Rolling Pin and Flour

Rolling Pin and Flour

Saturday, May 25, 2013

I scream, you scream, we all scream for... carrot cake?

After a rough night at the Farmhouse with two batches of wasted bread, I wasn't thrilled to be headed back for a second round.  But I was hopeful that my batch of chilled dough would quicken the process and I would be in and out in a few hours.

It was Saturday afternoon, and I desperately wanted a night at home with my husband.  Our schedules were both extremely full now.  I worked Monday nights, he worked Wednesday and Thursday nights, I worked Friday nights, we both worked 9-5 Monday through Friday.  That meant that Tuesday night, Saturday and Sunday were OURS.  Having been married less than a year, we actually still enjoyed each other's company and we tried to make the most of our time together.

Louie had promised that he would take the dough out of the walk-in a couple hours before my arrival so that it would be proofed and ready to go into loaf pans.  Unfortunately, when I got to the Farmhouse, the bread was still very cold and enjoying its snooze in the refrigerator.  Knowing how much Louie had on his plate, this came as no surprise.  When he was running the show and working the line six to seven days a week (sometimes open to close), he was bound to forget things.  I couldn't hold it against him. I knew he meant well.  But since I had never done an overnight chill with the recipe before, I had no idea if it would turn out.  So I took the dough out to warm while I started on another double batch.  I was not coming back again tomorrow in the event that the chilled dough didn't come out right.

While the three batches were rising, I sat back to observe.  It was an unusually busy night at the cafe. Maybe word had gotten out that there were new bathrooms?  I'm sure the customers that had been coming to the restaurant for years were curious to see the updates.  This place was somewhat of a staple in the city's diner scene.  The food wasn't something that would blow you away and the decor needed a face lift, but the cafe itself was a constant.  I think people liked the thought of a place that had been around forever.  It was comforting to know that time would inevitably tick on and things would continually change, but the Farmhouse would still be there.

Since the remodel had closed the kitchen for most of the week and taken up all of Louie's time, there were only a couple sad looking servings of dessert left for the dinner rush.  And as people finished their meals, requests for carrot cake started coming in. The servers looked dismayed as they were informed there were no desserts for their customers.  Louie was busy working the line, so he couldn't handle doing that and baking a cake.  Since I was just waiting on my bread at that point, I quickly volunteered.

"I'm happy to make some carrot cake if you want - I'm just waiting on the bread to rise."

Louie gladly spouted off the recipe to me - memorized of course - and I scribbled it down and got to work.  Midway through mixing the ingredients, the owner of the Farmhouse came back to the kitchen and started to interrogate Louie as to why there was no carrot cake.  He happily pointed to me and said, 'We're on it!' Confrontation averted.

There was just one problem.  The cake was ready to go into the ovens, but the first two ovens were maxed out with three batches of my bread and the pilot light had gone out in the third oven.  Not surprisingly, no one wanted to deal with that in the middle of the Saturday dinner rush, so two ovens is what I had to work with.  Finally there was space in the blazing hot oven, but Louie wouldn't let me put the cake in that one.  So I played the waiting game and time ticked on...  so much for my Saturday night.

In the meantime, Pam had come back to the kitchen in search of vegan chocolate pudding.  Of course, we were out of that too.

Louie jokingly volunteered, "If they want to wait 20 minutes, I can whip some up."

Unfortunately for him, Pam took him seriously, and the customer agreed to wait.  In between his many dishes on the line, he started melting some chocolate and sent me in search of some tofu.  Between the three of us (Pam, Louie and I), we scrambled to blend all of the ingredients together and got them into the freezer for a quick chill. 

And of course more orders were coming in for carrot cake.  I must have filled the pans too full of batter though, because they were taking much longer to bake than they should have and they had risen into a huge lopsided dome in the oven.  After multiple toothpick tests, they were finally ready.  We quickly knocked the steaming cakes out of their pans and Louie sawed off the domed tops.  Then they were thrown into the fridge to cool while we started on the frosting.  If we had been smart, we would have taken out the butter and cream cheese when we started the whole cake making process, but alas, we were not so smart after all.  So cold cream cheese and cold butter were tossed into the mixer.  It was then that Louie revealed his secret weapon; the blow torch.

