Rolling Pin and Flour

Rolling Pin and Flour

Friday, April 19, 2013

Freaking rye pretzels

Rye Pretzels
As I struggled and experimented with the bread recipes at the Farmhouse, word of my initial bread baking audition spread throughout the cafe staff.  I became known as the girl that made the rye anise bread. Honestly, I couldn't have been more thrilled with that reputation.  It just made my failures that much harder to swallow.  In any case, the Swedish Limpa bread had lingered in people's minds.  One evening, Pam, the front of house manager, approached me.

"When are you going to make that rye bread again?  I don't normally eat that much gluten, but the morning after you made that bread, I woke up thinking about it."

The recipe had become like a granule of yeast planted in people's minds, and over time as memory fed it, it was growing just like the loaves of bread I was toiling over.

And as it turns out, my audition would not be the last time I made the Swedish Limpa at the Farmhouse. Louie and Pam had been scheming - they had big plans for the recipe.  The cafe was going to be introducing a new late night bar menu and the Limpa was to be featured in the form of pretzels served with a beer and cheese sauce.  I wasn't sure about the whole pretzel idea - I had envisioned it as a dinner roll with a nice hearty stew.  Either way, I was happy that something I had introduced to the cafe was going to be on the menu.  I was also looking forward to making something that I assumed would turn out without too much effort and experimentation.

The Monday before the pretzels made their debut on the menu, Louie invited me to come in for an extra shift on a Wednesday night.  He would supervise as I made the dough so that he could fill in and make them as needed.  But when I got there on Wednesday, it was as if he had completely blanked on the entire idea. There was no rye flour in stock.

"Ugh, I'm so sorry!  If you don't mind, just hang out here for a bit and I will run to the store to grab some."

At first I was fine with waiting.  It wasn't the first time he had left me in the kitchen twiddling my thumbs and it probably wouldn't be the last.  I knew he had a lot on his plate and it was understandable that it would have slipped his mind.  But as the time ticked on and I stood there with nothing to do, I got more than a little anxious.  I didn't want to be here all night with a full 9-5 shift at my main job tomorrow.  I chipped in and helped make side salads for the servers when they needed them and got the autolyse started to pass the time. Finally, about two hours later when I was ready to give up, Louie strolled in with a couple small bags of rye flour.

"I had to drive to several stores before I found it.  I thought for sure you'd get angry and leave.  Thank you for waiting!"

He was genuinely sorry and I quickly forgave him.  I knew it could be a challenge to find it sometimes.  The main grocery stores usually didn't carry it.  I got to work and butted up against the next challenge.  There was no anise seed.  There was star anise, but they were whole - not ground, and I had never used it before. With no spice grinder in house, I decided to toss it in a blender and see what happened.

Crossing my fingers, I dumped the entire 4 ounce jar of star anise in the blender and flipped the switch. Nothing could have prepared me for the noise that came out of that machine.  It was like I had put a pound of rocks in it. One of the servers standing nearby slapped his hands over his ears, a look of fright on his face. As it so happened, there was also an open space in the lid of the blender and bits of powdery anise started to fly out. I quickly placed my hand over the opening, feeling bits of the stuff pelt and sting the skin on my palm.  The smell of anise was everywhere.  It turns out that that smell lingers for quite a while.  Even after I had wiped the entire area down, days afterward I would walk by and get a waft of the licorice smell.

When I could take the noise of the blender no longer, I poured the contents back into the spice jar and brought it back to incorporate into the dough.  When I measured it out, it was definitely not evenly ground.  I sorted through it, trying to pull out any larger pieces.  Someone was going to break a tooth on this stuff.

After the dough had been given a good rise, I went to find Louie.  I had never shaped pretzels before, so I needed his guidance.  After a couple different shaping techniques, he decided that braiding the dough into small rectangles would be the best.  This involved measuring out 4 ounces of dough, dividing it into three equal pieces, rolling them each out into a long strand of dough a little over a foot in length and then braiding them together.  Louie was much more practiced with his rolling technique.  My strands of dough would not lengthen and it was taking me at least twice as long to make one pretzel.

In awe, I asked him, "How the heck are you doing that?" As I admired his long strands and perfectly shaped pretzels. He demonstrated that it was less of a straight pressure with your hands and more of a movement outward with the use of your upper arms.  It was a technique that would definitely take some practice.

Eventually, what seemed like ages later, we finished shaping and brushed the pretzels with a little egg yolk and sprinkled them with sesame seeds.  Into the ovens they went and about 20-30 minutes later, they were ready to come out.

I leaned down to take the top pan out of the oven and turned to set it on the counter of the line behind me. As I turned back to the oven, I saw the pan sliding out of the corner of my eye. Apparently the counter was slanted.  I whipped my body back around and caught the pan in its downward spiral toward the floor.  It almost felt like slow motion as I watched one lone pretzel fall out of the pan, linger suspended in the air and and then drop to the ground.  A gasp of relief left my lips and I shook my head with disbelief. Almost an entire pan of pretzels wasted.  Luckily they had been spared, but the next morning I realized that my back had not.  The quick movement I had made to turn and catch the pan had thrown something out of whack. After multiple chiropractic sessions and a couple massages, I was finally back to normal.  Who knew kitchen work was so hazardous?

I started to dread the days that Louie would ask me to make pretzels.  It was so time consuming.  A double batch of the bread recipe meant two hours of shaping pretzels.  Javier would always laugh when he saw me making them - he knew how much I hated the process.  But they were a showpiece for the rest of the staff. Everyone ooh'ed and aww'ed when they saw the pans come out of the oven, golden and beautiful.

One day as I was slogging through the shaping process, one of the waitresses stopped a moment to watch, "That looks so relaxing," she commented.

Suddenly I realized that I was approaching this all with the wrong mindset.  I had gotten this job to get away from the computer screen; to turn my logical, problem solving brain off for a while and work with my hands. These pretzels gave me the perfect opportunity to do just that and there I was inwardly complaining every minute of it.

From that moment on, I used the time as an escape - to quietly sit there and feel the dough beneath my hands, let my mind wander, observe the workings of the kitchen and enjoy myself.  I had taken the work for granted just because I was in a hurry to be off the clock.  I had lost sight of the end product and the people that would enjoy it.  I vowed that I would never let that happen again.