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The Perfect Pecan Pie – My Risk Management Plan

In ISO 14971, QA, QC, Quality, Quality Management Systems, Risk Management on February 11, 2011 at 5:41 am

I hope everyone enjoys this selection for the music video. It’s one of my favorite songs by Sting—mostly because it seems to be more upbeat than many of his other tunes. I can almost hear him smiling as he wrote the lyrics.

                This blog posting is a continuation of my previous post on the subject of Risk Management Training, specifically the ISO 14791:2007 Risk Management Standard. In my Risk Management Training, I use the example of making “The Perfect Pecan Pie” as a practical example of applying the principles of Risk Management.

                The first step of the Risk Management Process, or any process, should be planning. My personal preference for planning Risk Management is to begin by brainstorming in order to create a list of potential Quality issues. During the brainstorming session, I will use a Cause & Effect Diagram (a.k.a – “Fishbone Diagram”) to ensure that I have covered as many of the important issues as possible. For those that are unfamiliar with this tool, there are six categories of causes for any problem. These are sometimes referred to as the six “M’s”, because each category begins with the letter “M”:

1)      Materials

2)      Method

3)      Machine

4)      Measurement

5)      Manpower

6)      Mother Nature

                Materials are the single most important component of any product. As the saying goes, “Garbage in equals garbage out.” The right, fresh ingredients are just as important to baking pies as biocompatible materials are to manufacturing implantable medical devices. For example, stale pecans are plain nasty; while granular sugar produces a sickeningly, sweet syrup. Pecan pies are derived from “chess” pies—pies that were cheese-like due to the custard consistency created by cooking butter, eggs, milk and sugar at a low temperature. Therefore, the filling of a pecan pie requires a six tablespoons of unsalted butter, three large cage-free eggs (size matters—don’t get extra large), one cup dark brown sugar (light brown is also too sweet), three-quarters cup light corn syrup, one tablespoon natural vanilla (artificial vanilla tastes totally different and overwhelms the praline flavor), and one cup of pecan halves (I’m told that Georgia pecans picked fresh from the tree are amazing, and roasting them enhances the flavor even more.).

                Manufacturing processes are always the second most important factor related to Quality. For the “Perfect Pecan Pie,” this is also true. Most people will try making their first pie by cooking the filling and the pie crust together. This can produce acceptable results if you are extremely lucky. For custards, however, it is much easier to get consistently beautiful pies by pre-cooking the pie-shell (and sealing it with egg yolk) and pre-cooking the filling separately in a double boiler (always use the right machine for the job). Once the filling gets to the desired temperature (~130F) then the filling should be poured into the pre-cooked crust for the final baking. The final baking should be at 275F for one hour (at sea level).

                If you choose to deviate from any of the above directions regarding the manufacturing process, good luck finding a material review board to approve the release of your pie. If you don’t seal the pie crust, it will leak and you will never get be able to serve an intact slice of pie. If you don’t use a double boiler, you get a mixture of caramel and burnt candy. If you overcook the filling, the consistency will be off. If you undercook the filling, the pie will be uncooked…another way to make it impossible to serve an intact slide of pie.

                When you are cooking a soup, stew or some other dish, measuring is a forgiving process. For baking, the ratio of ingredients, the degree of mixing, and the temperature for baking are critical. Any deviation usually leads to a disaster.

                The next category, manpower, addresses the issue of training. You would think that baking is all about skill. However, like all validated manufacturing processes, proper use of process controls can transform the most inept person into a brilliant baker. Most people struggle with the crust. Packard Consulting, however, has developed a fool-proof method for making a crust. The key is to cool the dough ball and press it into a glass pie dish. The reason for a glass dish is so that you can hold the uncooked shell up to the light to inspect it for “thin spots.” Then you cover the shell with foil, poke it several times with a fork to allow it to vent, bake it for 15 minutes at 400F, uncover it, brush it with egg yolk to seal the crust, and continue baking it for 10 more minutes—or until the crust is a golden brown on the edges.

                Finally, the oven temperature is most critical for the final baking—after pouring the pre-cooked filling into the pre-baked pie crust. In this case, we have an artificial environment (i.e. – Mother Nature). Unfortunately, very few ovens are calibrated accurately and the temperature is very inconsistent throughout the oven. Ovens are hottest on the top rack and the back of the oven is always hotter than the front. Therefore, you need to rotate the pie during the baking process or it gets cooked unevenly. Another critical step is to “map” the oven temperature. You must determine where in the oven (i.e. – which rack position) to place the pie when the oven is set at 275F. In some ovens, the temperature is so far off that it is necessary to raise or lower the setting by 15 degrees.

                Now that I have given you the recipe for the “Perfect Pecan Pie,” you might be tempted to make one. Before you do, I recommend getting a piece of paper and documenting every step you take—including any visual observations, the taste of the dough, and the taste of the filling. This information will become your risk management file. As you perfect your technique, learn the idiosyncrasies of your kitchen appliances, and you find sources for each ingredient…you will need to prevent these secrets from becoming lost. Your collection of notes is a Risk Management File.

                You have now completed Section 3 of the 14971:2007 Standard. Keep drooling and I promise to serve up another slice:)

 PS – Here’s a cool drumming lesson that gave me a much better appreciation for the layers of rhythm within the song I chose for this blog’s background entertainment.

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