Friday, March 22, 2013
Saturday, March 16, 2013
I've had my fair share of failures in the kitchen. I've over seasoned. I've made dinner rolls that didn't rise and turned out like heavy little rocks. I've had egg whites that wouldn't whip into peaks. I've had pie crusts that were too sticky and crusts that were too dry and crusts that shrank in the oven. But all of these were failures in my own kitchen in which the only people that suffered the end product were myself and a significant other or friend. Now I was baking for hundreds and my failures would be suffered by strangers that were not afraid to post their dismay on the internet.
Cue day two at the Farmhouse.
I arrived mid-afternoon, ready for baking a full recipe of bread. Louie greeted me in the kitchen this time - there was no hunting him down. We were already off to a good start.
He handed me a printout of the recipes - one white bread and one wheat. "How about you try to make one batch of each?"
I quickly realized I wasn't going to have my hand held through this. He obviously didn't have the time and must have had the confidence in me, so I got to work.
Everything was going smoothly until I came to the mixing part. I transferred the dough to the big standing mixer so it could be kneaded with a dough hook for 26 minutes. As I was questioning what sounded like a ridiculously long time for kneading (most recipes I had worked with were 10 to 15 minutes at the most), I was also battling with the mixer. First, I couldn't get the bowl to fit on the stand right. Then it wouldn't turn on - there was a wire cage that fit around the top that had to be locked in place as a safety precaution.
"Because don't you just want to stick your hand in there while it's running?" Brian the line cook joked.
Then the metal cage fell off. Luckily, Brian and Javier were there to help me through all of this and get it put back together.
Finally, with the wheat dough kneading, I started on the white so that by the time the wheat was finished, the white could go in the mixer. Before I knew it, 52 minutes had passed and both doughs were rising nicely. I cleaned up my area and gave the mixer a good scrub down. It was caked with bread dough and other assorted crusty things. And when I wiped the counters down, it left a brownish residue on the dish rags. Ugh! This was definitely a man's kitchen.
It came time to shape the loaves, and I pulled out a hunk of whole wheat dough and started to shape it in my hands. When I tried to pinch the seam together at the bottom of the loaf, it wouldn't hold. The dough was too dry! I realized much later that I had missed a step in the recipe. After mixing all of the ingredients together, there was a very vague line that said, "Add enough water to make a moist dough". Well, this dough was most certainly not moist.
I tried different tactics to get the loaves formed and eventually I decided to roll them out flat, then roll them up like big cinnamon rolls and pinch the seams shut. But alas, the seams would not be pinched. Exasperated, I ran my hands under running water, doused the dough lightly and somewhat closed the seams. This was a disaster. I had never been fired from a job before and suddenly that was a real possibility. This was definitely not how I wanted to start this job.
By the time I finished getting the whole wheat shaped, the white bread dough was overflowing from its bowl. I rushed to get it shaped and into pans. Even though I had missed the extra water step on this batch too, it was not as dry and the loaves shaped much easier. All was not lost completely I hoped.
In the meantime while I had been struggling with dry dough, Brian had left early, Javier had finished his shift and Louie had gone to work the dinner theater. That left Alonso alone on the line. And it had started to get busy. Open tickets lined the counter. The wait staff was coming in at regular intervals to ask him where their food was. I watched from the sidelines wishing I knew how to be a line cook. I could tell Alonso was not happy and I felt incredibly guilty standing by while everyone else was frantically working.
At some point I decided to make myself look useful and get the wheat bread in the ovens. There were three of them on the line to work with. The recipe said to bake the bread for 20 minutes at 450 and then another 25 minutes at 350. I decided to start in the two ovens at the end of the line and then move to a cooler oven in the middle. That way while the wheat was finishing, I could get the white in. It seemed like the perfect plan.
As I carried the pans over to the line, it occurred to me how heavy four 2.5 pound loaves in a heavy cast iron pan were. I had four of these pans to deal with since each batch made approximately eight loaves. And the ovens were blazing hot. Louie had mentioned beforehand that the oven in the middle did not go any lower than 450 degrees. I had a pair of thin dishtowels to maneuver these huge, awkward, incredibly hot pans with. Hadn't anyone there heard of oven mitts? Then there was the factor of missing shelves in the ovens. To make due, they had large metal sheet pans to slide in. But oddly enough, they didn't fit. They were just a hair too small. Bump them the wrong way, and they'd tip and fall. Plus, if the loaves had risen high enough, the trays did not provide enough space between the top of the oven and the top of the loaves. What kind of mad man had decided this was a good kitchen for baking bread?
