I cooked pecan pies for Thanksgiving, using an approach with the same philosophical foundation as Agile software development.
We had Thanksgiving dinner with some friends this year, and I wanted to take a dessert. I shop at Trader Joe’s and was intrigued by their Pecan Pie Filling in a Jar. I got two jars for two pies. I’m not much of a cook, much less a baker, so I also got a box of two pre-made piecrusts.
I didn’t want to just pour filling in a piecrust and throw it in the oven though: I wanted the dessert to be special in some way. My minor inspiration was to make individual serving personal pecan pies.
This presented a problem: I no longer had a recipe, a precise step-by-step instructions for how to make the pies.
The TJ’s jar has a recipe on the side for a full-sized pie. The label also notes that the jar makes 6–8 mini pecan pies, but there isn’t a corresponding recipe. There are many online recipes for mini pecan pies (one, two, three), but they don’t assume pre-made filling and they vary widely in their cooking times.
Hence, I was faced with several questions I knew I didn’t know the answers to (infamous “known unknowns”), including:
- What temperature should I cook the mini pies at?
The TJ’s recipe called for 325° for the filling in a full pie, but online recipes for mini pecan pies called for 350°. And to complicate matters, our oven temperature is not super well calibrated.
- How long should I cook the mini pies for?
The TJ’s recipe called for 50–60 minutes for a full pie, but online recipes for mini pecan pies called for 20–25, 22–25, and 25–30 minutes — a variation of as much as a 50%.
- How should I size the recipe for an individual mini pie?
The different online recipes called for different sized molds or shells — mini muffin pan, muffin pan, and tart shells — but I had some individual pastry tin molds that I wanted to use, basically miniature pie plates. Mini muffin molds looked to be 1.75" across, regular cupcake/muffin molds tend to be 2.25–2.75" across, and tart shells — the size unspecified in the one online recipe — vary widely from 1.75–2.9". My mini pastry tins were 2.875" across and 1.125" deep.
How big should I cut the mini piecrusts? How many mini piecrusts could I cut from a full-sized piecrust?
In a related vein, how much filling should I put in a mini piecrust? And how many mini pies would a jar of filling make?
The TJ’s jar said it would make 6–8 mini pies, and one recipe called for a ¼ cup of filling per mini pie.
- Finally, would the pre-made piecrusts work?
Our daughter had had a very bad experience with the brand of piecrusts I’d bought not unrolling smoothly and basically shattering. I was very concerned that I wouldn’t have usable piecrusts to cut mini crusts from.
And then, of course, being a marginal but self-aware cook with very limited kitchen smarts, I was quite sure that there were many things I didn’t know that I didn’t know I didn’t know (infamous “unknown unknowns”).
So I decided to leverage my professional software experience and take an Agile approach to making personal pecan pies.
The fact that I was making mini pecan pies (vs. full-sized pies) in individual tins (vs. a baking pan with a set of molds) and that I had two jars of filling and two boxes of two individually wrapped piecrusts — I’d bought a second box of different brand piecrusts as backup to the first box, when I learned of my daughter’s experience — was highly conducive to this iterative approach.
1. For the first iteration, I made a single mini pie end to end. I made a batch of filling with one jar and used a crust from the first box of piecrusts. Then I made and cooked a single mini pecan pie. I learned a ton:
- The flour-based baking spray came out more like shaving cream than spray. I used a basting brush to spread the spray around the tins.
- A quarter cup of filling was way too much for the size piecrusts I’d cut, and too much filling would spill over the top and brown during baking detracting from the aesthetic appeal of the mini pie.
- The 3" diameter for the mini piecrust that one online recipe suggested fit down into my baking tins a ways, as opposed to around the top of the mold like a piecrust on a pie plate. Rather than being a problem, this was actually fortuitous: it kept any excess filling from spilling over the top of the mold and making a mess, and it made the resulting mini pie (roughly 2.5" x 0.875") more like a cookie than a cupcake.
