Saturday, October 14, 2023

Olof Doing What He Does Best

[ Let Inga Tell You, La Jolla Light, published October 16, 2023] 2023

Some years back, I won a First Place prize in the annual San Diego Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards for a column entitled :How an engineer makes cookies."   It chronicled an unprecedented attack of nostalgia by my husband, Olof, who had never baked anything in his life, deciding he wanted to replicate the family Christmas cookie recipes and send a selection to assorted relatives around the country.

One problem: the recipes did not indicate a yield. But nothing, my techno hubby concluded, that couldn't be solved with a simple application of undergraduate quantitative analysis.

Astonishingly (to me but not to him), his calculations were spot on. Which I was really glad about since those calculations had generated a master shopping list that included 17.5 cups of flour and 13 sticks of butter. We would still be eating butter if he'd been wrong.

I was utterly dazzled watching the entire production, titled "2013 Christmas Cookie Plan", which involved five spreadsheets, multiple flow charts, and headings like "Integration of Components". The nice thing about not having baked before is that you re not constrained by actual baking terms, like, say "mix". 

Each shipment included descriptions of the five cookie types produced, revealing a charmingly whimsical side of my engineer husband I had never seen, never mind even imagined.  The cherry-topped cookies, for example, were described as "sweet, flaky, and surprisingly suggestive".

But more recently, Olof decided to venture into pizza dough making as a way to use up the part of his two custom-developed-over-a-year sour dough starters that he has to pour off each week when adding new flour. As must be clear, Olof never does anything half way. In a solemn ritual every Sunday, both jars are removed from the fridge and precisely 100 grams of starter is removed, replaced with 50 grams each of flour and water. The little yeasty microbes constantly need new flour to feed off of if they are to produce the dazzling sourdough products Olof is now renowned for.

But the waste of perfectly good starter offended him. What is starter for if not to start something? Sour dough starter, I can assure you, is a lifetime commitment. 

For a while he was using the weekly sour dough discard to make crackers. But there are only so many crackers any human (and their neighbors, and total strangers who found bags of them on their doorsteps) can eat. But a little research determined that it could also be used for pizza dough.

Olof s friend, Jim, mentioned he would like to join Olof in making a pizza at our house and offered a recipe for a 14-inch pizza he had previously used. But since we didn't have a pizza stone to cook a pizza on, Olof had discovered that a good substitute was a cast iron pan, which we fortuitously already owned.

Now some of us (that would be moi), would acquire a glob of commercial pizza dough from a pizza place (some are very accommodating) or even the grocery store, and stretch it to fit the cast iron pan.

But where's the fun in that when you could have an opportunity to calculate your little heart out and use up sour dough starter?

Hence this email to Jim:

Jim -

I've done a little research on our pizza dough making project for next week.

1. Dough Weight

I have no clue how much dough you need to make a pizza, so I Googled: "How much dough for a 12-inch pizza".  Not surprisingly I got a LOT of hits, so I picked twenty values; the largest of which was 340 grams (11 oz) and the smallest was (227 grams (7.5 oz). The mean was 277 grams (9 oz) and the standard deviation was 34 grams (1.1 oz).  I think we're better off with too much dough than not enough so statistically 70% of the weight estimates will be at the mean plus 1 standard deviation or 277 + 34 = 311 grams (~10 oz).

2. Scaling

A. You reckon that the recipe you have is for a 14-inch pizza, so to scale up the 12-inch weight we need to multiply 311 grams by (14/12) squared.  That result is 422 grams (just under 14 oz).

B. However, I'd like to try making a small pizza in a cast iron frying pan.  We have one and I measured it to be 11 inches across.  So to scale down from 12 inches, we'd need 311 grams x (11/12) squared, or 262 grams (8.5 oz)

Of course, the calculations didn't stop there. Subsequent headings under Pizza Dough Apportionment included a dizzying selection of mathematical formulas involving V (volume), D (diameter), T (thickness) and appropriately enough, pi.

And yes, a pizza in a cast iron fry pan was indeed produced, and was, in fact, delicious. And it succeeded in using up the leftover sourdough starter. And illustrated, once again, why Olof is an engineer and I'm not.

Weekly ritual: precision feeding of sourdough starter


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