I started one pan in the oven at the end of the line and the other pan in the second oven that apparently would not turn down lower than 450 degrees. 25 minutes later and I shifted both pans to the third oven, one precariously situated on top of a sheet pan. Then, with the white bread starting to tower out of its pans, I placed each of them in the ovens set to 450. Squatting, lifting, standing, squatting, reaching... Quietly pleading with myself not to touch the sides of the oven. One of the loaves of wheat finished on time so that I could put one of the white loaves in its place. However, the other wheat was taking much longer. I needed the space for the second pan of white bread, but I couldn't take out loaves that weren't finished. Since there was nowhere to move this last pan of white bread, I turned its oven down to 350.
At some point during all of this, Louie had come back to help Alonso on the line. When he saw me turn the oven down, he piped up, "You know, that one doesn't go any lower than 450."
WHAT?? The realization flooded over me. There were two ovens that didn't get any cooler than 450 degrees and the reasonable 350 degree oven was full. That left one pan of white bread in a 450 degree oven with nowhere to go. And there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. I left it in for another five to 10 minutes and then took it out looking blackened and not especially appetizing. I think I hung my head in dismay.
I left that night wondering how much, if any of the bread I had made was even edible. Sunday would be a busy day with the brunch crowd. What would Louie do if he didn't have bread? I knew I had let him down.
I boarded a train home, my stomach churning with nerves. Why did I think I could get a job working in a kitchen baking bread when I had zero experience and training? What kind of fool did something like that? Was this something that I really wanted to do, or was I just being a coward, looking for a way out because I'd gone through some rough times at my regular job recently?
Unfortunately I had no answers and I was plagued by these questions for the next two days until I went back to the Farmhouse. Only time would tell.
Friday, March 15, 2013
"Yeah. Louie said he'd be right back to show me around, so I'm just hanging out for now."
"You might as well pull up a chair and get comfortable. My first night here I waited over an hour."
Ugh. This was not how I had pictured this night going.
"I think this is it," I was looking at a stained and crumpled print-out.
"Why don't you give it a shot? You're here, you might as well do something."
He was right - did I really need Louie to walk me through everything step by step? I would halve the recipe and follow it as close as I could, making modifications if I couldn't find something.
A few hours and substitutions later, I had a couple decent loaves. This job was going to be a synch.
Louie asked me to come back the following day before the dinner rush and we'd do the real deal. I wasn't thrilled about giving up my Saturday afternoon, but I knew going into this that I would have to make a few sacrifices. I knew it would all be worth it some day. Besides, tonight was simple enough. How bad could a full batch of bread be?
Saturday, March 9, 2013
"So you're here to do a stage?"
At the time, I didn't know what she meant by stage (pronounced stahj), which is essentially like a job shadow in the kitchen. After making her repeat herself several times, she finally said irritably, “You’re here to make some bread!”
“Oh, yeah.” I managed to confirm, shaking my head inwardly. Jesus. I had a lot to learn. I decided to pull up the science of bread making on Wikipedia and start my education while I waited for Louie.
After a short time that felt much longer, Louie arrived and spirited me away to the kitchen where he introduced me to the two line cooks for the night, Brian and Alonso. He pointed out a few things to me, bowls, flour, yeast, a beat up mixer that apparently only sort of worked.
“I’ve been making all of my bread by hand anyway,” I assured him.
“Oh, thank God.”
He pulled out a container of poolish that he’d made the previous fall with organic apples from the restaurant owner’s orchard. “Take a whiff.” He watched for my reaction.
I inhaled the sour smell of fermenting flour and yeast.
“Smells like paint thinner, eh?” He seemed thrilled. “Most people think it smells disgusting.”
“I kind of like it – it makes me want to drink a beer actually.”
He nodded approvingly. Major points scored.
I started on the autolyse for my Limpa and let him know that it would have to sit there for a bit. In the meantime, he had hauled out a large tub of bread dough and was working on forming loaves and filling a set of heavy cast iron bread pans. He’d take a hunk of dough, knead it thoroughly and then briefly shape and set in the bread pan. I’d never seen someone knead bread so much before shaping it. He informed me that without this step, the bread would have holes in it.
As I was waiting for the autolyse, Louie got called back to the other venue. He put me in charge of shaping the loaves. My first test! I finished up a set of four loaves and then went back to my Limpa. I think the autolyse had sat for almost an hour already. I shook off my doubts and went in search of measuring spoons and vegetable oil. I found neither. Venturing cautiously over by the line like a frightened puppy, I asked Brian if he knew where I could find measuring spoons.
“What size do you need?”
“A tablespoon or teaspoon.”
“I don’t think we use anything that small here.” He shrugged.
Crap. I decided to eyeball the amount of yeast by measuring it out into my palm, hoping with all my might that it would be enough. Then Brian helped me out with the vegetable oil. He took a ladle and scooped some out of a container near the stove, studying it with narrowed eyes.
