Dear Science,

by Ben on June 20, 2011 · 22 comments

in Baking, Essay, Index

Three years ago,one of my favorite musicians produced a record whose title was inspired by a note he scrawled in the studio:

Dear Science, please fix all the things you keep talking about or shut the fuck up.

My reaction (scrawled in kid’s handwriting):

Ouch.

As scientists, our goals are to understand where we came from, what makes us tick, and why things work the way they work. We’ve learned a lot. But some questions—especially the really interesting ones—are big enough that we just aren’t going to answer them anytime soon.

In fact, a large part of being a scientist is
being comfortable with failure. I often find myself facing a day in which nothing is expected to work. But in order to make progress, I need to spend that day (sometimes many days) confirming it.

It can wear on a person.

Some days, I honestly do feel like shutting the fuck up. Some days it feels strange, at this point in my life, to sit and label tubes or dispense liquids, wait for water to drip, for hours at a time. But there are rewards. Rarely, the reward is a home run. A Holy Shit moment where you see something that no one has seen before. More times than I’m comfortable admitting, those moments happen by accident. A mistake that suddenly clarifies weeks of confusion.

More commonly, the rewards are modest. Figuring out that you’ve consistently been doing something subtly different from what you’d intended. Realizing that a well-meaning colleague has, with absolute conviction, advised you to do the exact wrong thing. Usually, this is a small step. Nonetheless, it’s one that can be immensely rewarding. It’s the accumulation of these small steps that drives research. To be successful, you have to be at peace with the process. You have to willingly walk into failure.

* * * * *

I had high hopes for this post. Smoke. Lasers. Art forms new to the blog. I had intended to write a valentine to my neighborhood, with a dish inspired by its ethnic identities. Quite simply, that plan broke.

I had decided to base my dish on a somewhat fussy and time-consuming quiche recipe. My suspicion, after blind-baking the crust, was that it would not hold. It felt familiar to know that I had to try anyway. As predicted, the crust leaked. I continued baking until I was left with a sadly deflated pie adorned with a leathery mane of evaporated custard. It was, at best, inoffensive. Not “sexual,” or “seductive,” as Thomas Keller describes. Further research revealed that I was not the first person to have had difficulty with this recipe.

Weeks went by, during which I summoned the energy to try again. This time, I took much greater care with the dough. I realized that I needed to scale the recipe up, work the dough more thoroughly, and let it rest longer. Sure enough, the crust behaved much more like I hoped it would. It wasn’t nearly as fragile as my first attempt. It didn’t fall apart after blind-baking. It didn’t need much patching at all.

But it leaked again.

This time, however, it didn’t leak as badly. This time, the custard was silky and luxurious. There were many things about this time, some of them subtle, that showed I’d come a long way since not being able to bake my way out of an elimination challenge. I was faster, confident, observant. Small steps.

There was a time when I wouldn’t have taken on this recipe. When I would have given up after spending the better part of the day on an ill-fated quiche. But by now, I’ve tackled far worse problems. I know I’m still learning, and I know that I can handle this.

* * * * *

If you’ve ever attempted to reproduce an experiment from a high-profile scientific journal, you know that it’s often impossible to do without further guidance. The Materials and Methods section of a paper reads like a chef’s recipe, i.e., something that needs translating. It’s usually not malicious. Like kitchens, all labs are different. More important, the hands that execute each step are different. If you’re lucky, the author will communicate with you directly. But that doesn’t always help, and it’s ultimately up to you to navigate the myriad ways to proceed.

When I’ve cracked an ambiguous protocol, I like to document my process. Hopefully, I can save a colleague from making the same mistakes I made. One of these days, that damn quiche is going to work. And if I can understand why it did, I’ll tell you about it here. In the meantime, I have a message of my own to address to Science.

Dear Science,

You can be a real motherfucker. But through you, I learned how to imagine, how to teach myself things, and how to communicate and connect with remarkably different people. I wouldn’t have become the cook, writer, or person I am today without you. For that, I’ll be forever grateful. 

 


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22 comments… read them below or add one

Kevin June 20, 2011 at 12:27 pm

Now all you need to do is record an album based on that nice little missive to Science.

Please let me know when it’s finished… I’d like to buy a copy.

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Ben June 20, 2011 at 1:39 pm

Think: Shellac meets The National.

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Lori Lynn June 20, 2011 at 6:21 pm

Hi Ben – How apropos I read your post today, I just returned home from a tour of an after-school science lab under construction for K-12. Really impressive!

Good luck with your quiches…that one right there looks mighty tasty.
LL

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Ben June 21, 2011 at 9:34 am

Thanks, LL. It was tasty… Just needed to be twice as high!

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Stella June 20, 2011 at 7:57 pm

I’ve always wanted to ask, but it never seemed to come up, so thanks for giving me an easy-in; what sort of scientist are you? Aside, of course, from the culinary sort who puzzles out TK’s mysteries… You know, I’ve never made that crust or that quiche, but I’m tempted to give it a shot this week to find out just what the eff is going on here. In the mean time, I’ll be waiting for the smoke and lasers.

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Ben June 21, 2011 at 9:39 am

Oh, they’re coming, believe me.

I’m the Biophysics department at UCSF, but I’m mostly a cell biologist. Re: quiche– I can work the butter into the dough completely, but when it goes to 4C the butter forms specks again, which I think is part of the problem. Should I temper it, work it again, and re-rest it in that case? Few other things I know I did wrong, after the fact.

