Tuesday, April 7, 2009
The idea of a baker's life has always been quietly romantic to me: waking up before dawn, firing up the ovens, and living some sort of secret life that goes on while most of us are still sleeping. As an avid sweet-seeker it's always a strange yet compelling thought to me that by the time I go in to a bakery in the morning, there have already been hours invested in stocking the case from which I am choosing between scones, biscuits and cakes.
So when Dan, the lead baker at the Eastlake Grand Central Bakery, invited me to bake alongside him one Sunday morning, I jumped enthusiastically at the chance. A few days before our planned baking rendez-vous he sent me a list of what we'd be baking that day, along with a note that he would see me at 4.30 a.m. Was he joking? No, he was not joking. And so I went to bed early with sweet dreams of the baking adventures ahead.
So, are you curious about the life of a baker? Here's a peek of the experience, with apologies if my times are slightly off in some cases--it was, after all, very early.
3:47 a.m. The alarm goes off. I had set it for 3.47 because it seemed slightly less cruel than 3.45. I turn it off and promptly fall back asleep.
3:49 a.m. The backup alarm I'd set, in case I went back to sleep, goes off. I get up and shower, pin back my hair and put on my apron.
4.15 a.m. I drive over to Grand Central's Eastlake location. It's raining, and there are few other cars on the road. Along the way, I see a couple walking into an apartment building, wearing last night's clothes. It's strange to witness this unique pocket of time where late and early overlap.
4:30 a.m. I arrive right on time, and Dan's already there. He rode his bike, bless his soul. He makes me a latte (double bless his soul!) and shows me around. I ask if it is nerdy that I brought my own apron; he casually pulls out his chef hat. Clearly, I am in good company.
4:50 a.m. We get to work. Now, here's where things get tricky. You see, Grand Central offers a variety of different types of baked goods, which require various attentions and prepping. Some things, like the biscuits and scones, are mixed and made directly before baking; some items have been handmade in advance and come from the freezer to be baked; yet other items, like the cinnamon rolls, will have been left in the "proofer" so that the dough can develop to a perfect, ready-to-bake consistency. Is your brain full yet? Mine was.
Now, if it were me alone, baking all of these things would take me far longer than one morning. Luckily Baker Dan knows what he is doing, and set to alternately mixing, turning trays in the oven, applying egg washes, letting fruit soak, and a bevy of other tasks. I get to choose the scone flavor of the day. I choose cherry-almond. Boring? Maybe. But boring in a delicious way.
At one point I am allowed to indent and fill with jam my favorite Grand Central baked good, the lovely biscuit which they call a Jammer. I wonder idly when bakers pause to eat breakfast.
I lose track of time for a while. There is a lot going on, but it seems a controlled chaos. We talk comfortably about a variety of subjects while doing the morning bake, ranging from bakeries to East vs. West coast culture (we're both from the East Coast originally) to architecture (Dan is a designer) to music (I boast about Mr. Spy's band)--but it seems like more than anything, the conversation comes back to all facets of baking, from our favorite bakeries and baked goods to methods and thoughts on all manner of sweet stuff.
5:45 a.m. Every now and again, I hear a timer go off, but I cannot keep track of what's what. Baker Dan admits that sometimes he doesn't know what timer goes to which project either, but that when they go off they serve as reminders that something must be done.
6:00 a.m. Baked goods are starting to come out of the oven. They smell very, very good. As nothing is burnt, the timer trick must work!
6:30 a.m. More trays are being put in the oven and yet others are coming out, bearing steaming, golden, delicious-looking pastries. I wonder, not as idly this time, what time bakers take a break for breakfast.
7:00 a.m. Birds are singing and the morning bake seems to be winding down. The trays of baked goods are making their way to the cooling racks, and the cinnamon rolls have been put out front, the first item in an otherwise still-bare pastry case. As the final few items are being put in the oven, we glaze and put finishing touches on the pastries; I especially love applying powdered sugar to the individual bread puddings (made with leftover cinnamon rolls, yum), which Dan says should look "snowy". Delicious snow.
The talk turns to the baked goods we've been working on. Dan is excited about one of Grand Central's newest pastries, the hazelnut danish, which has an orange-infused glaze which tastes vaguely of creamsicle (shown above).
7:30 a.m. By now, some of the other employees have started to arrive, and there is a flurry of activity as the cases are loaded, coffee is made, and the first customers are starting to walk by (I think one even tried the door--eager to join the party I guess).
8:00 a.m. We take a break (so this is when bakers eat breakfast). Even having seen it all made, I am not as much tempted to try a new baked good as I am to try my old favorite, the Jammer--after all, while I've had them before, I've never had a jammer I made (or helped make) myself. We talk over baked goods for a while, and get Sam to take a picture of us. It is at this point that I realize that had an outside viewer been looking in, they might have thought I was a little baker elf assistant to the real baker--such is our height difference.
8:30 a.m. Baker Dan is back to work, starting to make cookies for the later customers and prep work for tomorrow's bake. I have a full day so am not able to stay on, but thank them all for having indulged me this time baking. Before I leave, they load me up with a box roughly the size of Rhode Island full of baked goods.
8:35 a.m. I part ways with Grand Central, entering into the sunshine and feeling like I've lived an entire secret life before the rest of the world was even awake. Having done so, do I feel like it might be the life for me? Well, as much as I love baking, I can honestly say no. Is it the hours? I suppose that is a factor, but if I am to be completely candid, I am aware that when you actually work at something professionally, it does change how you look at it--and though I adored the experience of playing the role for a day, I don't think I'd ever want to give up that magical feeling--as consumer--of walking into a bakery and seeing all of the choices, the result of someone's hard work starting long before I was even awake, just waiting for me.
8:36 a.m. I call Mr. Spy, who answers sleepily after about five rings. "Have you eaten breakfast?" I inquire. "No" he says. Have I woken the dear boy up? "Don't!" I say, and eagerly rush home with my box of sweetness.
A most sincere thanks to Dan and the rest of the lovely staff at Grand Central Baking Company for letting me have a peek of what goes on behind the scenes at their bakery! For locations and more, please visit grandcentralbakery.com.