Montgomery. AL — One of the best parts of baking for me as a kid was the process of “helping” my mama roll out and cut cookie shapes for the oven.
At this age I know that I actually hindered her work and she was just being kind in letting me participate, but at the time I thought I was an aide in the process of transforming a lump of material into a thin sheet of ginger-rich dough that we could cut up into the barnyard animals of which I was so fond – and for which we had many different cutter shapes.
One of the goals in the overall process was to make as many ginger cookies as humanly possible from the first rollout of dough. The second rollout, because it necessarily had more flour worked into it, was considerably tougher and thicker, hence not as highly prized by anyone in the family.
Indeed, when we were all done, we stored the first and second roll cookies in separate containers and ate them at different times, so great was our preference for the thinner and more delicate cookie.
Truly maximizing the number of animals you can cut from a sheet of dough and minimizing the waste bits between the animals is the sort of problem that a skilled mathematician can best address.
It’s no easy task and would take more mathematical acumen than I will ever possess. Still, anyone who has done the kitchen work by the seat-of-their-pants can appreciate that some patterns of animals yield a lot more good, first-roll cookies and less waste than do others.
(Simple squares and rectangles do the best job of all, capturing 100 percent of the dough for first-round status, but who wants to eat such simple shapes when much more is possible?)