An apple pie bake-off with a twist opened the final installment of the UCLA Science & Food lecture series this past Sunday, in which students enrolled in the corresponding undergraduate class vied for the best in final group project. The range of theories, as it turned out, would expand further when Christina Tosi of Momofuku Milk Bar and Zoe Nathan of Huckleberry (not to mention, Rustic Canyon, Sweet Rose Creamery, and Milo & Olive) each shared insight into her personal process in baking.
Before their lecture, Tosi and Nathan were part of the panel of judges, including Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold and KCRW Good Food host Evan Kleiman, invited to select the winning project amidst a slew of experimental apple pie recipes, varying in focus from texture to taste. The audience participated in the sampling as well, asked to vote in the People's Choice category. Amy Rowat, a biophysicist who co-created the class and the series, chose pie as a platform to look into such scientific principles as the melting points of fat and how solids become liquids. Now in its second run, the series began at UCLA last year, with guest lecturers including Rene Redzepi of Noma and Momofuku's David Chang.
As with inquiries in science, there is more than one path to (good) pie. While both Tosi and Nathan packed in plenty of helpful baking tips, it was clear that the two are often opposites in approach and attitude. What's even more clear, given their respective successes, is that neither perspective is necessarily better than the other.
Seeing validity in both perspectives, we created a short quiz based on their lectures, meant to pinpoint preferences, whether old school or new school, in pies and other baked goods. To take the quiz, choose either a or b then tally the number of times you chose one or the other. The answer key is on the following page.
1. What is your approach to baking?
A. You bake with all of your senses, often relying on your intuition.
B. It's about science meeting food and food meeting science.
2. What is your preferred pie filling?
A. It's fruit and fruit only. Anything else would just be a glorified tart.
B. Almost anything in the pantry is fair game: chocolate, cornflakes or pretzels.
3. Choose the statement on baked goods that best describes your approach.
A. Classic recipes are not to be messed with, which is why you should try to make them very, very well.
B. Classic recipes are not to be messed with, which is why you shouldn't try to replicate or top them, but evoke your best memories of them instead.
4. Salt is _______.
A. a flavor enhancer
B. a flavor profile
5. Which do you identify with more?
A. A baker
B. A pastry chef
Mostly A's: More old school.
Here's how Zoe Nathan described her approach: “I am a baker in my heart and soul… I am old school… I believe a baker needs just a few ingredients. I believe they know how to use them simply and I believe they know how to use them with respect. A really good baker isn't bored with flour, sugar, salt, and butter. They just know through the process they can make an entirely different thing every single day using five ingredients. I believe a good baker only cares about the process for the most part.
“A baker has to make things that people crave every single day. It's different than a pastry chef: You get to make something people have once a week, once a month, once a year. I have to make something you're going want 3-4 times every single week, so I can have a business… What I feel that people crave is donuts, and chocolate cake, and apple pie. It's the same thing; it's the things you grew up with. It's your comfort food. It's the thing you feel comforted by. It is my job to make things that you crave. I personally don't often crave a white chocolate box filled with pop rocks and some sort of foamy strawberry thing… I believe it's harder to make something look simple on a plate.”
Mostly B's: More new school.
Here's how Christina Tosi described her approach: “In my opinion, a successful dessert tastes delicious, but more than tasting delicious, it has to be memorable… And that usually comes from something that I've had before or a moment or a smell — some sort of sensory draw-in that would attach me to a dessert. It could be anything. I don't need a fancy dessert… I don't want to make an apple pie in my bakery, because there is no way I'm going to win if I'm competing against everybody else's grandma's apple pie.
“Instead of making an apple pie, we take the inspiration of apple pie, the perfectly brown, but tender pie crust and we make those into crumbs and we take that perfectly, gooey not-too-watery, just the right acidity, just the right seasoning, to make an apple pie filling. We take the buttery richness and goodness of pie meets apples and make layers of cake to make an apple pie cake at Milk Bar. It's very much striking those chords in your memory and your relationship with what makes an apple pie so good, but we layer it into a cake so you're never really comparing the tenderness or the exact flavor of a pie crust with our pie crust because we don't make that kind of pie crust.”
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