Ever since I can remember, my sweet tooth has tugged me towards the baking isle at our local grocery store. When I was a child, my mother would help me spoon brownie batter mix into an old, scratched up square pan and let me lick the leftover chocolate batter that lined the mixing bowl. Then I would watch the baked goods rise to perfection, with the aid of our dim oven light, for many minutes at a time.
Baking continued to be a fixture in my life as I grew older. I was prone to tiptoe around the kitchen in the early hours of the morning, whipping up fresh batches of lemon bars and banana bread with ease. Then, some hours later, I would flutter around town delivering freshly-packed baked goods to friends and family members.
Baking, over time, became less about indulging my own sweet tooth and more about the gift of sharing with people I cared about.
Despite years of time and money invested in the practice, the possibility of baking professionally never crossed my mind. As a child of two immigrant parents who settled in the Silicon Valley, I understood “work” as a cerebral function. My parents made many sacrifices to give me a high-quality education with the expectation that I would land a white-collar job that capitalized on my talents and skill set. I believed in this vision, too. The possibility of working with my hands, as a trade, never intersected with the narrative I imagined for myself.
However, two years of living in San Francisco started to chip away at this cultural training. I met an abundance of wonderful people, young and older, who subscribed to the part-bohemian, part-entrepreneurial career paths of, for example, working part-time or full-time in the culinary arts. I took a creative writing class from a writer who worked at a cooperative grocery store to make a living. I bought chai on the street from a young woman who started pushing around an organic chai street food chart, only to quit her high-tech job some months later to start a home delivery service for healthy and organic Indian food. And, of course, every month it seemed like a new cluster of bakeries of coffee shops, armed with a new team of bakers, opened up in the Mission. When the holidays came around last winter and batches of my chocolate truffles were received with zealous affection, I started to daydream about leaving my job to roll homemade balls of gourmet chocolate all day long.
When a friend offered the opportunity to work at a San Francisco-based bakery for a few hours, I got my first opportunity to indulge my growing fantasy of working at a bakery. The owner, I learned, had left her job in accounting to start her bakery business. I was seduced already.
My first day was one Sunday on a chilly morning in late January. “We just kind of just throw new people in the mix and help them out along the way,” the owner had told me when we met for coffee a few days prior.
She wasn’t kidding. After receiving a five-minute tour of the kitchen, I was handed a recipe for apple brand muffins that would yield 16 loaves. I peered at the recipe written in pound and ounces with anxious eyes—11# flour. 5# brown sugar. This was 14 loaves of bread more than I had ever made at one time. I barely knew what to do with the recipe; the last time I used a weighing scale was high school chemistry.
I watched the other two bakers dexterously fold pounds of a flour mixture into eggs and sugar and felt too embarrassed to reveal how novice I was.
So I mimicked their form and measured the dry ingredient first: flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and cinnamon. Then I peeled and chopped 16 apples and mixed all my wet ingredients. When it was time for me to pour everything into the giant industrial mixer together, the churning batter looked runny. “Are you sure you tared the scale correctly before measuring,” one baker asked me? “This does not look right.”
To tare a scale in baking is to negate the weight of the mixing bowl in which you place ingredients to weigh. We backtracked to conclude I did not, in fact, tare the scale correctly.
As a result, my dry ingredients were short and the whole recipe was off. My body cowered. Within the first hour of baking, I had ruined 16 loaves of bread. My first foray into baking at a professional kitchen did not play out like the fantasy in my head.
It baffled me that I didn’t know as much about baking as I thought I did. When I ran out of buttermilk, I didn’t know what to do next (add vinegar and let the milk sit for a few minutes). When required to crack 25 eggs, I realized my egg cracking technique lacked, well, technique, as bits of eggshells slipped into the bowl by egg 17.
I dragged myself home, feeling enervated after seven hours in the professional kitchen. I was not prepared for how swiftly my confidence could deflate upon leaving the comfort of baking in my home.
If we plan to make our hobbies into our living, we must prepare ourselves for the scrutiny and expectations that will accompany such a path. Shifting from home baking to professional baking meant the stakes would become exponentially higher. While my
roommates loved burnt cookies and my parents extolled even the driest zucchini bread, these slip-ups would not be appreciated by customers.
For a string of Sundays I continued to help out around the professional kitchen, despite starting off on the wrong foot. What I came to realize is that baking—a practice I once assumed to be a skill of the hands, not the head—challenged me in a multitude of ways that my respectable desk job never did.
For starters, my feet winced and back groaned. Being on my feet all day was tiresome, and I was reminded of the long shifts I worked at coffee shop in college four years ago. How quickly we adjust to sitting all day long in front of a computer after entering the workforce.
The act of standing made me aware how crooked my posture was due to years of sitting slouched with my legs crossed.The longer I was on my feet, the more acutely I felt the persistent pull in my lower back, and the more I noticed my tendency to constantly shift my weight from one hip to another. I struggled to stand with both feet planted on the floor.
My haphazard home baking techniques were turned upside down, too. My tendency to chop in a rough, jagged cut was not effective when many pounds of dried fruit and nuts needed to be chopped. I did not know how to rock my knife back and forth in the fluid motion that other bakers had, and when I finally learned their technique, I worked even slower as I tried to retrain my grip. This retraining also carried over to apple peeling and lemon zesting.
Skills I prided myself on at my workplace did not hold the same value in a professional kitchen. My ability to multitask effectively was celebrated in the non-profit and start-up sector where organizations are always under-staffed and over-worked. In the bakery, multitasking translated to mistakes. When a colleague asked me about my weekend while I cracked 25 eggs, I would begin answering her question only to forget how many eggs were left to crack half way through our brief conversation. Large-scale baking required focused concentration—a form of meditative trance that I was not accustomed to after years of working in chatty, chaotic workplaces.
Perhaps the most impressionable takeaway I gained from my baking experience was that if I ever wanted to become serious about baking, I needed to deepen my understanding of the ingredients used, and the techniques employed. Why do eggs and sugar get beaten together vigorously but a batter should barely be mixed after flour is added? How does scone dough feel like against one’s fingers in comparison to cookie dough? For years I had skipped over the introductions of cookbooks, where bakers shared their tricks of the trade, to eagerly skip to a recipe I wanted to try. Baking is much more nuanced and complex than following a six-step recipe successfully, and I need to go back to the basics and sit with them before diving back into any form of professional baking.
Two years ago, my understanding of a respectable profession was directed by what I had seen growing up in the Silicon Valley: jobs that required highly educated people to sit in front of a computer and work in exchange for good money and a sustainable career track. I don’t think that way anymore; my foray into baking professionally has proved to be challenging and cerebral in an entirely new and unexpected way.
Rupa Dev works for New America Media and lives in San Francisco. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
My ability to multitask effectively was celebrated in the non-profit and start-up sector where organizations are always under-staffed and over-worked. In the bakery, multitasking translated to mistakes.