"This is a trick I learned when you're crunched for time," he said firing up the torch and holding the flame up to the mixing bowl while it whipped the ingredients.  Then he handed the torch to me and went back to work on the line.  My husband would have been the first to warn him about entrusting me with a flaming torch, but lucky for me, he wasn't there.  Luckily for everyone else, I did not burn the cafe down that night.

A few more secret ingredients and the frosting was ready.  Even though the cakes had been in refrigeration, it wasn't nearly enough time to cool.  But people needed their carrot cake!  So we slopped the frosting onto a hot cake and called it done.  The servings of cake that night were not their most beautiful with the warm, drippy frosting sliding off the slices onto the plate, but hey, at least it was fresh!

In the midst of all the commotion, Louie had missed his insulin shot and his blood sugar had crashed.  We rushed to get him some soda and finally we could all take a step back and breathe.  I cleaned up my station, passed out the butchered cake top to the wait staff and called it a night.  Thoroughly defeated, I headed home.  It was 10pm - at least two hours later than I had planned.

After everything that had happened that night, I found myself wondering if I was really cut out for this whole food service thing.  Was it time to reconsider?  Could I honestly think that I could work a full time job and be a successful baker on the side while still maintaining my marriage and social life? Something eventually had to give, but being the selfish only child that I was, I wasn't willing to give anything up yet.  I wanted it all dammit!  So I decided to keep pushing things until I found the breaking point.  Whichever thing broke first, I guess that would be my decision.  I just hoped it wouldn't be my marriage.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The remodel

To say that the kitchen at the Farmhouse needed some work might be an understatement.  It was old and outdated.  It was poorly laid out.  The pipes in the refrigeration units leaked.  The ceiling leaked in some places when it rained.  The bathrooms were the sort you might see in summer camp or at a rest area.  The ovens were impossible with their missing shelves and their unpredictable temperatures.  There weren't always the appropriate tools for measuring and mixing.  Equipment just sort of disappeared sometimes only to turn up later in some random unexplained location.

The kitchen was also quite hazardous.  The floor could be notoriously slippery if oil or water spilled on it.  There was an odd pipe with some kind of lever on it where I worked on my bread and I'd whacked my ankle on it more than once. There was a hill in the floor of the kitchen halfway between the walk-in refrigeration and the line.  Yes, a hill.  Or rather an incline. Originally the Farmhouse had been two storefronts that eventually merged together.  Apparently, they were on two different levels of ground and no one bothered to even it out when they brought the two together.  Regardless, any employee that made their way from one side of the kitchen to the other had to make a mental note to pay attention to the floor, or risk making a face plant onto whatever hot food or pans they were carrying.

One Friday evening after working at the Farmhouse for two months, I arrived and made my way back toward the kitchen as usual.  Louie caught up with me half way.

"I wanted to see your reaction to things."

As he said this, I paused to take a closer look around me.  One wall of the kitchen had been completely removed.  Fresh paint had been applied.  The bathrooms had been renovated.  Everything was moved around to different locations.  I felt my stomach sink.  I had just gotten comfortable with the set up and figured out where everything was! 

"What do you think?"  I could tell he was eagerly awaiting my approval.

I hid my selfish dismay, "It looks great!" I assured him.  And it really did.  It felt so much more open and light.

As I started to prep my station, Louie informed me that the cafe had been closed for several days while the updates were being made.  Most of the staff had come in to help through the entire process; painting, cleaning, demolition, you name it.  I was sad to know that I hadn't been included in the project, hadn't been there to share the experience with the rest of the staff.  Would they judge me for it?  I wanted so desperately to be a member of the team.