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Mariko June 21, 2011 at 1:28 am

Now I know why I’m not a scientist. I prefer to go from my mostly non-discerning gut and say, “Hey, I’ll just make a different crust.” I also leave the science, quite happily, to Cook’s Illustrated, and I follow them around like they’re gods.
I can see I might be tempted by anything that promised to be like Bouchon’s, however.

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Ben June 21, 2011 at 9:45 am

I considered that, but there’s something I found appealing about the description of the Bouchon quiche. People say it makes the Tartine one seem like a “scrambled egg pie.” I want something close to that experience without having to wait for the day I can conveniently make it up to Yountville.

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angi June 21, 2011 at 10:25 am

Whoa…I just read the recipe for the quiche crust and it must be the first one I’ve seen where they don’t want you to have flecks of butter. I thought flecks=flakiness?!? Why so crazy, TK?? In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed the tasty quiche, even if it did not rise up to your desired heights.

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Ben June 21, 2011 at 10:59 am

Ya, flaky crust will leak. I need to read the actual book, not just the online summary. Supposedly, the quiche section is 11 pages long!

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Marcie June 21, 2011 at 6:37 pm

Ben,
I know this is not what most folks would say, but if your custard leaks through, so what? It makes for a nice, yummy under crust. I actually enjoy that brown layer of eggy goodness under the queche. it gives a nice caremel flavor to the undercrust. Maybe that is just me, but I like it!

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Ben June 21, 2011 at 7:07 pm

It depends on what you’re after. In this case, I specifically wanted to approximate the rapturous experience described by Thomas Keller. Among other things, this is dependent on the height of the quiche and the texture of the custard. Ergo, leakage = no bueno.

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Meg @ Soup Is Not A Finger Food June 23, 2011 at 4:20 am

Cooking *is* science – chemistry, really. I don’t get paid to “do” science, but I like your analogy here, and I do know when a recipe doesn’t look like it’s going to work. I applaud your persistence in making the quiche recipe work.

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Ben June 28, 2011 at 3:21 pm

Well, that knowledge comes with experience. I’ll add that about half the people I came across online made this recipe with no problems. I’m not really there yet with baking to immediately pinpoint what’s going wrong. It’s a process.

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Sabrina Modelle June 27, 2011 at 11:10 am

I love this post. I love science. I love quiche. As a matter of fact, my husband suspected he might love me, be the day he knew for sure he loved me was the day he ate my quiche. No, that is not some sort of euphemism. It’s just a tangential story. Great post and timely, I am writing an entire series (starting tomorrow) on tarts, pies, galettes, and such starting with my crust because I am a woman with certain obsessions. One of them being pie crust. The other being Beer Can Chicken ;)

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Ben June 28, 2011 at 3:24 pm

I love that you read this, and can’t wait for your series about pie. See you next week!

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Sabrina Modelle June 28, 2011 at 3:37 pm

It’s all about the love. See you next week. Chicken of doom in hand.

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Purabi Naha July 9, 2011 at 7:25 am

Hi, nice to hear from you on Foodbuzz that you liked the prawns in my Thai Tom Yum Goong recipe! Oh, you are a scientist and it shows in your writing! Experiments give us experiences. I am a science person too (Chemistry) and I know that different labs and different hands do yield differently. But I salute your endeavour to practise till you succeed! That’s a true scientist and a cook!
Love to hear from you again.

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Annie September 4, 2011 at 1:27 pm

Love the ode to science. I’m often accused, as an atheist, of worshipping science. I don’t exactly, but it’s probably the nearest thing to a religion that I have these days.

I looked at the recipe and it looks pretty straightforward — except for the directions to bake it in a ring on a jelly roll pan. Now why the f*** would I want to do that? I have springform pans that would do essentially the same thing, while keeping the crust from shifting around and springing a leak. Is there some technical reason for doing it a different way? I didn’t see anything suggested.

I’m going to have to give this a try. Looks like a delectable quiche. If my husband weren’t a vegetarian, you can bet I’d be making the version with a pound of bacon. Mmmm….

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Ben September 7, 2011 at 10:57 pm

I think science basically boils down to being reasonable. If you’re accused of worshipping that, I’m sure there are worse things.

The recipe might be straightforward, but because I don’t do a ton of baking, I haven’t cultivated good instincts for it. At least I’m in good company in screwing it up. ;)

Keller insists that a 2″ ring mold is the only way to go. I do not pretend to understand why.

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KosherCorvid January 18, 2012 at 8:43 pm

I have a cheating quiche trick that I learned from a recipe for beef Wellington. Make your favorite, flakiest crust. Line it with fresh crepes. Pour in your custard. Bake. The crepes keep it from leaking but are thin enough to be unobtrusive. It’s cheating, but delicious.

Also, if no one talks about the problems science is working on. . . we’re all kind of screwed. Talking is step 1 to figuring out how to make our lives all better.

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Commuting Cooks March 10, 2013 at 2:12 pm

As the equal parts science and not science household that we are, we know when to ask the experts. We might call a grandmother, we might take a class, and we might try Cook’s Illustrated which was mentioned above. At this house we call that reserach, not “giving up”. The flaky vs. leaky conumdrum, and flecks leads to flaky causal chain, which does not bear out in practice, is addressed by those smart cookies who use vodka as a dough facilitator and get the mixing exatly right. That’s evidently, or evidentiarily one of us might say, a question of big crumbs vs those pea size crumbs my great grandmother always said was the key to pie crust… Found the recipe here (as well as on my shelf):
http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2007/11/cooks-illustrated-foolproof-pie-dough-recipe.html

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