Tonight we are baking with gluten free flour for the first time. As I write this the canelés have 30 more minutes, and the aroma filling the bakery is as yummy vanilla-y as always, a good sign. Canelé batter is notoriously finicky and we won’t really know for another two hours – the time it takes to complete baking, cooling, and removing the pastries from the molds – if the gamble will pay off. I hope so.
Patience may be a virtue but if I could speed things along I would. Of course I can’t, so won’t, which is on reflection maybe a good thing, because hurrying through the baking process is the antithesis of what French cooking is all about, and canelés with their 17-step, takes-48-hours process are the epitome of all that is French about baking. Sighing, I resign myself to sniffing the delicious air, waiting and hoping.
I turn up the tunes and the lonesome hillbilly tones of Chris Isaac fill the bakery, and I reflect that blasting your music as loud as you want in ~5,000 square feet is a perk I never considered when first beginning this endeavor.
At first it scared me to be in the bakery at night. It was big and unfamiliar and shadowy, full of mysterious, looming equipment and strange noises. The metal loading doors in the shipping and receiving bays rattle incessantly with the wind, often sounding just like a person (or a horde of zombies) outside pounding to get in. More than once my heart has frozen in my chest at the sound, but now I barely hear it and when I do, I figure if it’s zombies it’s more likely they will be of the slow shambling George Romero ilk than the speedy ragey 24-Hours-Later variety Danny Boyle has so helpfully envisioned.
I am not unduly worried because given the sheer size of the bakery, slow zombies I can easily evade – not to mention slice, dice and bake. I drive home past a graveyard with more than 137,000 gravestones so a zombie uprising is a matter I give frequent thought to.
Like I said, the equipment was scary at first: oversized versions of household items that seemed sinister if not in their purpose, then their awful possibilities.
Take the ovens, large enough for me to stand up inside; they always make me think, nervously, of Hansel and Gretel. One can all too easily imagine the Witch burning up inside, casting spells furiously through the window as she cooked to an even, convection-perfect crisp.
My good friend Tricia for some reason thought it would be a fun way to spend her vacation, cleaning Hobart mixers and power washing bakery racks in 100 plus degree heat, so what could I do but indulge her. So there we were sweating away in our tank tops and baseball hats with our ponytails sticking through that divot in the back.
Apparently the ovens have the same dark, imagination-stimulating effect on everyone because Tricia wasn’t in the place more than three hours before she was pretending to be stuck inside, screaming, like an actress on the set of one of the Final Destination Sequels and I laughed but also made sure she got out of there pronto despite the door being unlatched and there being absolutely no power going to the oven or even that part of the building.
The sight of her in there made me wonder whatever happened to Gretel after she escaped the Witch. Did she go on to be happy? Maybe own a bakery, where the ovens held a dark pull over her as she worked late into the night making delicious things for people from a secret recipe with a super special secret ingredient that a certain Witch might well recognize?
Despite their intimidating hulk that seems to promise complexity, the ovens are surprisingly easy to operate (which for some reason makes the things that much more unnerving). When the big oven door is swung open, the heat that wooshes out is an invisible, physical wave, stirring your netted hair and fogging your glasses.
The giant mixers took some getting used to. – we have a 40 quart, a 60 quart and an 80 quart mixer, and their size is outlandish, with a someone-waved-a-wand quality that makes the work we do – pouring milk or adding flour 15 gallons or pounds at a time – seem simultaneously serious and absurd.
Standing near the mixers always makes me feel out of scale, like I’m Alice after eating the cake, as if, should I wander outside, I might find the parking lot filled with seagulls the size of gorillas, patrolling the dumpsters and looking at me framed in my open yellow bakery door with intelligent, undue interest.
The scale is something you adjust to. A few days ago the husband decided to bake muffins. This was at home, in our cozy kitchen with its suddenly strange, seemingly shrunken appliances. He pulled out a baking sheet that looked about the size of a postage stamp. We stared at it dubiously.
“It looks like a toy!” said the husband, and I agreed, normal kitchen-sized cookware looked decidedly unsubstantial, as if they couldn’t possibly hold enough food for normal-sized people. The muffins turned out fine, though.
The blast chiller is another piece of equipment that seems almost Lovecraftian in its possibilities. Within seconds, the supercooled air goes from refreshing to holy-god-that-is-COLD-I’-need-to-get-out-of-here-NOW. It’s the kind of arctic cold that forcibly reminds you that no matter how immortal you might feel, you couldn’t survive the elements if they decided to get as radical as the temperature inside the mouth of a blast chiller (or, for that matter, mongo oven). I have visions of the husband opening the door to find me inside like a human ice sculpture, icicles growing from my nose, ears and fingers all the way to the floor.
After moths of late nights where we worked until we fell asleep on the CostCo folding tables until it was light enough to rise zombie-like to work again, we were ready to pass our inspections. Months of baking have not bred the contempt promised by familiarity, but time has definitely de-mystified the equipment, and today I no longer peer sideways into the ovens as I walk by…though I have been known, still, to flinch when the wind gusts and shakes the loading doors in their aluminum frames.
Wishing you sweet dreams…..