Head Doughpuncher and Partner, Easy Tiger Bake Shop and Beer Garden
In the early nineties, I spent a couple of years making pastries and cakes at a Minneapolis neighborhood bakery, before the winters got the better of me. I remember reading Carol Field’s The Italian Baker at that time and thinking how fantastic it would be to create a bakery that would make the rustic, slow-fermented breads she describes, breads that were different from anything I had made so far. When I headed west to Seattle, thinking that I wanted a pastry position at a restaurant or hotel, someone recommended that I check out Grand Central Bakery, and I discovered that there was already just such a bakery—and they had a job for me. Though I had made bread before, at my first bakery job (right after college in Gainesville, Florida), this was a whole new world that included sourdough and yeasted starters and bread that took time and required a different level of care. It was exciting for me, as it was the great bread I enjoyed eating in Europe that got me interested in baking as a career in the first place.
What GCB was making was what we would soon come to call “artisan” bread, though I do not recall hearing the term quite that early. In the ensuing decades we have sure heard it—to the point that it has become so widespread and so diluted that you can find “artisan” rolls advertised at Jack in the Box. Yet in its truest sense, the label is rooted in a very real idea: that there is a person, an artisan, with a trade skill, making the bread. It assumes craftsmanship.
As much as anything, craftsmanship is what I strive to bring to Easy Tiger. Although one of my favorite things is still to have my hands on the dough, making bread at the level and volume that we produce at Easy Tiger means that I obviously cannot be the sole artisan behind every loaf. So, much of my job now is about teaching others and training new craftspeople. To come in to work in the morning and see the shelves full of beautiful bread that I didn’t touch is a reward in itself.
We make things. We make a lot of them, and because the things we make get consumed daily, we make them over and over again each day. Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the craft in all that repetition, baguette after baguette, 120 per batch, then the next batch is ready, another 120, and the next batch, and so on. Each baguette needs to be rolled out from about 12 inches to 24 inches long, in an even cylinder gently tapered at the ends. Light, even pressure is crucial so as not to press out too much of the fermentation gases that have built up, which are necessary to achieve the open, irregular crumb that is the hallmark of a great baguette (take a look at just about any baker’s Instagram stream and you will see baguettes split in half the whole length—not for making a submarine sandwich, but to show off the crumb). After rolling thousands of them, you develop a feel, a muscle memory, for sure, but they still demand attention and care; you can’t go completely on autopilot. One thing I remind the bakers of is that even though we are rolling hundreds of baguettes each day, our customers (or the customers at the restaurants we serve) usually get only one bread at a time, so each one must be up to our standards.
Of course, part of the appeal of handcrafted bread is that it bears the stamp of the people who make it instead of being factory-made and uniform. For many types of bread, machines simply cannot duplicate the texture and flavor that an artisan baker can achieve. Dough that is as wet and well fermented as we make for our pain au levain, a very traditional French-style sourdough bread, is too delicate for automated bakery machinery and would be destroyed in an industrial bakery. Still, consistency in our products is important. Size, shape, flavor, doneness—all these elements need to be consistent from loaf to loaf and from day to day. Our wholesale customers certainly count on that. They have built their dishes and sandwiches on the basis of a product they sampled and approved; a roll that is twice that size or half that size from one day to the next will not work. Yet, because bread dough is a living thing, achieving this consistency is the most challenging part of baking a variety and volume of handmade bread on a daily basis. One comparison I like to make for the bakers is that of a woodworker. Even the most beautiful, finely finished chair wouldn’t be too useful if one of the legs was shorter than the others.
So much of my days (and nights, frankly) are spent working with, training, and teaching the next generation of artisans. When I succeed, it is as rewarding as pulling out an oven load of beautiful bronzed and crackling miche, as fine and flavorful as any found in the great bakeries of France.
by Joanna Steblay
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