Geeks Cooking: April Woods, the Hungry Engineer

IEEE Spectrum editor-in-chief Susan Hassler interviews April Woods a.k.a. the Hungry Engineer

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Susan Hassler: Hello, I'm Susan Hassler, and welcome to "Geeks Cooking," our periodic visits with engineers who love to cook. Today we're talking with April Woods, also known as The Hungry Engineer. A native of Missouri, April earned a BS in electrical engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology in 1999. She moved to Austin, Texas, and worked in telecommunications for nine years. And now April works full-time on Web-based projects, including the one we focus on today: Hi, April, and welcome to IEEE Spectrum's "Geeks Cooking."

April Woods: Hello, Susan. Thanks for having me.

Susan Hassler: Shall we begin with your telling us about your experience as an engineer?

April Woods: Well, I worked in telecommunications for nine years. That can mean all sorts of different things, but what it specifically meant for me typically was working on big fiber-optic backbones. So straight out of school, my first job I was out in the field working on the terminating equipment for fiber-optic cable. I'd go into remote sites and commission 7-foot-tall [2-meter-tall] pieces of equipment.

Susan Hassler: So then, you were working in this telecommunications company, and you're cooking because you like to cook and you like to eat. Let's talk about your cooking interests and then maybe we can talk about some of the other things. So you have this very wonderful Web site— So what are you hoping to do with that and how are you using it? I'd like to talk a bit about how you like to cook and what you like to cook.

April Woods: I like to cook, I like to write, I like to mess around with code trying to get things to work the way I want them. So it was sort of a natural end result of all those things. Constantly, constantly trying new things in the kitchen. You know, the food blog serves as a really good logbook for things I've tried, things I want to try, what worked, what I might like to try next time. It's just sort of a handy record. What's been interesting about it is the food community in Austin is actually kinda happenin'. There are lots and lots of food bloggers. And what's been interesting to a natural introvert like me is that I'm sort of forced out of my shell to go and meet these people face to face and talk about the things I like to prattle on about—which happen to be food and cooking.

Susan Hassler: Do you have any special techniques or ways of cooking that you're concentrating on? I know in the past when we've talked to engineers we talk to people who've retrofitted their ovens to make artisanal bread or have developed methodologies for making the perfect soufflé. Have you become equipment-centric—or is it recipe-centric?

April Woods: Cooking is awesome because it's applied science. Biology, chemistry, physics, they all come into play when you're cooking. I don't know that I necessarily do anything specialized. I know that some of my more particular habits come out when I'm cooking. I very rarely cook meat, for instance, without a thermometer. I know there are these old-school cooks who would turn their noses up at me because they can tell by giving their roast a touch or by poking it in the right spot and seeing what color the juices are, they can tell when it's ready to come out of the oven. Well, I can tell when it's ready to come out of the oven when it's the right temperature and that is okay with me. You know, my bread—before I invested in a thermometer, sometimes it was too dry and sometimes it was gummy in the middle, but now it's right every time. I use a kitchen scale for almost everything. If you think about a cup of flour: If I measure the cup of flour it may weigh 4 ounces; if you measure your cup of flour, it may weigh 5 ounces, because the flour is compressible. So you achieve a degree of precision when you measure things that way. Nothing drives me crazier than when you look at a recipe and they call for 1 large onion. I'm guessing that one large onion in Texas is massively different that one large onion in southeast Missouri. You know I can get an onion from the store here that weighs almost a pound. I have no idea if that's what they meant. So my life got substantially more precise when I was able to start making notes, you know—this much onion worked, this much onion didn't. A story my husband likes to tell: His mother makes Southern-style cornbread dressing, and my husband, Sean, swore to me that I had to learn how to make this dressing. So when I went there one Christmas, I said, "Okay, well, teach me how to make this dressing." She didn't have a recipe; she pulled me into the kitchen and said, "Cut up some onion, cut up some celery." Well, how much? "Oh, I don't know, just cut some up and we'll see how it goes." And after watching her a couple times and taking it all back home and making it over and over again and measuring, measuring, measuring, I finally, finally got something that measured up to Sean's childhood memory of this perfect dressing. And it took some time. The funny endnote to that is that it is one of the most popular recipes on my Web site. So there are Southern moms and grandmas all over the place that won't give their kids a proper recipe and they have to look to my site. And I think that's kinda funny.

Susan Hassler: Well, it's nice that you have it all ready to go there. So who comes to your Web site? Do you have a lot of visitors or are they from the local community? Are they Googling in and looking for cornbread dressing?

April Woods: Some of each. I can tell there are a lot of Texas visitors…definitely some that show up via Google searches. For the cornbread dressing, that's mostly via Google search. The e-mails that I get from folks—some of them seem to be more interested in my engineering background. You know, "What sort of engineering did you study?" that kind of thing. Other folks will have found that one right recipe and they're so happy that they can finally figure out how to make dressing or what have you.

Susan Hassler: Oh, that's nice. Well, tell us a little bit about your interest in charcuterie. First maybe tell us: What is charcuterie?

April Woods: I don’t know if I have a good precise definition. My interpretation is basically that it's this French practice of preparing and preserving meats. So things like sausage and pâté and things like that, you know. Confit is another example.

Susan Hassler: Are you trying to make these things from scratch? You're obviously trying to make these things from scratch…

April Woods: Yes. I was interested in making bacon. Simple. I wanted to try and cure bacon at home, so I found a book about charcuterie. I was fascinated at the breadth of the subject. And you know I got that first slab of pork belly, and I cured it and I smoked it and it was wonderful, and my husband was totally on board at that point. From there we've gone on and made pâtés. I make sausage all the time. It was just fascinating, all the things you could do. My most recent project was making hot dogs from scratch.

Susan Hassler: So are you working then with local farms and local butchers?

April Woods: I do try to buy the meat from local suppliers when I can; sometimes it's prohibitively expensive for me. I don't know if this is too gross, but you know the casings are, you know, intestines, and I had asked some of the local farmers if I could buy them. No one seemed to be willing to sell them, so those I had to go ahead and get from the supermarket.

Susan Hassler: Because they're selling them in bulk to somebody…

April Woods: Right, right, right.

Susan Hassler: What are some of your upcoming projects? Are you going to continue to expand Are you working on some other Web-related things?

April Woods: No, I'm mostly focused on that. It's constantly changing. One of the things that I've been having lots of fun with is the produce boxes from our local CSA. The CSA is community-supported agriculture; you prepay essentially for a share of the farm's goods. So every other week I go and pick up a box full of produce, and it's almost like its own little engineering project, right? Because I have to figure out what to do with it, I want to minimize waste—in particular, a lot of it lately because in summer because they're so much more full than in the wintertime, I've been setting up lots of preserves, and that's probably been my most recent undertaking. Trying to figure out when you get 6 pounds [3 kilograms] of tomatoes at one shot what to do with it.

Susan Hassler: I was just thinking…squash. When the squash comes in, right, what do you do?

April Woods: Yeah, lots of squash.

Susan Hassler: Well, listen, I think we have to wrap it up now, April, and thanks for talking to us about your cooking experiences.

April Woods: Thanks for having me!

Susan Hassler: You can meet April at her Web site, I'm Susan Hassler, editor in chief of IEEE Spectrum.