When I went back to the Farmhouse for my next bread baking shift, I was fearing the worst. My first attempt had not been successful by any standards. Most regular chefs at regular cafes would have fired me on the spot. But when I arrived, Louie seemed unconcerned. He just nonchalantly informed me that there had been holes in the whole wheat loaves I had made; a fact that didn't surprise me one bit. What surprised me was his patience and trust in me. How did I get so lucky? I reassured him that I knew where I went wrong. I was ready to try again. So he set me to work on a double batch of whole wheat.
This time around, I made sure to add plenty of water and it all seemed to come together pretty well. Once the dough was rising, I had some time to just hang out and observe. It was a quiet weeknight at the cafe with Javier working the line by himself, so much more laid back and peaceful than the weekend dinner shift. I learned to like Mondays very quickly. It was easier to get in and out of the ovens without worrying about maneuvering around a line cook who was working with hot grease and food on the burners above my head.
But even with moister dough and a quiet kitchen, the ovens still presented a challenge. This time around, I had allowed for extra time in between each batch so that when it came time for baking, I wouldn't end up with a set of deserted loaves in the fire of hell ovens with nowhere to go. Timing wasn't the issue this time, it was the shelving.
Louie had pointed out that in the blazing hot ovens, the bread needed to be rotated approximately every 10 minutes. The back of the ovens were much hotter than the front. Without rotation, you'd end up with one side of the loaves looking black and evil and the other half perfectly golden if you were lucky. With the tipsy sheet pans serving as the top shelf, rotating became a major challenge. Added on to that was the fact that I was terrified of being burned. I learned all too quickly that fear does not produce the most steady hands.
Halfway through the process of one rotation, the top sheet pan got nudged too far to one side of the oven and down it went. With fiery hot air in my face and flimsy dish towels in my hands, I got flustered. I couldn't budge it. It was lodged in the oven at an awkward angle with the heavy cast iron pan on top and it wouldn't move for me.
Javier was standing at the fryer next to me when this all went down. He watched me struggle for a moment and then leaned over to help me when he saw the look of desperation in my eyes. He was quite a bit shorter and had a smaller build than me, but he taught me quickly that I should never mistake size for weakness. He reached into the oven and sorted things out with a couple quick maneuvers. I was overwhelmingly grateful.
The shelf was fixed for now, but there had been a set of loaves underneath when it had collapsed. When I pulled them out to move them to another oven, sure enough, they had been squashed.
At the end of the night I told Louie about the casualties. Always quick with his wit, he replied, "Well, the good news is, if there were holes in them, there won't be anymore!"
I was having a hard time looking on the bright side however. I was a perfectionist and I was determined to get this bread right, faulty equipment or not.
Over the next few weeks, I wracked my brains and experimented tirelessly. I had loaves come out blackened all over, loaves that were blackened on the bottom, loaves that sank in the middle, many many loaves that had holes in them and that split on the top as they were rising and baking.
Throughout all of this, Louie really said nothing. He just let me do my thing and figure it all out for myself. And I was learning. At night, after a shift, I would plop exhausted into bed smelling of toast and I would scour the internet for tips and answers to my problems. It became an obsession. I would lie there lit up by the screen of my smartphone til all hours of the night while my husband and dog snored in the bed next to me.
I learned that bread that wasn't baked in an oven hot enough, sank in the middle when it reached is peak rise. I learned that holes in bread typically meant a poorly shaped loaf, or one that hadn't been deflated enough after the first rise or that had too much or too little water (so many factors!). A cold kitchen meant longer rise times, a longer shift, and a later bed time.
And then something amazing happened. The bread actually started to look like edible bread. I had finally come up with a system that was working and here's what it was:
One shelf in the middle of each oven.
One sheet pan overturned on the bottom of each oven.
One set of loaves on the top shelf of the fires of hell oven for 5 minutes.
Rotate, 5 more minutes.
Move to the bottom of the oven on the sheet pan.
Add the second set of loaves to the top shelf.
Rotate both after 5 minutes.
After another 5 minutes, move the bottom loaves to the cooler oven, move the top loaves to the bottom shelf.
Rotate the bottom loaves after 5 minutes.
After 5 more minutes move them to the cool oven.
Add the next set of loaves to the top shelf of the blazing hot oven. Rinse, repeat.
All this done while there were two cooks on the line, trying to do their jobs. Things definitely got hairy sometimes.
After 25 minutes in the cool oven, I would tap a couple loaves searching for the perfect hollow sound. Javier would always watch when I did this, head cocked to one side. "Anyone home?" he would ask with a quizzical smile.
Throughout this process, I was also playing with the ingredients. The day I went in to audition for the job, Louie had given me a slice of the whole wheat bread to taste. In all honesty, it was bland and dry and I had a very difficult time finishing it. I love bread - if I could survive by only eating bread, I would. So when I can't finish a piece, it must be pretty bad. I refused to make a bread that I didn't want to eat, so I slowly introduced different things to add flavor - mainly molasses and honey and finally came up with a 50/50 combination that gave the bread a nice brown color and just a hint of sweetness.
Things were looking up. Maybe this whole baker idea wasn't such a crazy idea after all.