Book Excerpt! Amy’s Crisp Apple Pie!

In this timely volume biophysicist, Ole Mouritsen, and chef, Klavs Styrbæk, provide a great introduction to the confusing science of the senses as applied to tasting and flavor. They also provide a number of carefully considered recipes and experiments to try at home that illustrate the key points they raise. Mouthfeel convincingly shows readers just what they have been missing by not paying more attention to the feeling of food and drink in the mouth.

~ Charles Spence, coauthor of The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining

Make sure to leave space for a slice of delicious, flaky pie after your Thanksgiving dinner! For the best apple pie, we turn to Ole G. Mouritsen and Klavs Styrbæk’s Mouthfeel: How texture Makes Taste. In this excerpt from chapter 5, they share the recipe forAmy’s Crisp Apple Pie” and explain the role mouthfeel has in the taste of pie. Read more to learn how to make the perfect dessert that is sure to please your dinner guests.  

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Canadian biophysicist Amy Rowat undertook her graduate studies in Denmark, where she delved deeply into the relationship between food and science. She next spent several years at Harvard University, where she helped launch a completely new general education course, Science and Cooking, said at the time to have become the most popular course on campus. Amy has moved on to a professorship at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she initiated the program Science&Food, which seeks to increase both scientific literacy through the study of food and culinary expertise through the knowledge of science. Students and members of the public turn out in large numbers to hear lectures and see demonstrations presented by famous chefs and researchers who share their passion for food and how it tastes.

In one of Amy’s many Science&Food projects, she and her students set to work to use physics to come up with a better pie, in other words, to construct the perfect American apple pie. The result was so amazing that it made it to the pages of the New York Times.

Making the perfect pie is largely a matter of getting the mouthfeel right. A successful, tasty pie must have a crisp crust with a flaky structure and a soft, slightly runny, spongy filling. 

A crisp crust is due to a network of gluten proteins that are formed when the flour is mixed with water. If the network is too dense, the crust may turn out too hard. This problem can be solved by replacing some of the water with another liquid—for example, alcohol (vodka or rum work well)—so that is unable to form a network with gluten. It is also possible to use beer or carbonated mineral water, but these are less effective than alcohol. 

Using a large quantity of fat (butter) and only a little water ensures that the pastry will be truly flaky. The water forms small droplets in the fatty dough. As the crust bakes, these droplets create small pockets of steam that are trapped in the dough, leaving the finished pie with an appropriately flaky structure. 

The structure of the pie filling is equally important in terms of mouthfeel. If the filling is made up of apples, which contain great quantities of water, the water will evaporate under baking and the piecrust will bubble up, while the apple slices collapse on one another. To make sure that the apples actually fill up the entire inside of the baked pie, it is necessary to do two things. First, the apples can be cut up into thin slices that can be packed closely, so that there is less scope for them to fall together as their water content evaporates. Second, some of the water in the apples can be bound with flour or cornstarch, so that the liquid around the filling becomes more viscous.

Finally, Amy and her students discovered how the mouthfeel of the crust could be made even better. Generally, a piecrust is made by rubbing butter, flour, and sugar together thoroughly to make a crumbly mixture. The butter prevents all the water from binding to the gluten in the flour, resulting in a crisp, but not too hard, crust. But if the butter is first cut up into pieces of different sizes, resembling peas and almonds, two things happen. The butter lumps that are the size of almonds help create large air pockets and those that are the size of peas ensure that, nevertheless, the butter is distributed fairly evenly throughout the dough.

This, of course, is not the whole story. The pie also has to have an agreeable lightly toasted color, due to the browning that takes place as it bakes. This is a result of Maillard reactions between amino acids (e.g., from the proteins in the egg whites with which the top crust is brushed) and carbohydrates (e.g., from the lactose in the cream that is also brushed on top). The pie must not be too deep, otherwise the bottom crust will bake for too long and become hard before the filling is cooked through. It is also necessary to make vents in the top crust to allow the steam from the filling to escape, to prevent the top crust from rising.

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