Math and Baking: Austin Ford

Dr. Austin Ford. Picture courtesy of Northwestern University.

Austin Ford’s PhD is as fresh as a just plucked plum.  On Friday, May 18, 2012, he successfully defended his mathematics thesis on…wait for it…”The Structural and Dispersive Properties of Classical and Quantum Waves on Euclidean Cones,” at Northwestern University.  However, before heading off to teach at Stanford, Dr. Ford will be slinging big bags of flour instead of differential equations, as he pitches in as a baker’s assistant at Chicago’s renowned Floriole bakery.

UV: What does math have to do with baking?
Ford: Blissfully little, I must say.  Though, if pressed, I’d say that they are both pursuits which seem quite technical from the outside (and, indeed, they are), but once you’ve gotten your hands dirty you learn that intuition plays a huge role in each.  They also both require you to make your fair share of mistakes before you can really master a new trick or technique.

UV: You decided to take a few months off to work in a bakery before heading to Stanford to teach.  What led to this decision?
Ford: It’ll likely be for only a few weeks here and there, though who knows!  I decided to volunteer mostly because I wanted to learn.  The bakers at Floriole, the bakery in Chicago at which I’ll be helping out, have impressed me time and time again with their skill and attention to detail.  There’s no better group of artisans from which I can hope to absorb more about the craft.  Plus, they seem like really cool people, and you can never have too many of those in your life.

UV: Proust had madelines, Austin had…
Ford: Shortbread!  Or peach and blackberry cobbler (with a healthy splash of Kentucky bourbon)..

UV: What is your first memory of baking?
Ford: As a rather young child, probably five or six years old, I remember sitting in my parents’ kitchen with my Grandma baking the slice-and-bake sugar cookies from Pillsbury.  We’d sit down at the table, get them ready for the oven, and then undoubtedly eat far too many.  It was a great bonding experience.

UV: Care to share a recipe with us?
Ford: Sure!

Peach and Blackberry Cobbler with a Kentucky Twist
adapted from Paula Deen’s peach cobbler recipe

4 cups peeled, sliced peaches
1 cup blackberries, divided
2 cups sugar, divided
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup Kentucky bourbon (or to your liking)
8 tablespoons butter (1 stick)
1 1/2 cups self-rising flour
1 1/2 cups milk
Ground cinnamon


Preheat oven to 350° F.  Combine the peaches, 1 cup blackberries, 1 cup sugar, Bourbon, and water in a saucepan and mix well. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes.  Remove from the heat.

Put the butter in a 3-quart baking dish and place in oven to melt.

Mix remaining 1 cup sugar, flour, and milk slowly to prevent clumping.

Pour mixture over melted butter.  Do not stir.  Spoon fruit on top, gently pouring in syrup.  Add remaining blackberries, distributing evenly throughout.  Sprinkle top with ground cinnamon.  Batter will rise to top during baking.  Bake for 30 to 45 minutes.

To serve, scoop onto a plate and serve with your choice of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

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