- In my oven a bake time of 25 minutes worked for how I was making the mini pies. I checked the pie after 20 minutes and then baked it for another five — a free virtual iteration within the iteration.
- I could remove a mini pie from its tin, individually and by hand, without resorting to the more complicated (and risky!) flipping pans called for in the online recipes.
- The mini pecan pie tasted great! I almost forgot to taste test the first one which shows you how clueless I am in the kitchen. My wife gets the assist here.
2. Since the TJ’s jar said it would make 6–8 mini pies, I decided to make another seven for the second iteration. This go ‘round I continued to learn:
- When the tins are greased well, the piecrusts slide around and it’s easy for them not to be level. It’s important that they be level though, so the filling doesn’t seep over the edge of one side even when the tin is level.
- It’s also important to keep the tins with piecrusts that are filled level, so the right amount of filling doesn’t spill over the top of a level-in-the-tin/mold piecrust.
- When you put a mini piecrust in a tin, you trap air underneath it. It takes some careful work to get the piecrust to the bottom of the tin with all the air removed and the piecrust “seated” in the tin/mold. Poking a set of holes in the bottom of the crust with a fork before you put it in the tin/mold makes this a lot easier.
- Even after making this batch of mini pies, I still had a lot of filling left!
3. I eyeballed the remaining filling and used the second piecrust in the first box and made another 10 mini pies for the third iteration. The lesson here was about sizing:
- Given all the decisions I’d made, I could make 18 mini pies per jar of filling — a far cry from the 6–8 on the jar! — and it took two full piecrusts.
4. Now that I understood the proportions and how everything worked, as a final iteration I made a complete batch of 18 mini pecan pies with the second jar of filling and the second two backup piecrusts.
To recap, I first made one, then seven, then eight, and finally 18 mini pies in four iterations, each one easier, better, and faster than the one before.
Had I known all this at the beginning, of course, I could have used the resulting recipe (below). However, because of all the uncertainties and unknowns, I took an iterative, evolutionary approach, similar to what we in software call “Agile.”
You might protest that all the unknowns here were mostly process-related as opposed to product-related (e.g., customer needs, features, etc.), but the principle is the same: the tried and true strategy for dealing with the unknown and the unknowable is learning via incremental iteration.
Moreover, the essence of Agile is the application of this evolutionary wisdom to both the development of software products & services in complex environments (uncertain needs, new and immature technology, etc.) as well as the unpredictable, complicated, and not fully understood nature of the software development process itself (see K. Schwaber, “Scrum Development Process,” in OOPSLA Business Object Design and Implementation Workshop, J. Sutherland, D. Patel, C. Casanave, J. Miller, and G. Hollowell, Eds. London: Springer, 1997).
The personal pecan pies were a hit.
Personal Pecan Pies
Makes 18 mini pies
- Trader Joe’s “Pecan Pie Filling in a Jar”
- 2 9" read-made pie crusts
- 4 eggs
- 4 Tbsp butter
- Baking spray with flour
- Individual serving pie tins or a cupcake pan with diameter 2.75–3" across
- 1 juice or drink glass with an inside diameter of approximately 3" across
- Pre-heat the oven to 350°
- Bring pie crusts to room temperature according to directions on the box (e.g., if refrigerated, let stand at room temperature for 15–20 minutes)
- Melt the butter and set aside to cool
- In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs
- Add the filling and mix thoroughly
- Mix in the butter
- Spray the pie tins or molds with flour-based baking spray
- Cut out mini piecrusts, poke a hole in the bottom with a fork, and slide evenly into the tins/molds
- Fill the piecrusts to the rim of the crust — don’t overfill!
- Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until filling is puffy and set
- Remove the tins/pan to a rack and allow to cool for 2 minutes
- Run a thin knife around the edges of each tin/mold to make sure that there is no sticking
- Allow to cool for 5 more minutes
- Run knife around each pie one more time
- If using individual pie tins, turn them over into your hand one at a time to remove the pies; if using a pan, place a cooling rack on top, carefully flip it over, carefully remove the pan, and turn the pies over one by one
- Allow the pies to cool on the rack