi and his team’s solution to creating a medium between food and science. Here, his talented team delves into the concept of deliciousness: how can they create and optimize using the ingredients that natures provides? (Remarkably, a good deal of their experimentation happens inside a houseboat shored in the picturesque Copenhagen harbor).

Head of Research & Development at Nordic Food Lab, Lars Williams, introduced a sampling of their recent experiments including how to modify and generate unique flavors using local and natural ingredients. One of the team’s favorite recent topics is fermentation, and a delicious example they shared was barley koji. The procedure is as follows.

  1. Crickets are blended up and mixed with barley
  2. The mixture is left to incubate, during which time, enzymes (such as amylases and proteases) in the barley and cricket guts, as well as microbes, take action.
  3. The resulting moldy mass is transformed into a nutty sweet delectable treat. (They did state they wanted to increase the amount of critters on the menu).

Nordic Food Lab also experiments with native Danish ingredients, such as seaweeds: a delicious example was their seaweed ice cream, which was created by extracting flavors of dulse into ice cream. To determine the optimal conditions for flavor extraction, they did a series of experiments to quantify levels of glutamate, aspartate and alaninate. You may be familiar with glutamic acid as a flavor enhancer, monosodium glutamate or MSG, more commonly known as small, powdery white crystals at the Asian market, or heavily-dosed out in Chinese food.

These are just a couple of examples of cutting-edge work emerging from the Nordic Food Lab; the possibilities are endless, and it will be exciting to follow their progress as they explore and share these exciting new innovations. Check out their recent publication to learn more about Seaweeds for Umami Flavor in New Nordic Cuisine.

For those you who didn’t get to taste the cricket sauce (or just can’t get enough), hit up LA Weekly’s Squid Ink for an additional recap of last night’s lecture.

Jordan Kahn on the Molecules of Food

Jordan Kahn came in as our terrific pinch hitter when René Redzepi fell ill the night he was to fly over from Copenhagen for his lecture with Lars Williams. He was the first lecture of the class and provided an introduction to looking at food as molecules. Jordan is the chef/partner at Red Medicine in LA.

Jordan brought in an incredible bounty of wild plants, herbs, and flowers foraged just the day before in nearby Topanga Canyon.

He explained, and we tasted:

  • wood sorrel
  • chrysanthemums
  • radish pods
  • California bay leaf
  • young fennel
  • mustard
  • and more

Many wild plants have a much more intense and often completely different flavor than do their domestic counterpart. Why is this so? 1) Remember that from the botanical perspective, these ‘smelly’ molecules are defense mechanisms for the plant and help to repel predators. Wild plants face a greater selective pressure and therefore, perhaps evolution has selected for the most potent smelling plants. 2) Perhaps domestic herbs bought at the supermarket experience a dramatic degradation of flavor after harvesting. 3) Terroir affects taste, so that fennel foraged from Topanga Canyon tastes differently than does fennel from San Diego. Jordan gathered everything that he brought within a 30 sq. ft area. Herb farms, on the other hand, may be quite homogeneous in terrain as well as crop.