“How much do you need?”
“About a third of a cup.”
“How many ounces is that?”
I stared blankly, trying to visualize the side of the measuring cup where ounces sat across from cup measurements. I couldn’t remember. Less than eight, more than two?
Realizing he wasn’t going to get ounce measurements from me, he ladled a couple spoonfuls of oil into my bowl. I felt like a complete idiot.
I focused my energy back on making the dough, mustn’t let this throw me off my game. I’d made this bread 5 times in the last week. A few mis-measurements shouldn’t hurt… maybe? I finished adding ingredients and kneaded until I was satisfied with the texture. Now for the hard part, waiting.
Louie made me feel right at home though. After Brian left for the night, the chef took over his part of the line and helped Alonso with a variety of dishes like stir fries, pasta and fajitas. He motioned for me to come join him near the line and as he cooked, he told me stories about the staff, how he'd ended up at the Farmhouse, and shared some of his industry secrets – like how to make sweet potato fries extra crispy and how you can partially cook pasta and then finish it off quickly before serving. Mind blown. He’d spoon tastes of things onto a small platter and make me test the fries for seasoning. He whipped up a vegan special with ingredients I never would have thought to combine. He decorated plates with a beautiful green basil oil. I was having a blast.
After 40 minutes or so, I checked my bread. It didn’t seem to be rising. My heart started to sink a little.
“What do you think?” Louie gave me an honest look of curiosity.
“It’s not rising very fast.”
“Here – throw it over above the ovens – that’s my trick for speeding up the process.”
After 10 or 15 minutes of that, it was definitely risen – maybe even too much. The metal bowl was hot to the touch – I needed a dish rag to get it down. I shaped the loaves and started wait number two. This was the longest interview of my life!
But Louie didn’t seem to care. He was perfectly at home behind the line, whipping up tasty dishes and joking with Alonso. Finally I decided to get the loaves in the oven.
After scoring the loaves, they were plopped in the oven and the last bit of waiting crawled by. I’m not an especially religious person, but I’m pretty sure I said a few prayers.
After a while, Louie opened the oven to take a look. The smell of warm bread and anise escaped out into the kitchen.
“Alonso, come smell this!” He opened the oven again and wafted the air over toward the seasoned line cook. He nodded - I think he approved. He was a hard one to read.
After tapping the bread a few times in search of the perfect hollow sound and then waiting some more, I decided to call it. The suspense was killing me, I really couldn't stand waiting any longer. I briefly rubbed the loaves with butter to give them a nice shine. Then a brief rest out of the oven and the moment of judgment was upon me.
Louie sliced into a hot, steaming loaf, raised a piece to his mouth and breathed in the smell deeply before taking a bite. He groaned with approval and quickly sliced a piece for Alonso. He ate it and said something in Spanish.
“He just said he loved you.”
Glory! That was all I ever hoped for. Even if I didn’t have the job, I had made them something that they truly enjoyed. Mission accomplished.
Tuesday, March 5, 2013
When we first started dating, my husband introduced me to a site called Food Gawker. It’s a mosaic of food images from postings on various food blogs and it’s beautiful. Any recipe you could possibly dream of is there and they all look delicious. I have resigned myself to knowing that I will never ever have the time to make all of them, so I try to pick and choose the ones that speak to me. Swedish Limpa bread was one such recipe.
My husband loves rye bread, so I think I must’ve been looking for something new to try when I found the Limpa recipe. I’m part Swedish, my grandmother was mostly Swedish, and so there was no question about it. It had to be made. I tested it out on Easter Sunday when we had guests over and it was a hit. Crusty, lightly sweet, soft in the middle, with a warm, hearty flavor. My stomach is rumbling as I type this – I think I need to go bake a batch right now.
It was great, but heavy – as many rye breads will be. So I decided to work on the ingredients a bit. First it called for ¾ cup of molasses. I personally like the sweetness this gives the bread, but decided to pull back a little and cut it to ½ cup. Next was the shortening. I used vegetable shortening in it originally, which I think keeps the bread moister in the long term, but ultimately gives it a much heavier feel. I swapped that out with vegetable oil. We were getting closer.
After pouring through many blogs and cookbooks, I came upon a technique in my Test Kitchen cookbook called autolyse. They used this in a recipe for a heavier whole grain bread and they claimed this lightened it up. The process just involves mixing some of the flour with some of the liquid and allowing it to rest for 20 minutes or longer. This allows the flour to become saturated and gluten to form. It is then easier to work with and requires less kneading, prevents oxidation of the dough and also results in the lighter texture. I tested out this theory and also tried a sponge (flour, water and yeast that sat out for 24 hours). The autolyse won. The sponge showed promise. Note to self: must do more experiments on that later.
