Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Nerd Alert: Happy Pi Day!
What’s cooking? Pecan Delight Pie


In case you don’t recognize this number, it’s Pi, symbolized by the Greek letter, π, and shown here with just its first 75 digits after the decimal point.

Why is it here? Because today is March 14, which when written as 3.14, is known among the math nerds of the world as Pi Day.

It’s certainly one of my favorite days of the year. That’s because, in addition to being a Kitchen Goddess, I am also a math nerd.

You are doubtless asking yourselves why you should care about π, or Pi Day. And the answer is that it’s arguably the most ubiquitous of all mathematical or scientific constants. (I’m sure someone out there will argue this point with me, but what the heck.) Also a great excuse to bake a pie.

So in deference to those of you who didn’t show up here looking for a math lesson, I’ll keep it short. Pi is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. And it’s the same regardless of how large or small the circle is. Which is why pie is such a good reference point. It’s also the ratio of the area of a circle to the radius squared. In other words, for any circle:

C = πd, where C is the circumference, and d is the diameter
A = πr-squared, where A is the area and r is the radius

It’s all coming back to you now, isn’t it?

What makes π an amazing number is that it shows up in so many fields of math and science. Because it helps us to calculate the length of and area under curved lines, it’s the number that inevitably appears when we’re talking about the orbits of moons or planets, or machining parts for aircraft, or understanding sound waves, or building GPS systems (remember, the earth’s surface is an arc). Cornell math professor Steven Strogatz (in a 2015 New Yorker article) noted that we encounter π whenever we calculate rhythms – processes that repeat periodically, with a fixed tempo, like a pulsing heart. Pi even appears in the math that describes the gentle breathing of a baby.

And now, before I get to today’s recipe – it’s coming, I promise – I will torture you with just a few fun facts about π.

■ π is what’s known as an irrational number, which means that it can’t be expressed as a fraction. (The closest I found in my research is 355/113, which is accurate to only six decimal places.) Being irrational also means that π, when written as a decimal number, continues forever without any repeating pattern.

■ According to a Business Insider article, at position 17,387,594,880, you find the sequence 0123456789; at position 60 you find these ten digits together in a scrambled order.

■ Mathematicians have known about the ratio since ancient Babylonia, almost 4000 years ago. But the man who introduced the Greek letter as a stand-in for the ratio was a Welsh mathematics teacher named William Jones, in 1706. He chose it because it’s the first letter in the Greek word perimetros, meaning circumference.

So now you know why to care about π. And the reason to care about Pi Day is that the Kitchen Goddess has a fun recipe for you.

I first came across this pie at Hill’s Restaurant in the tiny town of Vivian, Louisiana, where my mother and aunt spent their early childhood. My cousin, Helen, and I were there settling my grandmother’s estate, and when it got around to lunchtime, one of the locals directed us to Hill’s. In a small country town, when you find out where the locals go, you should always check it out. Sadly, Hill’s doesn’t appear to be in business any more; but we were certainly grateful for it that day.

Hill’s had the most amazing buffet of Southern food I think I’ve ever seen. Fried catfish, fried okra, fried chicken, hush puppies, mashed potatoes, green beans with bacon,... I get hungry just remembering it. And when we thought we’d eaten as much as we could, they brought out the three-tiered tray of pies, which included Pecan Delight. It was early days in the Kitchen Goddess’s culinary adventures, but she knew enough to get the recipe for that pie. And now she shares it with you.

You’ll find this recipe in other places on the internet, so it’s not just a specialty of a now-defunct café in Louisiana. But the Kitchen Goddess finds it irresistibly charming in its use of Ritz crackers: one of those great dishes that illustrate the inventiveness of Southern cooks.

And by the way, the whipped cream topping is a must.

Pecan Delight Pie

Adapted from Hill’s Restaurant in Vivian, Louisiana.

For the pie:
3 large egg whites
¾ cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
22 Ritz crackers, finely ground
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup chopped pecans

For the whipped cream topping:
1 cup heavy cream
1 rounded teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350º. Butter a 9-inch pie plate.

In a large mixing bowl, with a mixer set on high, whip the egg whites until they form soft peaks. While the mixer is running, add the vanilla, then slowly add the sugar and continue beating until the whites form stiff, shiny peaks.

In a separate bowl, stir together the cracker crumbs, the baking soda, and the pecans. Fold the dry ingredients into the whipped egg whites, and pour into the prepared pie pan. Kitchen Goddess note: No crust! Is this easy or what?!

Before baking.

Bake 25 minutes. Let the pie cool completely on a rack. Chill until ready to serve. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream.

After baking.

For the whipped cream topping, place a mixing bowl and whisk in the freezer for 15-20 minutes. Into the cold bowl, pour the cream, sugar, and vanilla. Whisk on high until stiff peaks form, about 1 minute and 20-30 seconds. Do not over beat, or you’ll end up with butter.