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Christina Tosi and Zoe Nathan at UCLA's Science & Food Lecture: On Baking the Perfect Pie

Matthew Kang is the Lead Editor of Eater LA. He has covered dining, restaurants, food culture, and nightlife in Los Angeles since 2008. He's the host of K-Town, a YouTube series covering Korean food in America, and has been featured in Netflix's Street Food show.

[Photo: Matthew Kang/Eater]

Yesterday at UCLA's campus, chefs Christina Tosi (Momofuku Milk Bar, NYC) and Zoe Nathan (Rustic Canyon and Huckleberry, LA) talked about their personal history with desserts, baking, and pie-making, a subject that concluded a quarter-long course on Science and Food, and a series of public lectures sponsored by the school's Life Sciences program. In general the talks were less about science and more about how these two well-known bakers took their divergent methods to create successful dessert and bake shops.

[Photo: Matthew Kang/Eater]

There was a brief introduction by program director Amy Rowat about the science of pie. Rowat on what makes a great pie: "A pie has two main parts: crust and filling. Both need to be delicious. Because fruit in the filling contains a large amount of water, you need to use thickening agents such as the starches found in corn and wheat to cause the liquid to flow more slowly. Fat is critical for the texture of the crust, so solid, pea-sized globules are best."

Next, after a warm welcome, Tosi discussed her approach to making desserts the Momofuku Milk Bar way: "We wanted to make delicious food that had a point of view. It's not different just to be different. We take inspiration from classic desserts. We go through the process with an idea (like the scientific method), asking a question, dissecting it and then figure out if we've made something delicious and innovative. It has to strike a chord in order to be a successful dessert."

On what makes a delicious dessert: "For something to be delicious, it has to be really memorable. It has to strike a chord. You have to develop some sort of relationship, like that moment or smell that draws a sensory experience. It could be anything, it doesn't have to be fancy."

[Photo: Matthew Kang/Eater]

On why she won't compete with grandma's apple pie: "There was no way I was going to make a chocolate chip cookie or apple pie that was going to taste better than the one you grew up eating. My grandmother and mother loved to bake and that shaped my palate. What we did instead was take the inspiration of these things we grew up eating, like the apple pie, and then made it into a cake. We made a perfectly gooey pie filling, and then took the buttery richness of crust where the pie meets the apple. That's how we made the apple pie cake at Milk Bar. We took what makes an apple pie so good and layered it into a cake so you're not comparing the exact flavor."

On cereal milk: "We use cornflakes and toast it slow and low. It's the flavor that traverses so many flavors of cereal - frosted flakes, granola milk, Special K. It's the basis of how we take the inspiration of classic desserts and develop them into something simple that provides that emotional grab."

On crack pie's distinctive crust: "Crack pie is our approach to pie. We don't use a traditional American pie crust. This pie crust is an opportunity to surprise and wow beyond your traditional pie crust. I needed a bakery where pie crust would be its own voice."

On how the compost cookie came into being: "It's a little cheeky, because you're forced to take something you see every day and look at it with a fresh set of eyes. This is our take on a chocolate chip cookie. When you use the most basic ingredients, that's when you get something really innovative and successful."

[Photo: Matthew Kang/Eater]

On the creative process: "You have to question every single thing in the creative process. You don't need tool or ingredients, you just need a wandering spirit and the courage to ask why. You need momentum and patience, be willing to fail, and be excited in success."

Next Zoe Nathan came up to give her approach to baking. On the difference between a pastry chef and a baker: "I bake from intuition, from the heart. I screwed up so many things but I also learned a lot that way. I'm a baker, not a pastry chef. There's a big difference. I'm old school, I just use a few ingredients and know how to use them simply, with respect. I only care about process for the most part. A baker has to make something that you crave every day while a pastry chef only has to make something that someone tastes once a month, or once a year."

Nathan on the simplicity of baking: "It's must harder to make something simple. If all you have for dessert is a piece of pie or a tart, it better be good. It's like walking in naked, it's all you got. "

On what makes the perfect apple pie: "It should be simple, using as few ingredients as possible. It should be comforting. It's something you want to eat when you're cold. You want something gushy, a mess-ass pie, not something you see on the front of a magazine."

On the subject of crust: "Crust should always be butter, flour, sugar, maybe some leavening, and water. You want to use really good European-style butter. You want walnut-sized pieces. I always use all-purpose flour - pastry flour is annoying. The awesome thing about being in charge is that I don't have to do things that are annoying. And don't ever use shortening - it just tastes bad."

On the most important thing (or ingredient) in life: "No good pastry chef does not have salt. You need it. Salt salt salt. Please tattoo it to your body. Use salt in your crust please. It's overlooked and disrespected, it's so sad. Salt isn't generally a flavor, it's an enhancer. It will make the crust pop. Salt is the most underutilized ingredient in baking."

On the subject of filling: "Filling in the pie is always fruit. Never use frozen fruit, it's watery and gross. Making a pie should be expensive. You should spend an afternoon making it. Get the best fruit around. Go to your farmer's market, give your farmers a latte, and ask for seconds. They're the bruised, ugly fruit that they can't put on the table, but they're the best."

Nathan on baking as an ingredient: "After salt, my second biggest pet peeve is how people bake. They forget that it's an ingredient. Color is flavor, without it you don't have flavor. You should bake until the "oh shit" moment, when you realize, "Oh shit I forgot the pie." Ah, it's just awesome, that deep, dark brown. If you don't feel slightly nervous when you take it out, you didn't do it right. Nothing's worse than a pie with a blond bottom."

On baking as a meditation: "I hope that bakers would bake with more balls. I wish that everyone would throw away their timers. Engage your senses. Baking makes you be in the present, that's why we do it. It's a meditation. I bake because I'm the most impatient, scatterbrained person.

·All Christina Tosi Coverage on Eater [-E-]
·All Science and Food Coverage on Eater [-E-]