13 October 2010

It makes me overwhelmed

A while ago I chanced upon a blog post in which its author gave an inspirational account of her stay in Amsterdam. Seeing that I live in Amsterdam, I didn’t intend to seek out travel stories about Amsterdam, just so you know, but as I saw the title – There was Amsterdam – I thought it would be ignorant of me to pass it up, especially if posted on a food blog as delicious as Sweet Amandine. So I dived into the story curious to learn about what my adopted city showed to Jess (the Sweet Amandine’s creator) and her husband, Eli, during their stay in Amsterdam this past August. I don’t think it makes any sense for me to retell the whole story here. Please read the original, it’s a treat. For our purposes, what I want to tell now is that there was a moment in the story that gripped me quite tight. Right there, in the spot between the eighth and the thirteenth paragraphs my heart came to a screeching halt, did some crazy summersault, and tumbled on with excitement all the way towards the final full stop of There was Amsterdam. And all that is because Jess talks about the bakery. My bakery! As I was re-reading the post in question, I couldn’t help but repeat to myself how bizarre this felt to hear somebody else tell their story about the bakery. Usually I talk. Now I listened.

Since I read Jess’s post, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own story – but not about the bakery. I’ve been thinking about my story in the bakery. About how I started off – and what I am gradually becoming. It wouldn’t be honest to say that it was my initial goal to work in the bakery. I considered myself a loyal customer, the type that wouldn’t mind to cycle forty minutes one way in the rain just to get, say, a loaf of fresh baguette. I admired Issa and Marco, the two brothers Niemeijer, for making that excellent food that like a magnet would attract me no matter what; for creating and running a place that instantly becomes everybody’s favourite haunt. I enjoyed the role of an observer, I guess I could say that, coming in a few times a week to say hello and offer my thanks in my deconstructed Dutch (and then to giggle awkwardly when they replied back in fluent Dutch). I weaved my social life around that place: I brought my then dates and a couple of good friends for lunch there, all at respective times, should you ask. I didn’t intend to apply for a job there, though. Until I found myself, as a then student, in need for a part-time job – badly.

The circumstances conspired in such a way that there was a vacancy in the bakery back then. I took the job. I started off as a dish-washer. It was a touch more than a year ago. Although doing the dishes was my priority, I couldn’t help but poking my nose into the bakery’s activities. I was open with Issa, a baker, and Marco, a chef, about my plans to be a professional food-writer, the one with a hands-on approach, as I reasoned. As a starting point -- and I already touched upon it here -- I was shown how to make tartlets. I had to learn to beat the bejesus out of the tartlet dough (pate sucre) to soften it; to remember the steps of rolling it out with the
dough sheeter; and finally, to get the trick of molding the rounds of the cut-out dough into tartlet shells fast -- very fast. If I’d take my time to do that, the dough would then become sticky, very difficult to handle. At the beginning it felt like a military camp, somewhat. Instead of doing push-ups and sit-downs, I’d make tartlets with a timer counting away precious minutes beside me. One day, I remember, it was suggested I make approximately sixty to eighty tartlets in no longer than fifteen minutes. I think I did the “tartlets boot camp” well. To make tartlets fast is no problem anymore. To make them swiftly is relaxing now.

After I’d made myself comfortable around tartlets, I moved on to learn the making of a tarte Tatin. The most challenging part was to arrange thin apple slices in a way so that they, still standing on their curved ends, would overlap each other neatly.

To be clear: it’s not that difficult of a task. But there is a catch. If you don’t use enough apple slices, once baked they will shrink and reveal the dough underneath, the way the hair on the head can thin out and show the skin (ouch!). Conclusion: it’s important to use a good amount of apple slices, say, three apples’ worth per pie, to make sure that a Tatin looks as close to immaculate as possible. Warning: tucking in the apple slices next to, and in between, each other in a careful fashion requires some time, from five to seven minutes, I found. This is a potential material for trouble, because it’s a general policy here that you shouldn’t spend too much time on one thing, otherwise you create sort of a jam in your own work flow.

After about six months in the dish-washing job, getting a hands-on approach only occasionally depending how many dishes I had to do at a given moment, I thought I should carve out some time that I would spend solely on working in the bakery. Could I possibly get an apprenticeship, I asked. This past February I became a baker’s apprentice.

The writing of this post doesn’t come easy to me. For one, because there are so many things I want to tell. It makes me overwhelmed. It feels like my brains are a pot of boiling water, thoughts being the bubbles. Should I mention how I learnt to make that crème au citron that requires the non-stop ten-minute whisking? How could I not mention croissants and the challenge that comes with making them? On days when we are fast enough as to not let the butter start melting into the dough (a tall order when working next to the piping-hot ovens) before baking, the croissants puff up so beautifully in the oven that all those layers of dough, being risen by the steams from the melting butter (that’s why the butter should not melt any time earlier) make you want to stand by the oven, ignoring all the hiatus that may be all around, clasp your hands and murmur, wow, they can rise that high! If it so happens that you absolutely have to bite into such a wonder, you incidentally drop one on the floor. In this event, it can’t be served to customers. The floor is clean, so you knew what you were doing – you got yourself admittedly the best croissant Amsterdam can offer.

In September it came time for me to get myself acquainted with the bread dough. The order in which the ingredients are added can vary depending on the bread, but normally you mix flour with water and sourdough, let the mixture rest, then add salt, mix it all again, and, equally divided on the scales, put it in plastic boxes for a rise. Nothing incomprehensible or undoable. Except that the dough is heavy. Very heavy. Miss Paola – my fellow woman baker, my friend! -- metaphorically compared the process of taking the dough out from the mixing machines to the “pulling an overweight kid, who strapped themselves in velcro just to make sure you can't move them from the playground”.

Reader, I would go on like this for hours, hopping from one thing to tell to another. But generally speaking, as I think about the way I made it in the bakery starting, basically, from scratch, I feel proud. It’s not oh-look-what-I-can-do kind of pride; it’s pride that silently sits in the corners of my mind waiting to be called in every now and then to remind me not to be so harsh on myself on the occasions when, for example, a bowl of chocolate ganache incidentally slips from my hands and lands on the floor, chocolate ricocheting in all directions and covering pretty much everything in the radius of three meters, including that dough sheeter that Issa has to use for the rolling out the croissant dough, like, now; and my face, in such a way that I look like a Moulin Rouge girl, what with the artificial moles around my lips and on my cheeks.

Of course all my achievements, past and present, come with a price. Working in the bakery five days a week now, starting earlier than the sunrise, is exhausting-- just as much as it is rewarding. Daily baking/preparations programme is intense, with no wing room, so to speak. So it is no exaggeration to say that the only moment of rest we have during the day is a fifteen-minute lunch break, which is almost always punctuated by the oven’s beeping, which means it is time, right now in the middle of a recess, to take whatever was baking out of the oven. As you can imagine, this way a so much needed break flies past us unnoticeably.

Yet, that exhaustion also comes with an incentive. It is the realization that the bread and pastries we make in the bakery can be a source of happiness for many. It fills you with contentment and makes you “hit the floor with your ass”, as Charlie, one of our bakers, says, meaning that it makes you happy. Only being French, Charlie has a difficulty pronouncing the initial “h”, making it sound like “eat the floor with your ass”! Either way, it sounds very appropriate, I find!