I also saw that many artisan bread makers worked with a much wetter dough than I was used to. Growing up, my mom would always say that the dough should feel like an earlobe when you were done kneading it. In many cases, I think this is perfectly fine. But in the case of my rye bread, I decided that this would be too dry. I would have to get used to working with a sticky dough. Fine and dandy if you have a dough hook and standing mixture, a little trickier if you do everything by hand like me.
I combined all of the above findings complete with scoring the loaves immediately before placing in the oven (my first attempt at this tricky technique). Five batches of bread later, and surprisingly not sick of it yet, and we had an almost perfect loaf.
However, the perfect loaf wouldn't have been complete without some good advice. My husband’s brother, a chef in San Francisco, urged me to make sure the café had rye flour in stock. A jolt of reality hit me. I was going to assume they had everything I needed! A call to Louie confirmed that they did not. Imagine showing up prepared with the perfect recipe and not being able to make it! I would bring in my own ingredients. Thank goodness for the luck of knowing someone in the industry.
Armed with the recipe, ingredients and hopeless enthusiasm, I made my way to the Farmhouse to bake my Swedish Limpa bread.
Monday, March 4, 2013
But just about everything I’m seeing wants at least a year of experience and/or a culinary school background. I have neither. When I was in high school, I had a summer job at a small cafeteria for university students participating in a summer work study program at a biology research station. It was thrilling to me, even though my main job title was dishwasher. The head cook quickly realized that I was good for more than just scrubbing dried egg out of pans and started me on other prep work. I was put in charge of the salad bar and shortly thereafter, desserts. I got to make giant batches of cookies and huge sheet cakes. I even helped out with bread from time to time. I learned about the joys of Pink Floyd, heard my first Tom Waits album and talked politics with the other cook on duty. I loved that job. How many people can say that about a minimum wage high school gig?
Unfortunately, a few months of work in high school over 10 years ago don’t seem to be cutting it with my job search. I knew I could do the work; I just needed someone to take a chance on me. Then I happened upon a random job posting that I almost passed by. Bread baker. According to my husband, it’s at a café run by hippies. But he calls anyone that recycles and composts a hippy – that’s pretty much everyone these days! The place has been around for ages and is known for good homey food. It’s where I had sweet potato fries for the first time and buffalo is a common item on the menu - something I’ve missed since I moved to the Midwest from Montana. I immediately send them my info. A couple long days go by and I get a callback! Hallelujah, I’m halfway there. I chat with the head chef about my expectations – I want to ease into this. I’m not giving up my full time job just yet. He’s totally cool with it and is willing to be flexible. We schedule an interview for the following week.
Suddenly it hits me, I might just do this! I feel like I’ve had 15 cups of coffee in five minutes. I’m bouncing off the walls with excitement and planning out my work schedule, seeing myself quit my job two months down the road. But I can’t get ahead of myself. One step at a time. And I have no idea what to expect from this interview. Will I have to bake him something? Is he going to quiz me on gluten development and leaveners? Baking bread is something I truly love, but I really know nothing about the science behind it. Crap.
Interview day comes and I decide I’ll just wing it. I’m surprised that I’m not as nervous as I thought I would be. I’ve had interviews for other web dev jobs and I’ve sweated profusely, stuttered and lost my ability to speak logical sentences. I feel none of that now. The minute I enter the café, I feel like I’m back in the cafeteria in high school. It smells the same.
Chef Louie comes out in his whites and apologizes for his appearance. He’s been frying bacon, ripped his pants on some equipment earlier and seems to be dusted in flour. Brilliant. We take a seat at the bar and he tells me a little about himself and the café.
“Have you ever been on one of those dates where the chemistry just wasn’t there? But you were nice enough to sit it out?”
“Of course, haven’t we all?”
“Well, we came to the Farmhouse for breakfast, and I thought to myself, at least I’ll have a good meal. Then the food came and there was a hair in it. This place needed a lot of work when I started – it still does. I want to look back a year from now and think, remember when? We survived that. So here’s an example; when I started, the servers were making the salads. They’d go out back, smoke a cigarette, come back and make a salad without washing their hands. I have the cooks making the salads now and they don’t smell like Marlboroughs anymore.” He was almost beaming with pride.
Louie ends up doing most of the talking and I love his philosophy. He’s got loads of first-class experience, but he’s working here. He likes what the café stands for and he just wants to make good food and have fun doing it. I’m in awe. Through my haze of admiration, I manage to mumble about my passion and confidence in my abilities. Somehow I make it through this round and onto the next. He invites me to come back over the weekend and bake him some bread.
It’s funny, I don’t even have to think about what I will bake. The answer is just there. It will be Swedish Limpa bread.