Monday, May 28, 2007

How I Got My Antique Mixer

A roomy old inn it was, built in the 1840's; the kitchen was built in the 1930's, and had some excellent features, including reach-in doors built into the side of the walk-in cooler and a bakeshop with giant flour bins built right into the counters. The original tools were still there from the Depression, including a wonderful old baker's scale. There were deck ovens and what had to be the goofiest Hobart mixer I'd ever seen. The mixer was unused for years, but a search of the basement turned up all of the missing bowls, attachments and accessories. The year was 1981. We had a new President, a new Pope, and a royal wedding; things were looking up. 
Now, I don't know about you, but I bond with my tools; we almost become friends over the years, and that old mixer was my workhorse. The exquisitely inefficient dough hook looked like something to catch whales with, but it made loaves and loaves of bread, miles of pasta dough, pastries, biscuits...
I stayed at that place five years, then moved on. The road after that, well. I actually did go back to work at the inn for a short time, as a business partner no less. I noticed that the old dough hook for the mixer was missing and had been replaced with a modern one. I tracked down the original and brought it back, no easy task. I just couldn't stay there, though. There were too many ghosts, and my business partner and his wife were avaricious creeps.
It was more than ten years from that point until we opened the bake shop. The next owners of the inn, truly wonderful people, were buying breads for their dining room from us. One morning at 4:30 or so, one of them came to the shop and canceled their order for that day. She then tearfully explained that the inn was on fire.
The blaze was subdued, but a lot of damage was done. Even so, the insurance company removed all of the surviving contents of the building in order to clean and restore them. In the interim, vandals broke into the inn and set another fire that laid the place down. The insurance company soon held an auction of the contents, and I couldn't refrain from attending the sale.
At auction the old tools were laid out, to paraphrase Eliot, like patients etherized upon the table. Waiting for the bidding to begin I milled about with the other buyers, chatting. Now and then I'd see a forgotten  tool: an ancient balloon whisk, a giant ladle with rivets in the handle; picking them up and fondling them my reaction was visceral. And there, standing on a dolly in the middle of the room was my mixer. A quick survey showed a couple of pieces missing, but the dough hook, pastry blade and original paddle all piled themselves inside one of the bowls.
I showed no particular interest in it, or so I thought, until an old man sidled up to me and said,"You know you can't get parts for those any more."
I was shocked.
Moments later the cashier was handing me a numbered card.
The bidding started loud, fast and was a little confusing to me. It took a great effort of will not to bid on the small wares. I started and stopped myself several times from chasing the woman who'd purchased the lot containing that big old riveted ladle, wondering to this day if she'd have sold it to me. But I just couldn't have the clutter in my life, could not stand to have all those memories underfoot.
I did not need another mixer at the shop, in fact. There was no room for a 20 quart floor model mixer anywhere. I didn't bid against the two guys battling it out over the old Hobart.
When the fray settled down at five hundred dollars and the auctioneer was saying "...once, going twice..." I remembered retrieving the dough hook from almost certain oblivion.
I slowly raised my number. The auctioneers head was down, though, and he didn't see me. His assistant glanced up caught sight of my card, shoving her elbow into the auctioneers ribs.
With a blinking stare he said "Five twenty five", and looking over at the fellow who'd had the highest bid  he said,"five-fifty fifty fifty fifty fifty. Would five thirty five make it easier for you?"
It was obvious at that moment they knew one another. The bidder shook his head no. At the sound of the gavel the losing bidder shot me a furious look; it was then I noticed the older fellow who'd given me sage advice on spare parts standing beside him, frowning.
So there that mixer stood on the back porch of our shop for about a year, smiling at me every day as I arrived for work.  When we expanded our work area, a spot opened up for the mixer and guess what. That old dough hook makes excellent croissants and baguettes!
The Hobart company ran a contest to find out who had the oldest running Hobart mixer in America, and she won an honorable mention. Manufactured in 1927, as it turned out, it would have been a vintage antique were it an automobile. And if I ever need spare parts for that mixer, I know exactly where to go. Always have. But that's a whole 'nother story.

Saturday, May 26, 2007


Somebody told me, the Nuns or one of my Mother's nutty friends, or somebody told me, that Phonics was named after the Phoenecians because they were such good spellers. SPELLers!? What the hell were they spelling, Roman numerals?
My son Philip, age 8, wants to work at the shop in the worst way. The other day he had half of the flour bins pulled out and was sweeping behind them.
"How much money do you think I've made so far?" he asked.

After that job he made a new card for the cream puffs, his favorite. It read:
Not one customer noticed.

Mr. Manhattan

There is an older gentleman who frequents our shop daily; a perfect gentleman, piercingly intelligent, and friendly. The other day, as he came through the door, I placed his newspaper on the counter.
"I have my teeth in today" he announced, "I'd like to have one of your rolls, please."

Monday, May 21, 2007

Taking Up the Slack

The first dough to go down was the sour rye. In a moment it became a stringy, runny mass and had to be discarded; "slack" is what the bakers of a generation ago called this phenomenon. Most modern bakers refer to any dough with high hydration, ciabatta for example, as being slack, but that was not the case with that batch of rye.

With nothing to go on, I called another baker for enlightenment and yes, I'd fermented it overnight at room temperature as per the instructions. She had no idea why it was acting so strangely then and quickly got off the phone.Working twenty hours a day seven days a week at the shop gave me little time to ponder the situation, and I simply began the next job on my list.

