21 January 2010

Thumbs Up


I had the good fortune of visiting Sullivan Street Bakery yesterday.  Jim Lahey, of no-knead fame, is the owner of Sullivan Street.  He invited me to stay and watch how his operation works.  Of course I couldn't just stand by and watch so I jumped in and helped mix, divide and shape his bread.  The bakery is different from anywhere I've baked before yet still remains very much the same.  My afternoon started with Antonio, the mixer.  As far as I could tell, he is the longest running baker there.  After twelve years, he can do it all.  Every bakery has an anchor.  The anchor tends to be the person who mixes the dough.  The mixer has to be trusted above all others.  Yesterday, Antonio was mixing 200 kilo batches of dough...that's about 500 pounds.  Imagine if he forgot the salt or worse yet, added too much salt and he ruined 500 pounds of inventory in one swoop.  If the dough is properly mixed, it easily lends itself to shaping and it will have the flavor and structure that Jim, in this case, is striving for.  I tend to get a little bored with mixing (unless it's mixing brioche), shaping is more my game.  I don't know how these anchors can do what they do, day in and day out.

At Bread Alone, Alex was the mixer.  He came in at 5am every day and mixed away.  That was his only responsibility but he knew it well.  He knew when to add ice to the water and how much to add.  He knew when the flour was a little young and what to do to improve the dough.    Amy's Bread has several mixers.  There is actually a mixing team.  Amy mixes more varieties of dough than Sullivan Street or Bread Alone.  The mixing team is very strong and they too have an anchor.  Orlando has been at Amy's Bread for at least 10 years though I can't remember exactly.  He is the head mixer.   He mixes 6, sometimes 7, days a week as the mixers often do.  The mixing team works in the early morning.  Orlando was always the 'go to' guy if I had any problems over night.  Brioche didn't rise properly, challah was too cold, potato over-proofed....no problem, Orlando would fix it!

After I got to know Antonio, the first shift of bakers arrived to start shaping and dividing the dough.  A couple days ago, Jim had a contest to see if anyone on his team could divide dough faster and with more accuracy than he could.  The prize was $100 to match and $200 to beat.  Antonio's brother, Oscar became a very rich baker that day and Jim seemed pretty bummed that he let his speed slip.  Jim's method of dividing was totally different from mine and it difficult for me to get the hang of.  Oscar divides in much the same way in which I was taught.  Who knew there were so many different ways to achieve the same results?  When dividing the dough by hand, a balance scale is used to make sure all the pieces are the same weight.  It is important to try to get the proper weight on the first cut because it is easier to shape a whole, rectangular lump of dough than to try and shape lots of small bits that occur when the piece is too heavy or too light.  Jim told me the bits signify doubt.  If you doubt your ability to feel the correct weight of the dough, you end up with bits.

Once the pieces were divided, Jim showed me his shaping technique.  Again, this was new to me.  It's been a long time since someone showed me something new in terms of the baking process.  It was total brain candy!  I fumbled with Jim's method of shaping.  Normally, I loosely shape the interior of the loaf and tightly seal the outside.  Jim shapes the exact opposite way.  I use the outside edge of my hands, the lines created by my pinky fingers to my palms, to fold the dough over.  Jim uses the line created by his thumbs.  That being said, I was all thumbs and not in a good way, when I tried to shape like Jim.  It took a lot of effort and I loved it.  My hands had to think for the first time in years.  I didn't get to stay long enough to master the new-to-me technique but I did get to hang around and talk theory with Jim Lahey.  I dorked out with one of the biggest baking geeks in the business!  What a great day.

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