Rolling Pin and Flour

Rolling Pin and Flour

Friday, July 26, 2013

A bread baker no more

You could say that I had a love-hate relationship with baking bread at the Farmhouse.  There were days that were completely frustrating - when the bread wouldn't rise or it rose too quickly, when it browned too much or had holes in it.  There were summer days when the air conditioning didn't work and the sweat beaded on my forehead and the blasts of heat from the ovens almost knocked me over.  There were many days that I was so exhausted I could barely make the trip home from the cafe at the end of the night.  And there were days when I just wanted to give it all up and quit.  But on the other hand, there were moments when I couldn't imagine doing anything else.  Feeling the dough in my hands, smelling the loaves when they came hot out of the oven, eating sandwiches made with it, joking around with the line cooks and feeling like part of the team, hearing compliments from the other cafe staff and customers.  These were the things that made it all worthwhile and helped me to forget all of the times I had almost given it up.

The week after Pam took over the head chef job at the Farmhouse, I had planned to take a week-long vacation back home.  It was horrible timing, but I had been planning this trip for months - way before I knew Louie would no longer be my boss.  I hadn't been home in two years and I was incredibly homesick.  There was no way I was calling it off.  So I had to suck it up, be brave and tell Pam about it.

I approached her at the end of my shift one night and filled her in on the situation.

"I'll be more than happy to work some extra shifts.  If there's room in the freezers, I can make a couple big batches and you could store it."

"Let me think about it," she said brusquely.  "I'm cleaning out the freezers right now and I don't know what we have room for.  Come in on your next regular shift this week and we'll talk then."

My next regular shift was a Friday, three days before I was supposed to leave.  I didn't see how that could possibly be enough time (unless I worked all weekend), but I had no other choice.  I had to trust that she'd have a plan and I'd get through it.

When I showed up for my next shift, the kitchen was in its usual disarray as they prepped for the dinner theater that night.

Pam greeted me when I walked in, "Ceth, I need to talk to you.  We're not going to bake bread here any more."

It was funny how easily she said it, how simply it rolled off her tongue without pause - it clearly meant nothing to her.  I tried to hide my dismay, for it meant everything to me. 

"The ovens here are complete shit," she continued.  "I don't know how you worked with them at all.  If we ever get a prep kitchen built in the back with decent ovens, maybe we'll think about baking our own bread again.  But for now, we're just going to order the bread from somewhere else."

I wanted to disagree with her.  Tell her that I had been baking decent bread for months in those shit ovens.  Tell her she was making the wrong decision.  Tell her that store-bought, mass-produced bread was just not the same as homemade.  But I held my tongue.  She could have fired me on the spot, but she hadn't. She apparently had other things in mind for me.

"So for today, can you make three or four cheesecakes, a bunch of carrot cake and then there is a puff pastry dessert I want to show you.  Sound good?"  She dismissed me with a quick nod of her head and went back to her prep work.  I was going to have to adjust quickly to her style.  Louie had never been around much for guidance, but I always felt like I could lean on him if I needed to and he always treated me like a human being.  Pam made me feel like I was just a tool at her disposal.

I stood there dumbly for a moment, still in shock, taking things in.  There was a repair guy on the main prep station working on the meat slicer.  My typical work station was in disarray and there was another girl working there making chocolate cake.  What the hell?  Pam had literally just taken over a few days ago and already she had found someone else to make desserts?  I looked around for the small mixing bowls that I used for making the cheesecake batter and found none.

"Hey Pam, have you seen the mixing bowls for the mixer?"

"You mean that one?"  She pointed behind me with a condescending smirk.  It was the industrial sized one I had used for bread baking- currently splattered with chocolate cake batter.  Yes, I knew where that one was, thank you.  Geez.

"No, I'm talking about the small ones."

"Oh, I think they're over at the dinner theater filled with ganache."

I may have rolled my eyes.  Not only was there another girl there baking desserts in my ovens, but all of my equipment was gone or in use too?  What exactly did she expect me to accomplish here?

I gave up the thought of cheesecake for the moment and  decided to start on the carrot cake. There were no grated carrots in stock, so I set about grating them by hand on a flimsy box grater.  As I begrudgingly grated, I watched the other girl as she helped Pam.  She pulled some roasted potatoes out of the middle oven, found that they were not roasting fast enough and plopped them into the raging hot oven on the end.  A short while later, she pulled them out overdone.

"You have GOT to get these ovens calibrated." she protested.  I chuckled inwardly, selfishly enjoying her struggles.  It was like I had time traveled backwards and was watching my failed attempts with the first batches of bread I had made.

After the potato fiasco, she pulled some of my bread pans out and looked at them disgustedly.  To be honest, they weren't the most attractive things to look at.  Louie didn't believe in washing them after the bread baking - it was kind of like seasoning a cast iron pan.  You never used soap and water on one so that the flavors were preserved and then added to the next dish you made in it.  She flung a pan into the sink, doused it with hot water, scrubbed furiously to get some of the grease off and failed.  I hid behind my box grater diligently grating, trying to be as unassuming as possible.

A sore arm and some orange fingers later, the carrots were grated and I was ready to get the batter going.  But when I searched around there was no all purpose flour to be found.  I also noted an empty spot on the shelf where my poolish used to live.  The smelly, wild apple yeast that had been the pride of Louie and the added flavor for the bread was gone.

I felt utterly defeated.  I was running into dead ends everywhere I went.  The joy of bread baking had been taken away from me.  The remnants of Louie had been purged.  My replacement was apparently already in training.

Disheartened, I threw together some lumpy cheesecake in the giant Hobart mixer and tossed the cake batter into the cooler.  It would have to wait until some flour was delivered.  There was nothing left for me to do and there was no way for me to tell Pam since she was in the midst of the dinner theater rush.  I couldn't finish the carrot cake, there were no puff pastry instructions, and we needed to order flour.  What exactly was I supposed to do?  On my way out, I asked Javier to have her call me and left the cafe feeling like a sad dog with its tail between its legs.

I awaited her call which never came.  Maybe she would fire me.  Or maybe I would just quit.  At this point, I honestly felt like I didn't care anymore.  If there was no bread baking and no Louie, there just didn't seem to be any point to working at the Farmhouse any longer.

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