Baking Is A Science: CDC Scientists Give Formula For Perfect 'New Pie'

Jul 9, 2019

From Summer blueberry to Thanksgiving pumpkin, pies are packed with memories and traditions. Everyone has their favorite, but you may not be experiencing everything this “infinite dessert” has to offer.

Paul Arguin and Chris Taylor, a married pair of scientists from the CDC turned pie-baking champions, encourage you to escape the flaky crust rut of making the same old pie, with their cookbook The New Pie.

Full of fun, creative spins on the beloved pie classics, The New Pie uses scientific precision and thorough instructions to help readers make the perfect pie.

“We strongly advocate weighing ingredients,” Arguin explained, “because that’s one of the issues that people will face. They’ll say, ‘My grandma used to but a handful of this, a spoonful of that’… If you can actually measure, you’re more likely to have a success, time after time.”

After their first win in 2011, Arguin and Taylor have gone on to compete in hundreds of competitions; racking up a combined 614 wins. In 2017, Taylor took home best in show in the amature division of the American Pie Council's championship.

“It’s very collegial,” said Taylor, “Some of our fellow competitors refer to it as ‘pie camp.’ You come back every year and get to see all your friends. Everyone competes against each other. But even if you don’t win, you get to see your friend win; which is always a great experience anyway.”

On Second Thought sat down with Arguin and Taylor for their tips on shortening, food processors and the perfect time to cut a slice.

Interview highlights

On how they bonded over baking

Chris: So, actually, we had a friend in common. I was finishing up my PhD work at the University of Pittsburgh and Paul was already living down in Atlanta. And a friend of mine left after she graduated and took a job at the CDC and worked with a friend of Paul's. And she had met him I think at parties a couple times and said, ‘Oh I have a friend back in Pittsburgh who I think you'd really like. You have similar senses of humor.’ And she told me the same thing and I think Paul and I both thought, sure.

Paul: Yeah that's why I rolled my eyes saying, ‘I'm sure you have a friend.’ But as it turned out we started chatting and she was right. We had an awful lot in common. That (baking) was one of the first things we started talking about. So, we both had fairly extensive cookbook collections and we talked about what we had, what we like to do and that's when I had the idea well, we're still living so far apart but why don't we bake something together via telephone?

Virginia: What did you do when you decided to bake?

Paul: I blame Chris for this. So, I was visualizing in my head oh brownies, pound cake, you know, something simple and I just threw it to him and said you pick and —

Chris: And I said well there's something because we had one cookbook in common which was the Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum. And I had always wanted to make the Scarlet Empress. It's sort of a baroque style Charlotte Bombe dessert. So, you make a jelly roll filled with raspberry preserves. You cut the jelly roll into the slices, you line a bowl with those slices and you fill that with the Bavarian cream and then you let it set and flip it all upside down and take it off and you have this beautiful, almost brainy-looking bombe dessert that you cut into wedges and wow all your friends with.

Virginia: Chris were you trying to put him through the paces or just keep him on the phone longer?

Chris: It's funny, I hadn't actually thought of it. At the time I was just thinking this is always something I've really wanted to make. Let's go ahead and make it. And it just so happened it turns out to be a really good relationship primer. You know it's like you can get someone on the phone for hours at a time and if they don't hang up on you in disgust that's probably a good start.

On a good starter recipe for beginners from their cookbook

Paul: I'd say probably one of the easiest ones is the 6151 Richmond.

Chris: It was inspired by the Golden Girls which is a favorite show of mine. We have each ingredient sort of inspired by one of the characters in the show. So, it's a pecan graham cracker crust. It's a simple crust to make and it has pecans in it as an ode to Blanche Devereaux, the Southern belle. And then it's a limoncello cheesecake. So limoncello and Italian lemon liquor for Sophia and Dorothy and then it's topped with the lingonberry preserves for St. Olaf Woman of the Year Rose Nylund. It all comes together in a no-bake cheesecake which is what they always sat around and enjoyed together.

On what “New Pie” means to them

Chris: So, we really want to still respect the tradition of the pie which carries a lot of memory with families, but we really want to say pie doesn't always have to be what you thought it was. It's not always just cherry and blueberry and vanilla cream. You know, you can do so much with pie. It's such a, almost an infinite dessert. And so we really wanted to showcase that but also in a way that we sort of updated it a little because a lot of times with pie techniques, either recipes can be very rustic or homey in their instruction, especially with something like pie crust where it's sort of like a lot of recipes will say, you know, you'll know it when you see it, putting it together. We really want to take a scientific approach as scientists and so we really advocate for weighing your ingredients using a digital scale to know that if you have a formula and a proportion, that it's something that's more reliable than maybe what other people have experienced before, especially if they've experienced a lot of frustration making pie crust.

Virginia: That's funny because you know they say cooking is an art, baking is a science so you two are both scientists. Are you used to the scientific method? Does that give you an edge?

Paul: I think it does. And in fact, we tried to put that into the book. We strongly advocate weighing ingredients because that's one of the issues that people will face. They'll say, ‘You know what, my grandmother used to put a handful of this, a scoop of that’ and that may be how they learn. In fact, we were talking with someone recently who said, ‘I always want to make a pie, throw in some fruits, handful of sugar and why do I even need a cookbook at all?’ And the fact is sometimes he might be spot on and come up with a pie. More often than not he'll have a runny mess or something that's thick and gluey, too sweet.

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