What Makes Baking So Scary?

There are two common responses I get from career cooks when I start talking about baking. It’s either “Bakers are fucking useless and can’t do shit without a recipe book in front of them” or “Bakers are mad scientists and just the idea of baking terrifies me. It’s so precise that anything could fuck anything up.”

They are both right and both wrong because cooking and baking require different mindsets. Being able to do both is not just a matter of skill, it’s a matter of being able to switch between two different sets of priorities and relationships with time. As for “always needing a recipe book…” I humbly suggest that baking recipes can be done on the fly if you know which rules to follow and which to break. Once you know the right ratios, you can whip up a dough, bread, or filling from memory, but I’ll thank you not to disrespect our sacred grimoires, thank you.

Talk of wizardry and alchemy aside, though, what makes baking so scary?

Actual footage of a baker attempting to multitask.
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What I Talk About When I Talk About Flavor

“Look, I’m just saying it’s missing something. I don’t know what, but it needs something else.”

The conversation next to my bench had been going on for close to 20 minutes. Our manager had just tried a spoonful of soup that we were going to selling tomorrow. It was a spicy African Peanut soup- dried ancho peppers had been infusing the pot with a smoky flavor, carried on the fat of the peanut butter and oil the veggies had been fried in. There was a suggestion for salt, but the recipe already had a lot.

Black pepper, sage, garlic, more cayenne, it went round and round. The owner looked over the pot and called me over. “Matt, taste this- what do you think it needs?”

I grabbed a spoon and took a taste. Smoke, peanut, and fried veggies washed over my tongue… but no heat. The heat from the anchos needed something to cut through the fat. “It’s good, but dull… you need some kind of acid in there to carry the heat and brighten it up. Got some lemon juice?”

The hot pepper might give the soup bite, but acid gave it jaws to bite with. When you become a cook, you start learning a different vocabulary for flavor, which is itself the vocabulary of food.

Picture of someone in a striped sweater mixing paints on an artist’s pallet.
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Baking 101: The First Lecture

If you were to teach a semester of classes on something you do for a living, what would Day 1 consist of?

For the last year or so, especially as I’ve started doing Live Bake-along videos on Facebook, I’ve played with the idea that the next step in my culinary career might be teaching- and if the last two years of training and mentoring apprentices at the bakery has shown me anything, it’s that I’m apparently not bad at it.

The other day while chatting on my lunch break, my manager mentioned that she had taught baking at a community college for a semester as adjunct faculty. While she didn’t necessarily enjoy it (my manager confesses that she does not have the patience for teaching,) the $4000/semester paycheck made it quite a lucrative side hustle for one six-hour class a week in addition to a full-time income baking professionally.

After she brought it up, I found myself wondering what I would say on the first day to a class of new, inexperienced students. You can consider this a companion to my open letters to new culinary students and graduates.

Here we go:

An empty college lecture hall
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The Role of the Bagel

There are precious few Jewish delis in Portland. That’s not surprising, as we only make up about .7% of the population. There ARE, however, at least five or six bagel makers in the city.

Everyone has an opinion about whose bagels are the best- the best price, the best flavor, the best texture, the closest to the “New York City” ideal.

They are all right, they are also all wrong, they are going to argue about it, and that is possibly the most Jewish thing I’ve seen in this city outside of actually going to a synagogue.

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Dim Sum and Star Wars: “Jewish Christmas” and Holidays in the Industry

“Hey, so we’re closed on Christmas Day, right?”
”Huh? Yeah, of course.”
”Well… there’s orders going out the next morning. If we’re not going to be here, who’s going to make them?”

”…Crap.”

Bakers necessarily need to plan for a few days in the future. Especially when you have wholesale accounts expecting pastries early in the morning. Someone dropped the ball somewhere.

“Uhh… okay, don’t worry, we’ll think of something.”

Well, we thought of something first.
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