The pie supremacy: 5 lifehacking lessons from my accidental bake-off dominationThe pie supremacy: 5 lifehacking lessons from my accidental bake-off domination

The pie supremacy: 5 lifehacking lessons from my accidental bake-off domination

Let me be clear: my first year in grad school, I had all kinds of aspirations, but I didn’t set out  to become the young male intern who won the office bake-off with a microwave recipe from the Internet.

I wasn’t much of a baker, and I didn’t expect for the judges to pick my pie over the creations of senior managers and their wives with decades of cooking experience, who in some cases had worked for hours perfecting multiple dessert entries. Everyone was shocked, including me.

The victory was beginners’ luck, I’m the first to admit that. But even then,the question remains,  what made this win even remotely possible?

Well, winning was just the final link in a chain of mostly unplanned events and inspirations.

Five lessons:

Pie1. Hang out with people who nudge you beyond  your usual skills and aspirations. None of this pie thing would have happened if I hadn’t signed up for a series of rotating potluck dinners designed to network together people from my church. Being around some people who were more established in their lives and kitchens challenged me to not always be the guy who just showed up with a generic bottle of wine.

2. Be lazy about the basics so you’ll have time to be creative where it counts. Back in college, I went to a workshop about the power of using just enough prefab ingredients (like shredded cheese) to free up time to make the rest from scratch. So, with the next potluck coming up fast, I took a wild guess and googled “best no-bake dessert.” I settled on a chocolate cheesecake recipe from About.com which amounted mostly to dumping a mixture of sweetened condensed milk, chocolate, and cream cheese into a prefab pie shell. It was a decent-tasting pie, but I didn’t like the mushy texture.

3. Let intuition and inspiration re-purpose your boring habits. My years as a busy, single international development worker gave me two basic cooking skills: chopping stuff into bite-sized pieces (mostly for stir-fry and salads), and running a microwave without making a mess.  I had gotten interested in fresh ingredients again after hearing one of my online business mentors interview a raw-foods restraunteur who viewed his style of cooking simply as using a cutting board and knife to blend flavors and textures. I decided on a whim to chop up some fresh strawberries to top my first pie to balance out the texture, and headed to the potluck.

4. Keep tinkering ’til it’s awesome. When I made my second pie (this time for the office bake-off), I still didn’t have much of a plan. I decided to try adding more fruit–what amounted to a  carefully-layered chopped berry salad–on top of the pie, cutting up the blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries into shapes and sizes that would easily blend flavors and add a crunchy texture. At last, the topping provided the perfect counterweight to the goop-y and monotonous cheesecake filling underneath. And it was that finely-tuned balance that I think took it from lazy Internet recipe to winner.

5. Use one-time discoveries to get everyday results. As strange as it still feels for a microwave chef, I really like having the option to show up anytime at a food-related event with something homemade, in under an hour, that people so far always like and even gush about. And that ease came from letting the pie develop from what was easy for me instead of trying to be complicated. That simplicity came from the original process of tinkering with limited resources  (a process French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, and innovation researchers Raghu Garud and Peter Karnøe,  call “bricolage“). Because I started with basic resources and skills I could easily access without overloading myself, the next pie will be even easier than the last.

Frankly, I have my doubts about the self-satisfied “lifehacking” frame of reference. But I felt pretty good about myself with what happened. And maybe this kind of creativity can happen again in a more planned way.

(There’s also a lemon cheesecake version of the recipe that works the same). Either way, I recommend getting a small package each of raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, and/or blueberries, and cutting them up and putting them on top after the pie has chilled at least partially. Variety is more important than quantity).

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