Rolling Pin and Flour

Rolling Pin and Flour

Friday, July 19, 2013

A hot, muggy kitchen equals funky bread

One should never get too confident about things.  Inevitably it will bite you in the ass.  For instance, if you're in the playoffs for the World Series, it's game six and you're up 3-0.  Don't get cocky!  Some poor fan may just reach out of the stands and grab a fly ball that an outfielder could have caught, one mistake will lead to another and you'll end up kissing the chances of a trip to the World Series goodbye.

Ok, so maybe baseball is not the best analogy here.  I certainly wasn't baking bread for any sort of world championship of dough.  But things had gotten comfortable for me at the Farmhouse.  I had fallen into a groove.  I was working two to three shifts a week and my bread was coming out fairly consistent.  I hadn't had any complaints of holes in it in quite a while.  Once, a customer even asked one of the servers where we bought our bread because they liked it so much.  There were regular customers that would come in every week to buy one or two loaves to take home with them.  Louie said the bread was the best it had been since he started working at the Farmhouse.  Things were going along swimmingly. Then summer hit.

Summers in the Midwest can be muggy and very warm.  We're talking days of 90 degree temperatures with humidity levels at 70% or higher.  These conditions wreak havoc on bread making. I've always heard about adjusting recipes based on climate and altitude, but had never really experienced it first-hand.  I had changed almost nothing in my tactics and suddenly my bread was rupturing while it proofed and baked.  I was getting loaves that were split down the top and others with a rough craggy look.

First I assumed it was the rolling pin I was using.  The wooden French roller I'd been using had mysteriously disappeared from the kitchen so I was stuck using a huge metal pin that clanged every time I applied pressure to the dough.  It sounded like I was a body builder lifting weights. The pin also had rough abrupt edges instead of the smooth tapered ones on the French pin.  I had an inkling that this was tearing the dough in places and causing weakened areas that later ruptured.

Being the over-achiever that I was, I went out and bought my own French rolling pin and began carrying it to and from the cafe on the days that I worked.  It stuck out of the canvas tote I used, at the ready to either defend me against a mugger or roll some rogue dough.  But alas, my dear rolling pin did not do the trick. The bread was still rupturing.

My next assumption was that the kitchen was too hot and too muggy for bread baking.  There were days when the a/c didn't even work. I had to admit to myself that the recipe would need to be adjusted.  But there were so many variables.  Less sugar?  Less water?  Less yeast and/or poolish? More flour?

As I was struggling through these modifications one night, I noticed a letter to the employees posted on the menu board.  I scanned the first paragraph quickly out of curiosity.  Suddenly it was hard to swallow.  This casually posted letter was to inform us that Louie was leaving!  They were hiring someone for his replacement.  I stopped reading feeling a panic rush through me.  Louie was the whole reason I was here. He had been brave enough to take a chance on me and then let me figure things out on my own through trial and error.  A new chef could come in, take one look at me and my (lack of) qualifications and send me on my way.  Now was the worst possible time with my bread looking like craters of the moon!

Earlier that week, I had met with a former colleague of mine from the web development agency where I worked full-time.  He was one of the few people from that part of my life that knew about my baking.  We got to talking about my experiences at the cafe and he said to me, "It's funny, I don't even know that Ceth. You have this whole other part of your life that I don't know."

As I thought about what he said, I realized that I loved the idea.  It was almost like I was leading a secret life. There was the boring Ceth that sat in front of a computer screen for eight hours a day staring at lines of code. Then there was the Ceth that baked bread and desserts at night in a crazy dysfunctional kitchen.  The Ceth that carried a rolling pin around with her, drawing curious looks from passersby.  The Ceth that went home smelling of French fries, a grease stain on her right knee. When a coworker asked if she did anything interesting the night before, she would have visions of loaves upon loaves of bread and cheesecake and cream cheese frosting and then she would casually shake her head, smiling inwardly and say, "no, not really."

I didn't want to give up that secret life and go back to being just plain old programmer Ceth.  I tried to reassure myself.  Change could be good.  Maybe a new chef would come in that would take me under their wing and teach me some things - be a mentor of sorts.

As my bread was in the last stage of baking, curiosity got the best of me and I went back to read the rest of the letter.  The lump in my throat started to return.  The new head chef was going to be... Pam.  She had been the FOH manager until now and I'd only really worked with her peripherally. From what I had seen, she was a perfectionist and a control freak. I didn't see how this could end well. I needed to step up my game.

Over the next few weeks, I worked diligently to get my bread back in shape.  What I found was that I was rolling the dough too much and too tightly.  With minor adjustments to the recipe and a different loaf forming technique, it started to look normal again.  I also started baking muffins and scones for the weekends. I was trying to justify my existence and prove that I was capable of more that just bread and cheesecake.  I held onto those last few shifts with Louie, knowing that the end might be in sight and I started browsing help wanted ads again just in case Pam decided I was no longer necessary.

No matter what happened, I knew I couldn't return to the old status quo of a 9-5 desk job and give up on this passion.  I had thrown my life a curve ball when I had taken the job at the Farmhouse and there was no turning back.  The secret identity of Ceth Jordan would go on one way or another.

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