Another nice addition to the kitchen was a set of large bins on wheels that had been filled with rice, sugar and a variety of flour.  Before this bin system, many of the open flour bags had been poured into large tubs that had previously held things like pickles and peanut butter.  Definitely an improvement.

My first concern of the night was that my oven mitts were missing.  I had gotten tired of burning my arms on the scorching hot oven walls when rotating and moving the bread pans with thin dishtowels, so I had gone out and bought a pair of really nice, silicone, hot pink oven mitts.  Yes, I looked like a complete dork with them on, but I had not been burned since.  Fashion wasn't always everything!  I was desperate to find those gloves.  I asked one of the prep cooks, but he was in a hurry and didn't have time to help me.  Then I approached Javier.  He immediately went back to his locker and pulled them out for me.   I could have kissed him I was so relieved and grateful.  He had cared enough to move them out of the way of the construction and paint and general disarray.  I'm sure he had no idea how much that meant to me.  Silly girl with her hot pink gloves.

Armed with my mitts and a whole new confidence, I went back to work on my batch of whole wheat bread.  As I loaded it into the mixer, I noticed that the consistency of the dough was drastically different than usual.  It was much stickier and darker in color.  It wasn't becoming smooth or elastic in the mixer no matter how long I left it there.  Something was not right.  I ran to the back office to find Louie.

"What kind of flour was in those bins?  My bread dough is completely different tonight.  It's really sticky."

"I loaded the all purpose myself.  I'm pretty sure the other one should be wheat.  Can you just add more flour to the dough?"

I shook my head inwardly.  Pretty sure it was whole wheat flour?  And was he so sure he didn't pour rice flour in instead of all purpose?  Also, why on earth wouldn't they have labeled the bins?  Who pours random flour into a bin and doesn't label?

I sullenly went back to the kitchen and tasted the 'all purpose' flour to stem my worries.  Blech.  I was no expert on tasting plain flour, but I was pretty sure I would know if it was rice.  This seemed like good old AP to me.  I decided to make my usual two batches and wait it out.  Maybe I would get lucky and it would all turn out.  I could dream, couldn't I?

But I should have known better than to be an optimist in that kitchen.  When I shaped the loaves, they were dense and heavy and the dough didn't roll out like it usually did.  As it proofed in its pans, it started to split down the middle of each loaf.  It didn't rise a whole lot during the second proofing.

When I pulled it out of the oven, the loaves were like dense little bricks.  I almost cried.  I had baked a double batch of bricks.  Louie showed up as I was setting them aside.

"I'm pretty sure it was rye flour that was in that bin," I informed him.

"Oh no, really?  That's awful.  Do you think you could make a couple more batches of regular wheat?  We're gonna need it for the weekend rush."


At that point, it was already getting pretty late.  I didn't want to be there until the wee hours of the morning, so I agreed to come back the next day and try it all over again.  Hoping to save a little time, I made another batch of dough before I left and put it in the walk-in.  Louie promised to take it out a couple hours before I showed up, so it would be ready to put into loaves when I got to work.  I tried to reassure myself.  Yes, I was giving up more of my weekend, but it would only be a couple more hours tomorrow.  I could get there early and be home in time for dinner with my husband.  It was the perfect plan.

But what was it that they always said about best laid plans?

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Kitchen Crowd

Fitting in is tough.  There are so many different types of people with different personalities, different desires, different expectations.  I've never really been able to classify myself in one group or another.  Growing up in small town, rural Montana, there were very few social groupings for me to fit into.  There were the popular and athletic kids, there were the farmer and ranchers' kids, there were the Native American kids, and then there was me.  I was a brainy, uncoordinated, shy girl that was the daughter of a fourth grade teacher.

Up until I was in third grade, my mom taught in a handful of small towns in Alaska.  I remember three of them.  So when I came to Montana, I had already seen and experienced a lot of things that most kids that age couldn't dream of.  Temperatures 75 degrees below zero, snow drifts the height of rooftops, dog sled races, moose, Eskimos, homes without running water, outhouses in the dead of winter, northern lights.  It all made me different.  Even at that young of an age, those experiences had given me a unique perspective on life.  It also gave me the desire to travel and experience new things.  I knew there was so much more outside my small home town and I wanted to see it all. 