When I was a kid, my mom sometimes made "cheese delights". A piece of bread, a slab of cheese, a sliced tomato, all broiled to screeching perfection. The tomato became so hot it seared the roof of your mouth, and the flavors of the tomato juices and hot cheddar melded together memorably, especially with her homemade bread. Anyway, I was after that taste with the next disaster, a sun-dried tomato and cheddar sourdough. This one started going south the instant the tomatoes got into the mix. Feverishly shoveling gluten into the bowl in an effort to stave off catastrophe, the problem worsened; I baked the sloppy mess just to see what would happen. It smelled like deliciously toasted cheese and tomato but had the bite of an engine mount.

This experience held an important clue, though. Flour is essentially two things: protein in the form of gluten, and starch. While the protein remained sound, something was breaking down the starch phase, wasn't it? I tried the bread again, tossing the tomatoes in starch-rich cake flour first, and the result was my original, cheesy goal.

Malt is an ingredient, malting a process. And this became a key to understanding why the doughs slackened. "Malt", the ingredient, is made from malted barley. It comes in two forms: flour and syrup, and syrup is available as two basic types, diastatic and non-diastatic. Malt syrup is made non-diastatic through heat treating.

The word Diastatic emblazoned on the bucket of malt syrup made me so curious I had to look it up in the unabridged dictionary. It means to turn starch into diastase, or grape sugar. I began researching how this occurred. E-mailing the malt manufacturer, their lab got right back to me and explained that diastatic malt has enzymes that break starch down into simpler sugars. Further investigation into scientific books and baking websites pieced together the explanation to my problem.

Barley is a seed. A grass seed. As it sprouts, or malts, enzymes break it's inherent starch molecules into shorter sugar chains, releasing nutrition for use by the embryonic plant until the establishment of a root system. The enzymes in malted barley break down the starch in wheat flour, essentially ground up grass seed, as well. Wheat flour has enzymes of it's own that do the same thing, but the addition of malt hastens the process of sugar development tremendously. And why bother? Because yeast metabolizes only one very specific type of sugar during fermentation, and the smaller the sugars it has to work with initially the faster and better it will ferment a dough.

Not surprisingly, a batch of Italian dough went slack when I accidentally put too much malt syrup in it. But what of the other breads? There was no malt added to them, but they still fell apart.

There are many formulas for Normandy apple bread, and the best one called for half cider and half water. Well forget that, I thought, it's all cider or nothing.
Apparently cider has a lot of enzymes, and by now, dear reader, you know what that meant.
Thinking back, I saw my son Kevin as a little squirt standing on top of his great gran daddy's cider mill, throwing all the apples he could into the hopper. Whole apples. Whole apples with seeds. Seeds with...
Reasoning that if enzymes in malt syrup are denatured by heat, the enzymes in apple cider should be as well. The cider was boiled, reduced in half, actually, in order to concentrate the flavor, and a crumb of yeast added to ferment it for several days. The bread was superb.

Oh, yes, one other thing. Except for the Italian, the common thread in all of the above breads was a sour starter of wild yeasts and acid-producing cultures. A regular little enzyme factory, as it turns out. Starter too ripe made some doughs slack and some loaves, sourdough for one, flay open during proof. A couple of things control enzyme activity. Salt slows down the canalization of starches, but it kills yeast cells as well, making it unsuitable for the job. Enzymes, as do many things in nature, react to time and temperature. Beside the aforementioned denaturing by heat, lower temperatures slow the action of enzymes. Controlling dough temperature through standard calculations became common procedure at the shop; refrigerating the rye sponge overnight cured it's problems.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Across the Divide

Located in a small Pennsylvania village, our bakery is situated in an old, quaint building reminiscent of a Bavarian pastry shop. We know our patrons by name and whether or not they get a New York Times with their Sunday order. And we're friendly. Even on the most trying of days we make an honest effort to be, at the very least, cordial to even the most demanding customers.
We are situated across the street from a busy tourist-oriented concern, the owners of which are truly the nicest people, always willing to lend a hand.

Their customers are another story. Braving the two-lane highway traffic to come over to our shop and gawk, it's as though they all attended the same training seminar on how not to buy something. There is the verbal sale: oh you have the nicest shop I want one of everything it smells so good in here. The scrutiny no sale: look at every item on display, then ask for something not seen and highly unlikely to be available, say, some ghastly Pennsylvania Dutch specialty or other, then smile and say something about next time. Then there is the body language group. They refuse to acknowledge your greeting, studiously avoid eye contact, and generally hunch their shoulders in a defensive posture. We are sanguine about all this, although at times we'd like to dig a trench and fill it with burning oil in order to keep them on the other side of the street.

One afternoon a couple came in from Over There, avoided eye contact, ignored my greeting. As they were facing the door to go, I thanked them for stopping in. The woman turned and actually snarled at me. An angry, resentful, toothy grunt.

From somewhere deep within the recesses of my soul came the words, "Get the @#!% outta my shop!"

No sooner was the "!" out of my mouth than panic struck. Not due to the fact that feelings may have been bruised or that I had committed some unforgivable business faux pas, but that this guy was going to come behind the counter and punch me in the head.

They scuttled out the door.