Guide The Proof and the Pudding: What Mathematicians, Cooks, and You Have in Common

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WE'RE GOING to start with two investigations, one in mathematics and one in cooking. On the surface, they have little in common. There are similarities, though .
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But my plans were confounded when I learned that one of the guests had celiac disease, an allergy to wheat gluten. She couldn't eat wheat pasta. That was bad news.

But I was determined to cook that dish. At the grocery store I found corn spaghetti. I bought a box of it. I cooked it—and served my puzzled friends a gooey mess.

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I may have overcooked it. But I suspect that the only way to undercook corn spaghetti is to leave it at the store. My guest was embarrassingly grateful. I could have left it there but I saw a challenge that intrigued me. Is there something to take the place of pasta?

Could I find a substance that. What I wanted was a sort of multipurpose faux pasta, something that could comfortably take the place of macaroni or penne.

The Proof and the Pudding

I tried practically everything. French fries. Brussels sprouts. Corn flakes. And it entertained me.

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The reader would be alarmed to know what, over several years, I put on the table in lieu of pasta. I had successes. I had failures. No one outside my immediate family was seriously harmed. One could complain, "Corn isn't soft like pasta. And corn doesn't absorb flavors like pasta. But this is a great dish. If you want a soft faux pasta, rice works. I don't mean risotto, though.

Risotto isn't faux pasta. The process of cooking real pasta is the same, mostly, no matter what sauce you use. A proper faux pasta should be something you just cook and then mix with sauce. With risotto, different recipes differ at the start. The type of rice is important. Good jasmine rice can give you a soft but chewy grain that works well with many pasta sauces. I hope I haven't made cooking rice sound difficult.

The Proof and the Pudding

It's not difficult. You have a few minutes leeway in turning down the heat. And if the rice boils over, that's okay. It just makes a mess. You also have a few minutes leeway in turning off the rice. And if the rice burns, most of it is still good.

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And I have a great recipe for the brown stuff at the bottom. Apart from rhyming, noodles and doodles have nothing in common.

I chose them to illustrate some shared features of mathematics and gastronomy, features that appear in this book again and again. First of all, they are pleasures. Of course, sometimes we cook because we're hungry. And sometimes we calculate because we have to pay our taxes. But real cooks and real mathematicians play.

They play with structures, they play with ingredients, they play with the ideas and the flavors that attract them strongly. Second, while the attraction is aesthetic, it's also intellectual. We're curious.

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We want to taste; we want to tinker; we want to explore; we want to find out. We savor the unknown. Third, and this may be the most important point, we often don't know what we're doing.

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We stumble around. Mathematics and gastronomy are mysteries. We have to stumble to make progress.

We experiment. We try one thing. We try another. We may appear to have no method. But that's not true. Stumbling around is a method. It's the go-to method, surprisingly, of the best cooks and the best mathematicians. Hundreds of books are devoted to solving math problems. Thousands of books are devoted to cooking techniques. In the next chapter I will convince you maybe that the key to one is the key to the other.

The confessions are similar and similarly sad. They're not about weakness; they're about anxiety. In truth, everyone can do math and everyone can bake bread. Both acts are exercises in problem-solving. The remarkable fact is that the best method for solving math problems is also the best method for solving problems in the kitchen. I have a simple theory about problem-solving. What you need to solve problems is a split personality. You need, first of all, confidence. Good problem-solvers are sure they can solve anything.

Given a problem, successful problem-solvers dive in fearlessly, certain that they'll crack it right away. But you also need doubt. Once you have a solution, the confidence has to step back. You need to question your answer, worry about it. Test it, tweak it. At the final stage, good problem-solvers act as though they're sure there's something wrong with their answers.