The most time I’ve spent not baking a thing in the past few years, was while I worked full-time at a well-known upper-west side bakery for almost a year. On Monday through Friday, the morning commute from the subway to the bakery was lined with bacon from the corner deli to the pushcart with its bagels and convection oven. But on Sundays and Saturdays the street was a lethal combination of bacon mixed with the buns from our bakery stroked with cinnamon goo.
When I started there, I immediately found therapeutic indulgence in the smell of butter churning and the smell of melted chocolate chips. I got used to pulling bills, smiling generously, and wringing out bleachy rags to wipe steel counters. There were those oversized aprons that criss-crossed in an X on my hips. Baking sheets sliding in and out on their shelves, and hands covered with oven char. Bandana wrapped heads weaving between narrow passages, past hot trays and hotter oven doors and picking up fist-size cookies with slips of waxed paper and putting them flat side to flat side, “butt-to-butt,” we said, in a waxed bag. I got used to blowing steam off of the steaming wand and turning the banana cake sheet glass round to cut a knife-wide slice.
Long after I was no longer able to recognize the smell of the chocolate because it was so deeply rubbed into my t-shirts, but still left each day with flour sprinkled over the tops of my well-worn sneakers, one of my baker co-workers started making little braids of mini brioche dotted with chocolate. He had done so one morning for no reason at all, as the music hummed and the street was barely yet awake. After tasting one, I commented to him with definitive confidence how the whole thing tasted better braided that way instead of flat like we sold them: there was the right amount of crisp brownness in the right places, and the fold under the twisted parts was softer. From then, he made these somewhat routinely for me from leftover knobs of brioche dough while we were both working. I became accustomed to waiting for these little plaits of pastry, when I dumped the coffee canteens of their cleaning fluids in the morning and ground the coffee. Sometimes I would chew on a piece while waiting for the other things to cool, before placing them on their silver plates in the display case. The whole thing had a rhythmic flavor of something imperfectly diligent and handmade.
That’s the thing about baking. You follow a rhythm, make the dough pliable and elastic as feels right in the moment, then maybe you braid it or slice it into jelly-rolls and tuck it with cinnamon if it’s Sunday. You are successful because you know the rhythm, and if you know the rhythm, the things you make will taste of that rhythm, that harmonic realm of calm. I think that is both what I love and hate about baking. There is potency in predicting the rhythm and yet (atleast in the early stages), also an inability to repeat the rhythm precisely to replicate a well-baked phrase. It can feel like luck. Like the control is limited. It’s hard to know where to slash the bulging loaf of dough open to let its seams expose pretty pockets of browning rye while baking.