An Early Morning Baker’s Shift

I’m no longer what the patisserie world would consider an early morning baker, even though to the rest of the world, I qualify simply because I rise at an earlier hour to bake. But I have been meaning to share my experience as an early morning baker for a while, if only to reminisce on what I remember as some of the best mornings of my life.

I was working for RyeGoods back when they were slinging bread in a garage-turned-commercial-kitchen behind a blue house with an orange tree located at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac. We were a band of misfits in the most positive sense – dreamers creating magic. Headed by a pastry chef who disliked sugary treats and a carpenter who built out everything we worked on, the crew was made up of a business major who decided to quit paper to help his sister fulfill her dream, a surgeon’s son who fell in love with bread at a pizza restaurant, a chef who was interested in the mission of the bakery, two ladies who were also doing their own cottage food endeavors, and myself, a dentist who wanted “something more” in life. To be honest, I was probably the less fitted to the band of misfits – a straight-edge with neither tattoos nor insight into sports or pop-culture, and no formal training in the restaurant industry. I was there because I bake sourdough bread at home. But even misfits have families, and this place felt like home. We came together under that roof called upon by a shared love of what we do and a belief in the mission – make healthy, delicious REAL artisan bread using traditional methods while supporting local farmers preserving ancient heritage grain.

My shift began at 2 am in the morning, and I worked three days a week. My alarm was set at 1:40 am, in order to get the most out of my sleep. On weekends, it was around the time the bars outside my window would close. While others went home to sleep, I left home to start my day. Theo, my cat, would clamber into the warm spot that I’ve just vacated, as if to say, “I’ll guard this until you return.” By the time I’ve slipped on my baker outfit (an old pair of jeans, a New Zealand hat, and a Krochet Kids tee), he’s already drifted back to sleep. I’d hop into my car and drive the ten minutes to our bakery, avoiding indecisive rabbits and sleepy eyelids. I would park in front of the fenced yard where the orange tree sits, and walked down the long driveway surrounded by mist, past our delivery truck and into the beloved garage.

The shift consisted of myself and the surgeon’s son. Since I am always late, he’d have switched on all three ovens and loaded two of them with sixteen lodge pans. It won’t stay cold here for long.

We remove pre-shaped pastries from the fridge – sleeping babies awaiting us to give them life. All goods made with croissant dough are placed in the proofer to rise. The others await the pre-heating ovens on a baker’s rack. These first few moments are the slowest, giving our bodies time to wake. He usually checks the bread bake for the day as I pull out the banana bread loaf pans. Once loaded into the ovens, I return to mix vegan loaves. It takes about fifteen minutes. Divvied up into their pans, they join their bread counterparts in the ovens and are forgotten about for the next fifty minutes.

Next on my list of tasks is the assembling of pop tarts. Flour the surface, sandwich jam between dough sheets, and crimp with a fork. This repetitive movement was very calming to me, along with the background noise of clanging combo-cookers, a signal that the first batch sourdoughs were being scored and loaded.

The clock hands move slightly faster.

Occasionally, one of us will ask a question about bread, share some insight, or talk about a recent experience outside of the bread world. But most times, we worked in silent understanding of the roles that we’ve fallen into. We were both working 60-something hour weeks, having picked up midnight shifts like a pair of crazies, for the love of bread. For those four months, our thirty minute conversations qualified him as my only friend. We started work the same week, “the last of the OG’s” as the carpenter would say, and leaving the system we’ve made was the hardest part.

At around this time, we begin juggling roles. Whoever was free checked the state of the croissants. When they were ready, we shuffled around each other, egg washing, sugaring treats, loading pastries, all while eyeing timers. When a timer would go off, we just needed to look at each other to know which of us was leaving to check the ovens.

At 4 am, one of us feeds the starter and mixes the levain. The other holds the fort.

There’s still the cookies to be squashed, icing to be made, lavender sugar to be sprinkled on blueberry scones, and more loaves to be pulled out of the fridge. If we could sacrifice an oven for a larger bread production, we would, but often times, pastries were a priority as it neared delivery time. Our brains are calculating minutes as our muscles mechanically move in routine rhythms.

At this time, an occasional step outside may be necessary, as the tiny garage has turned into an oven itself. The pastries fill the space with that familiar scent of a grandmother’s kitchen. The outside air in February is the perfect contrast to the passion we had for dough. We stripped sweaters and wiped sweat from our brows. But we can’t stay away from the ovens for long.

Croissants that have cooled need to be twice-baked with almond filling, pop-tarts need to be iced, and cookies need sprinkling with maldon sea salt. Meanwhile, the banana and vegan loaves require slicing. I’ve honed in on the ability to slice them into equal portions using my two finger’s width to measure. We send the end pieces out for the baristas to enjoy. Whoever was free can bag the bread loaves and load them into the truck. We had worked out the system where pastries would be ready and the area clean so that once our delivery guy walks in, he would be able to box and prep efficiently. But on some days when the bakes were heavy, the arrival of the delivery guy will indicate our need to double our speed.

Throughout all this, we’ve tried to keep up with the piling dishes during whatever down time we had. We knew it was a good day when the dishes were low once the packaging and delivery crew arrived.

Sundays, though, were my favorite. Sundays were bagel days. We would rush to get everything done and out of the way to make time for bagel prep. Standing side by side shaping bagels in silence was something I think we both relished. It was the part where everything slowed down, and when I felt like I was really in my element. As much as I liked pastries, bread was really my calling, and that translated when I started my own bakery. Pastries were oh-kay, and I somehow landed the job of pastry prep along the way, but shaping bread was where everything lined up. After letting the dough rest, we would poke holes with our thumbs and spin them around thrice to enlarge the dough to the correct size. We set them on floured trays and once they were all prepped, we would take each tray into the back part of the house where a pot of boiling water sat on the stove. It was here, in the dim morning light, that the idea of Aero Bakery was born. As we were leisurely boiling bagels (six at a time because that was the biggest pot we had), we talked about how Rye Goods started, and I learned of cottage food operations. We were dreamers, after all, and my dream was born here. I remember everything about that back house. The way the darkness slowly faded away, the creak of the wooden floorboards, the direct view you had from the kitchen window into to bustling garage. I can still smell the mist and the bread, the morning fog and the stove top heat. Nothing made more sense in my life than those few moments of peace.

I left earlier than the other guys, committing to work only until 6 am. Before leaving, I loaded as much as I can into the trucks. We wanted the delivery guys to be out around this time, too.  I grabbed my sweater, waved goodbye to my fellows, and would slip into the morning dawn. Birds are chirping, the sun is rising over the palm trees, and there was bread in hand (when there were extra). My whole body is warm and humming, just like the ovens. My skin is crackling, just like bread cooling on a rack. My brain is light, like a bird’s feather, floating free.

I joined the “early birds” on the freeway heading to work before the traffic starts. I enter my home to a meowing cat, ready for food. Sometimes, my husband and roommate are already in their respective showers. I clamber into bed and wait for breakfast, when I turn on the kettle to make a cup of coffee.

When I quit, I told myself I will never put my body through a sleep schedule like that again. I also know that I will never feel that alive, unless I do.

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