Monday, February 1, 2010

Womanning the Oven

My class is more like a job. I am constantly reminding myself to never take an overnight job like this - the hours are horrendous and it's hard to have any sort of normal life. I have finally gotten some sort of sleeping pattern going though, which is great. I'd be a wreck without sleep. My strategy is to take a nap for a few hours after class, wake up and get some food, hang out for a bit, and then sleep a few hours before class. When I wake up, I'm a little disoriented, but at least I'm rested enough to get through my work/class.

My job is baking and finishing. It's cool because I am really getting good at working an oven. Sure, each part of the baking process is important, but the finishing can make or break the product too! I am learning that not all ovens are created equal. I am in charge of two convection ovens. The idea behind the convection oven is that it has fans which help to evenly circulate heat around the oven. It also doesn't need to be as hot as a traditional oven and cooks a little faster. Traditional ovens (like gas or electric) have hot spots (and some may argue that there is "natural" convection - air currents inside traditional ovens). Convection ovens are "supposed to" eliminate hot spots with forced air currents. However, I have found this to be quite untrue.

The ovens I work with tend to cook items on the bottom racks quicker. Also the side closer to the door gets color faster. The edges cook faster than the middle. So it is a constant battle of rotating and reducing fan speeds to get items like muffins to all be the same color. I'm learning how to place things in the oven. For example, I bake three trays of muffins off at the same time - one each of bran, banana, and corn. Chef M doesn't like the corn muffins to have too much color (which is such a shame because it gives it an amazing crunchy outer layer!!) so those get put on the top rack. The bran is super moist, so I usually stick it on the bottom rack and the banana goes in the middle.

The bottom oven has the steam feature, and this is where I bake all the laminated doughs (alternated layers of dough and butter rolled and folded together). I do croissants, pain au chocolat, apple danish, banana danish, monkey danish, and a meyer lemon danish. The steam coagulates the starches in the dough, making it crusty. Then once the danish get a little bit of color (browning), I pull the vent open in the oven. This dries the starches and gives it a beautiful shiny finish.

One interesting thing that I have learned from culinary school is to not use a timer. Some of you may think that is scary, and it would be for me if I were running off doing something in another room. The good thing is that my station is right next to the oven, which has clear doors, so I can peek in and check on the product whenever I want. It would be a hassle to have to keep setting the timer for one minute more, or thirty seconds more, etc. It's done when it's done. And that is really the skill that I am learning - to know when it's done.

Every day, Chef M comes in at 5:30 am on the dot! Like clockwork, very predictable. The head baker (a paid employee) reminds us to clean up our stations and make everything presentable. It's a pain to have to stop and do this, but I think it shows respect to the chef and it's always a good idea to work cleanly. He'll come in and say hello to everyone, check his e-mails, and then he'll head straight to my speed racks. He pulls out every single sheet tray and looks over the finished products. It is crazy nervewracking! But it is great because of course I want to get better. It is a challenge to always be consistent and that is what a good baker should strive for, I think. The other day, Chef M asked me, "Are you nervous when I do this?" to which I answered, "Yes, of course, Chef!" He said I had no reason to be nervous; I was doing a great job. What a relief!

I can see how my job in a real bakery would be important. If each person was responsible for baking off their own products, it would be a mess! An oven coordinator is a great idea. So far I haven't burned or dropped anything! I think my mind is wired to multi-task and I feel really comfortable with what I'm doing . . . womanning the ovens. Now if only I could get them to bake evenly, all my baking dreams would come true!

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