by Gina Sestak
My ex-husband used to be part-owner of a health food bakery called Simple Treat that specialized in whole-grain breads, including one extremely dense (and delicious) seasonal fruit-cake.
I never officially worked for the bakery, but I sometimes helped out when they were short-handed. This was a wholesale bakery only -- no retail outlet. Terry and his partners would bake all night, then deliver the fresh loaves in the morning to various grocery and health food stores. One of the high points of his career was when we stopped into a GNC in Oregon. Terry was talking bread with the manager, who pulled out a manual showing how products were supposed to be displayed -- there was a picture of Terry's bread!
Bread-making is fun, in a tactile sort of way. The dough was mixed in huge metal bowls, about 3 feet deep, each stirred by a "dough hook," an automated curved metal stick that rotated around inside the bowl, mixing the flour and water and yeast and honey. Then it was left to rise.
Getting bread to rise seems like a no brainer, right? You let it sit in a warm place until it gets bigger. Surprisingly, getting bread to rise -- which bakers call "proofing" -- is much more complicated than that. Different batches of the same type of flour may require slightly different amounts of yeast and/or rising times. Rising is also affected by elevation (number of feet above sea-level, because this affects the atmospheric pressure) and the phases of the moon! Since yeast is really a tiny bacterial plant, its use is almost like a bizarre form of gardening.
After the dough had been mixed and allowed to rise, it was kneaded. Being a natural foods bakery, all kneading was done by hand. This is the fun part. You squish one pound lumps of dough in your hands; it feels like playing in mud, but it's really much more sanitary. Terry could knead two lumps of dough at once, one in each hand.
Another fun step was forming the dough into loaves. This was done by machine. The kneaded lump would ride down a moving conveyor belt (like those used in supermarket checkout areas), which took it under a roller where it was squashed into a pizza-shell shape. Further along the belt, something that looked like chain mail hung down far enough to flip up the leading edge of the dough and roll it into a tube as it rode under the chain mail-thing. [I know, I should have asked what it was called while I was there.] At the end of the conveyor belt, someone would pick up the rolled up tubes of dough, push their ends toward the center until they were loaf-pan length, then put them into loaf pans to rise some more.
The final step was baking in industrial size ovens. This was the point at which the bread began to emit that wonderful aroma.
Working in a bakery sound safe, but there was danger all around. You have to be careful when working around automated equipment and hot ovens. One night, Terry cut off the tip of his finger with a dough knife, necessitating a quick trip to the ER. He and his partners wore masks to avoid "white lung," an occupational pulmonary problem brought on by breathing too much air-borne flour.
What did I learn from this job?
I learned all kinds of cool things about bread, flour, and yeast.
I learned that different professions can use the same words, but mean completely different things. I'm a lawyer -- to me, "proof" is evidence that is used to "prove" a fact. A baker "proofs" dough by letting it rise -- a process called "proofing." It can be done in a specialized warm enclosure called a "proof box."
I learned that it's true what they say about the shoemaker's children going barefoot. For years we lived on defective loaves of bread -- Terry brought home the ones that didn't rise right, or that came out of the oven looking weird.
Finally, I learned that bread-making, like writing, is really an art. It requires knowledge, patience, and skill. And every once in awhile, you have to let your work-in-progress just sit for awhile, to see what comes up.