So for nine years, I dreamed of bigger and better places but made do with where I was.  To fit in, I learned to observe people and their habits so that I became a sort of social chameleon.  I could adjust my personality to adapt to a variety of different 'clicks', but to my dismay, I never felt like I truly belonged in any of them.  The minute I graduated, I jumped ship and moved to Chicago in search of diversity and adventure, but most of all, to find myself and figure out where I fit in.

When I landed my job with a small IT firm and started  feeling at home around computer geeks, I was thrilled.  I had found a bunch of people that had probably felt like outcasts during most of their childhoods like I did.  They were all quiet, intelligent people that enjoyed working diligently and undisturbed for eight hours a day.

That worked for me for about seven years.  I delighted in my status as a geek and I still do.  But it wasn't 100% who I was.  I didn't want to go home at night and tinker with code or play video games.  I didn't read comic books and I didn't aspire to build the next Facebook or Google.  It occurred to me that my job was just a paycheck and that I actually didn't have as much in common with the people I worked with as I thought I did.  My status quo had been fractured and I started to feel that same restless, bored, unhappy feeling that I'd grown accustomed to as a child.

When I started baking at the Farmhouse, I didn't know what to expect from my co-workers.  As someone coming in with no real experience and a 'corporate' background, I really didn't think I would fit in at all.  To my surprise, I was welcomed without judgement and I quickly grew to love and admire my fellow kitchen mates.  In my web development work, I found coworkers with stable, normal lives, fairly devoid of excitement or adversity.  In the kitchen, I found a disparate set of people with incredible life experiences.

There's Michael, the server, who is also an actor and dancer.  He has wild and beautiful bushy brown hair and this crazy intensity about him.  He calls Alonso 'Mi amor' and sings to the cooks when he picks up his food from the line.  I'm pretty sure he's been high on a variety of illegal substances for most of his shifts.  He says to me one day, very genuinely, that I'm going to have my own cooking show just like Martha Stewart.  That is the last thing on earth that I want, but his faith in me is touching.

There's Brian, the line cook, who went to a good culinary school and has worked at three and four star restaurants.  He says he's 'slumming it' at the Farmhouse to save up for a motorcycle.  I don't think he's figured out what he wants to do with life yet.  He certainly doesn't seem happy in the kitchen and he talks about becoming a dog walker or bar back.  I understand his dilemma and I hope he can find something rewarding, like bread baking is for me.

There are also the incredibly hard workers like Pedro, the bus boy.  He has six children and he works non-stop.  He has two jobs and also works at festivals on the weekend.  He'll work until 2am at the Farmhouse and then get up at 6 the next morning to work his other job.  And yet, on so little sleep and so much work, he has never been unpleasant to me.  He always greets me with a smile and says nice things about the bread that I bake. 

There's Javier, the line cook, who always makes sure I get something to eat before my shift is over at the end of the night.  He knows I like avocado, so he puts it on everything he makes for me.

There's Manuel, the dishwasher.  I don't even want to think about how little money he's making.  Even so, he is one of the most generous people I have met.  If he has a bag of candy, or a special juice or soda, he always offers to share it with me.  He is trying very hard to teach me Spanish.

The more time I spend at the Farmhouse, the more I admire the staff that keeps the cafe running.  They're such a diverse group of people, and yet, I've never felt like I fit in more in any other place. 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Let them eat cake!

It turns out that I can never have too much on my plate - in both food and life.  I say this, because no matter how many things I have going on, I always seem to cram one more thing in.  In my professional life, this means I have multiple jobs.  There's my main 9-5 job in web development five days a week.  Then there's the freelance web development that I do after hours and on weekends.  And of course, there are my shifts twice a week at the Farmhouse.

