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Newscripts

December 1, 2008
Volume 86, Number 48
p. 72

As American As Chemical Pie

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Concocting Chemical Pie

Just as pioneering as the women who headed west in the 1800s, C&EN's Faith Hayden used crackers, sugar, salt, and cream of tartar to bake a fake apple pie that she fed to unsuspecting friends for this Newscripts experiment.

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Sean Lynch
Hot Mess Boiling butter crackers in sugar and cream of tartar gives them an apple flavor.

Sometimes the best chemistry experiments happen in the kitchen. Recently, for a dinner party with some friends, I was charged with bringing the homemade apple pie. Having never baked a pie in my life, I scoured the popular website allrecipes.com for the best pie concoction. Surprisingly, chemistry made a cameo in the very first hit with a recipe titled "CHEMICAL APPLE PIE," submitted by John Pile.

Pile received the recipe about 20 years ago during his middle school chemistry class in the form of a lab sheet, he tells C&EN. He posted a copy of the actual lab sheet on his blog, alaskajohn.com. "Our senses are very limited and easily fooled," the lab sheet reads. "A chemical can prepare a synthetic flavor that our senses cannot differentiate from the real thing. In this experiment you will make an apple pie. It will be an unusual apple pie because it will contain no apples!"

So what's the key component? Butter crackers, with a dash of NaCl, KHC4H4O6, and C12H22O11 (table salt, cream of tartar, and sugar).

Some digging around on the Internet indicates the original recipe dates back as far as 1852. According to the blog "Who Cooked That Up?" by J. J. Schnebel, the pie was invented by pioneer women who didn't have access to real apples. It resurged during the Great Depression, when apples became a treat Americans couldn't afford.

Ritz Crackers, founded in 1934, began putting a recipe called "Mock Apple Pie" featuring the cracker on the back of its box. The Ritz recipe has since been moved from the box to online and can be found at kraftfoods.com.

Curious, I decided to conduct the pie experiment for myself and serve it at the dinner party I was attending. For this highly amateur chemist, watching the ingredients react was fascinating. The recipe calls for each cracker to be placed in the boiling sugar-water-tartar mixture one at a time and not stirred. For the first few moments, I played the part of the skeptical science student; the crackers looked mushy, which was far from appetizing. I couldn't imagine how a sad, soggy cracker could magically morph into anything resembling a scrumptious baked apple.

Pie Sean Lynch

But after three minutes of being submerged in the boiling ingredients, the crackers actually transformed into a golden-colored filling that smelled like, and somewhat resembled, apples. An applelike aroma filled the apartment while the cracker pie baked. But the big question remained: Would the dinner guests be fooled by my phony pie?

As my friend Colleen cut into her piece, she crinkled her nose. "What did you do to this?" she asked. "Did you use applesauce?" I couldn't help but chuckle. "No," I coyly replied. "Not applesauce."

"It's like gelatin," she said, taking a bite. None of the other guests seemed to notice anything was amiss, aside from my give-away giggling.

"You are laughing like a banshee over there, what gives?" one asked.

When I confessed to my friends that they were actually participating in a science experiment, they quickly put the forks down. My friends admitted that although my dessert tasted like apple pie, the consistency was off, and it wasn't "crunchy."

Even though the taste-test results were mixed, I was still impressed that boiled crackers resembled and tasted anything close to an apple. "Leave it to Faith to feed us cracker pie," Colleen said, emptying the remains of my science project into the garbage. "Where's the blueberry pie I bought? Someone break it out."

Faith Hayden wrote this week's column. Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org.

Concocting Chemical Pie

Just as pioneering as the women who headed west in the 1800s, C&EN's Faith Hayden used crackers, sugar, salt, and cream of tartar to bake a fake apple pie that she fed to unsuspecting friends for this Newscripts experiment.

The secret ingredients are butter crackers, sugar, and cream of tartar. Credit: Faith Hayden/C&EN
The secret ingredients are butter crackers, sugar, and cream of tartar.
The first step is to place the piecrust into the pan. Credit: Sean Lynch
The first step is to place the piecrust into the pan.
Measuring the cream of tartar for the sugar mixture, Chef Faith combines the secret ingredients together. Credit: Sean Lynch
Measuring the cream of tartar for the sugar mixture, Chef Faith combines the secret ingredients together.
Each cracker must go into the boiling water one by one. Credit: Sean Lynch
Each cracker must go into the boiling water one by one.
The crackers had to rapidly boil for three minutes before becoming apple-ized. Credit: Faith Hayden/C&EN
The crackers had to rapidly boil for three minutes before becoming apple-ized.
The cooked cracker mixture looks strangely like applesauce. Credit: Faith Hayden/C&EN
The cooked cracker mixture looks strangely like applesauce.
Try out this "Apple Pie Surprise" for the holidays. Credit: Faith Hayden/C&EN
Try out this "Apple Pie Surprise" for the holidays.
The pie is in the oven. Credit: Faith Hayden/C&EN
The pie is in the oven.
Faith's friends are unsuspecting guinea pigs. Credit: Kenneth Moore/C&EN
Faith's friends are unsuspecting guinea pigs.
caption1 Credit: Kenneth Moore/C&EN
The half-eaten pie.

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