Cooking with Escher: A Practical Solution to a Geometric Problem

This is from my own Facebook post from a few years ago, during the winter holidays, when I had a boatload of gingerbread cookie dough to go through. I’m not always a fan of baking, but I don’t mind the meditative aspects once the kids have gotten over their helping phase (they do fine, it’s just not very relaxing).

Anyway I had some thoughts about women’s work and its devaluation and how simple actions that we learn to do can have complicated underlying rules. I’d either recently bought or recently read a book on Escher with the kids, and so I imagined a book that took the idea of tiling and applied it to baking – a book that analyzes the concepts of positive and negative space and their optimization to get a maximum yield of cookies, given a plane with defined boundaries, and also a known quantity of cookie dough.

Of course, you have to calculate the rate of expansion during the actual baking, because while ordinary problems of tiling require the entire surface to be covered, you don’t want one large mass of cookie (generally speaking – of course there are exceptions). I wrote a short summary for the book jacket:

An exercise in the ancient question of tiling a regular surface with irregular shapes in order to produce a maximum yield with a minimum of fuss, “Cooking with Escher” examines several distinct categories of shapes. Inspired by the enigmatic mathematical genius, this is a purely practical analysis of the unique challenges presented by each individual shape. The categories explored in this edition are: basica, exoticb, roboticc, patrioticd and erotice. Final results are not available due to extreme consumption.

Citos vārdos, dziļi matemātiska nodarbe ar noslieci uz ģeometriju. (In other words, a deeply mathematical activity with an inclination towards geometry.)

I still imagine what this book could be, with diagrams and arrows and lots of calculus formulas.

a – Basic shapes adhere more-or-less to regular geometric shapes, in this case, a square.
© rq, all rights reserved

c – Robotic shapes are defined by their resemblance to anthropomorphic appearance and yes I know it’s a snowman.
© rq, all rights reserved

e – Erotic shapes in this case are defined by the jargon term for female genitalia, i.e. squirrel.
© rq, all rights reserved

d – Patriotic shape, self-explanatory.
© rq, all rights reserved

b – Exotic shapes are tropical animals not usually met in the wilds of the northern hemisphere.
© rq, all rights reserved

This is my idea of a fun quiet time with myself.


  1. voyager says

    I’ve often thought you should write a baking cookbook and this would be an interesting approach. My mother used to say that cooking was an art, but baking was a science. Who knew it was also mathematical?

    Also, I now have a craving for cookies. Those look delicious.

  2. lumipuna says

    Someone could launch a series of fancy tessellating cookie cutters. They could be sold as batteries of several conjoined units, so you only need to press once after spreading the dough to a suitable sized area. One battery could contain several diffrent shapes, as long as they look OK as standalone pieces.

  3. says

    Seriously, that whole negative and positive space is one thing kids do learn about when making cookies. Because we all know their first attempts at cookies when you carefully roll out the dough and while you are drawing breath they cut the first one right out of the middle and then cut the second at the exact distance of your smallest cutter minus 2mm…
    We have a huge collection of cookie cutters because I love them, so our baking trays are never as neat as yours.

    I’m afraid you’re a bit late with the idea:

  4. says

    No, they’re cookie cutters. You roll out the dough, press down, voila, an entire baking tray of cookies. I personally don’t see the fun in that, especially with those boring shapes, but apparently many people like them. I really need a llama cookie cutter to make pinata cookies.

  5. lumipuna says

    (I almost forgot this thread)

    OK, accepted. Thanks for responding to one of my more pointlessly pedantical comments :)

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