I think what it boils down to, is that I don't like to be idle.  What's the saying?  Idle hands are the devil's workshop?  I don't know that I would be doing the devil's deeds if I were to sit and do nothing for a few minutes.  But I feel like my life has more purpose when I'm busy.  It's just some crazy notion I picked up along the way somewhere.

During my bread baking shifts at the Farmhouse, there are definitely moments of being idle.  While I'm waiting for the bread to rise or while it's baking in the oven there can be stretches of time anywhere from 5 minutes to 30 minutes long when I'm not really doing much.  And I hate it.  I have this horrible sense of guilt about it - especially if it's a busy night.  The cooks will have several saute pans sizzling away and burgers lined up on the flat top, the wait staff is busy running food to tables and taking orders from angry customers that have been waiting too long, the dishwasher is surrounded by full bins of dirty dishes, hot soapy water flying everywhere.  And then there's me, just sorta hanging out.  Sometimes someone will ask me to run and grab something from the back stock room or make a side salad, and I'm glad for these brief moments of having something to do.  But for the most part, I stand quietly by, hoping no one will notice.

One busy night, Brian the line cook sees me sheepishly standing around. "You should be making desserts," he tells me. "While you're waiting for the bread, it would be a perfect time."

Granted, he doesn't like these busy nights, so he might be a little envious that I'm not involved in the madness.  But in all honesty, I think he wants to help me out.  He knows my background and that I'm there to learn.  How can I do that if I'm making the same bread recipes all the time?  I love making desserts almost as much as baking bread, so I start to seriously mull it over.

Then later that weekend, I discover the true sign of spring at our local produce market.  Rhubarb!  As I say that magical word, I can see my husband shudder with disgust.  He hates it and he's not alone.  It certainly isn't for everyone.  But for me, it is the epitome of spring baking.  My mom and grandma both had rhubarb plants when I was growing up and they would make the best sauces and desserts with it.  The tart tanginess that rhubarb adds to something sweet is pure heaven.  So when I saw those beautiful thick red stalks laying there amongst the other produce, I bought them.  I didn't care that they were probably $4/pound.  And I didn't care that my husband was standing behind me shaking his head.

So now that I had this wonderful spring treat, I had to find something to make with it.  I passed over the obvious thought of strawberry rhubarb pie (one of my all-time favorites) to try something new - rhubarb upside down cake.  The original recipe is here:

I made only a couple small modifications to it.  I added strawberries to the rhubarb topping, omitted the anise seed (because I forgot to add it!), and served with a whipped and lightly sweetened mascarpone cream.  It was delicious. Even the husband ate multiple helpings of it over the course of a few days.

I immediately decided that this needed to be served at the Farmhouse.  So I forwarded the recipe to Louie and offered to come in for an additional shift during the week to make it myself.  He enthusiastically agreed to it.  Just like that, I had added the title of pastry assistant to my position at the Farmhouse and crammed one more thing into my ever growing list of things to do.

That Thursday, I arrived to make a batch of pretzels and to work on my rhubarb upside down cake.  I also got to try out some new equipment.  Since I had to caramelize the rhubarb topping for the cake, I had to borrow a burner on the line for a few minutes.  As I stood there stirring my pot of fruit next to the line cooks an odd sense of pride came over me.  How many people with zero professional training were trusted with an open flame in a restaurant?

Next up, I battled with the small standing mixer.  The lever that lifted the mixing bowl and locked it into place was broken.  Searching around, I found a small box of latex gloves to set under the mixing bowl.  It wobbled and rattled around as I cranked up the mixing speed, so I decided the lowest speed would have to work.  By now I was well-versed in dealing with these challenges.  Baking at the Farmhouse was all about adapting.

Surprisingly, everything else went smoothly that night and the cake ended up being a pretty big seller over the weekend.  But now I was faced with some questions.  Did this mean I would be baking desserts on a regular basis?  Would I have to work more hours during the week?  Could I afford to give up more of my personal time?  Maybe I was taking on more than I could handle. I certainly had my doubts. But I wasn't ready to give up anything just yet.