Last weekend I returned to a routine of late night baking, something to be experienced at least once in any baker's life; the graveyard shift of weighing, mixing, and cutting dough, waiting for the rise, gently rounding the pre-shape, the final shaping and then ultimately guiding it into the oven for the bake. Sometimes it's a ballet, other times a battle – the little complexities of the process amplified by the evening's solitude. It can sometimes leave you feeling like the last person standing, or just the last person awake.
Like the act of eating bread, the graveyard-bake is something played around the world. And after working a regular job for eight or ten or even more hours, it can be slightly demanding on a person's body. And soul. Ah, the loneliness of the all-night baker.
My introduction to such baking came a few years ago, following a nine month weekend-course on European bread, which led me to a few informal baking internships. I started by working a few afternoons at Amy's Bread, then some nights of filling bags for delivery orders. By then I was developing the sense that this was no romantic endeavor, but potentially exhausting if not back breaking. But my real test came next, where I managed to get a few nights in working with the bakers at Bouley, becoming their official "stagiaire," a French term for kitchen apprentice.
Doing it weekends, I'd get off from my Friday night shift as head chef at a midtown club, then in the humid heat of August head down to Bouley. There, I started off with learning simple skills like being charged with using a dough cutter to whack off huge multi-kilo chunks of dough from the center of a very big mixing bowl. Success meant more than surviving the heat of a summer urban kitchen, but heaving chunk after chunk with an elegant swoop onto a scale.
I worked under a baker named Marc. Having grown up with a French mom, I usually feel at home around the language. But Marc's accent, what an academic might describe as "midi-Pyrenee" (he had roots in Touluse) made Bouley's other French-speaking bakers (all from Ivory Coast and Senegal) sound like Parisians. All to say I didn't always understand his pronunciations. That said, he managed to be clear as gin in sharing his judgements as well as his expertise.
I still remember Marc's face turning blue in exasperation watching me try to shape the breads, his anger visceral as he re-tightened the flaccid batards I had just been working on for way-too-long. Whether I understood every word he said, I knew what he felt. And usually what he wanted. Often quiet, he'd surprise you with a sudden verbal response of "stop the machine," pointing out (seemingly by pure instinct) that the dough was mixed enough. Or he would simply touch the dough, and quickly give a nod or dismissal on its temperature and hydration.
Marc wore a gold medallion around his neck, a mini map of France. I came to think of that medallion as an old-fashioned symbol of a prestigious guild. Marc was a bonnified journeyman, known in France as a "compagnon," a traveling craftsman who worked his way around his nation's bakeries to attain a master baker status amongst his countrymen.
Last weekend while waiting into the morning hours for the dough to respond to my touch, I thought of Marc, the memories keeping me company. Truth be told, I also ventured away from the virtual world of my imagination to the virtual world online. These days if you have digital access, you you always can find other night-baking owls via things like Twitter, which offers anyone sharing the passion (okay, obsession) tweeting results from the mix, shape and bake! Marc lacked Twitter, but he would have understood and appreciated the commitment. This goes out to all bakers, the Marcs of the millennium.
These lovely loaves were just rock solid and had magical crackling noises coming from within their crisp golden skins….Gods of fire and brimstone were with me.
70% Rye From Hans Joachim, who else?
Batard of pain au levain 68% hydration…School formula, thanks FCI!
Fancy shaping, don't know the name of this clover looking thing, anyone?