Pupils of the King: a Week of King Arthur Bread School, Part I

“YOU’RE going to bread school?!”

said almost everyone I told I was going to bread school. The usual next response: “Oh, lucky!!!”

They were right about my good fortune, but wrong to be surprised at my need. Before I started getting paid to bake, I was always a pie/cake/sweets gal–bread, not so much. And though I’m now entering my 8th season of professional baking, I spent the first two seasons as Assistant Baker, i.e., managing neither bread nor oven. When I trained to be a Head Baker, the people who trained me had received no professional training. Now, “We do this because it works” works just fine most days, but it leaves two questions unanswered:

  1. What do you do if it doesn’t work?
  2. What if something else worked even better?

Therefore I was THRILLED when my current boss, who bought Holly B’s Bakery from Holly B, decided to make the investment to send me to an intensive, 5-day, 38-hour course in Bread Fundamentals. I knew I had a LOT to learn. Like, everything.

But the answer to “What did you learn in Bread School?” is so big and complex, I’m going to turn this into two posts. Or maybe more! That knowledge might just ferment and grow, like a certain little yeasty-beast I’ve been hearing about all week.

I should also say off the bat, in case you’re a sourdough enthusiast, that this class covered pretty much everything BUT sourdough. Those breads require a class of their own. Hopefully, someday…

But back to Bread Fundamentals. Long story short, King Arthur Flour Baking School is the brainchild of King Arthur Chef Jeffrey Hamelman (world’s mellowest rock star chef) and Washington State University Bread Lab’s Stephen Jones. They teamed up several years to begin offering intensive baking classes (mostly bread) out here in the Northwest. King Arthur, of course, has been offering classes forever, all over the country but especially on their Vermont home ground. Lucky, LUCKY me–this workshop was under 20 miles from our ferry terminal!

I started on Monday, wide-eyed. So much of this was new to me, starting with the uniform. At Holly B’s we wear aprons, but I’ve never worn Chef Whites!

Gretchen’s first-ever work uniform!

Then there was the equipment in the teaching room.

4-deck steam oven with a moveable loader. At my bakery, the only loader is me.

Best of all, however, was the combination of Chef Jeffrey’s short lectures followed by immediate demonstrations and hands-on guided practice. Here he demonstrates a Challah braid:

He makes it look so easy. Well, ok…braiding isn’t actually very hard. Ask most long-haired women.

Now here’s my own careful step-by-steps (different braid on this one):

…with four strands…

A three and a four

Both finished challahs, with a few friends…a good Wednesday!

Chef Jeffrey also wowed us with possibilities. Here’s an amazing 3-tiered Challah he built


I thought it looked like a ferry boat. 🙂

The teaching was always firm and immediate, but gentle. (As a teacher, I sure appreciated that; I think from TV chefs I expected to be snapped at.)

Checking the “heads” of our petites brioches…

OK, maybe I could have used a little more guidance on my Epis de blé…

By the end of Day 3, we had made baguettes with three different doughs; whole wheat batards, oat loaves, challah, brioche, sunflower seed rounds, and…I’m sure I’m forgetting something. Day 4 we got FANCY:

Auvergnats. Trés chic.

Coronnes Bordelaise. Wouldn’t that be a cool addition to Thanksgiving?

One more picture of my new, freshly-baked confidence:


Next post: So what DID I learn in Bread School?


That Wicked, Wonderful Weed: My Blackberry Obsession

They’re ba-ack.

They’re everywhere.


These days I can’t ride my bike in increments longer than 100 yards without wanting to stop again. “Ooh…look at those clusters! These are definitely plumper than that last batch I just stuffed in my face.” Or: “Hmm, those were a bit sour. Better stop for some sweetening-up.”

Bike gloves and blackberries: made for each other

Bike gloves and blackberries: made for each other

But even more than roadside grazing, blackberries mean one thing to this girl: PIE.

It’s not that I need to be eating blackberry pie, or any kind of pie, on a regular basis.  I work in a BAKERY, OK? But this time of year, the urge to collect berries for my freezer is like a squirrel’s to store nuts: I NEED them. The feeling is strangely desperate. What would happen if the summer passed and I ended up with a freezer free of blackberries?

Ahh....all is well.

Ahh….all is well.

I don’t know. I can’t imagine such desolation.

For 10 1/2 months of the year, blackberries are a noxious infestation of thorny horror. Ask anyone who’s tried to clear them, or hike through them, or pretty much go anywhere near them. But during blackberry season, they suddenly represent bounty: the sweetness of sharing, the safety of plenty in the cold times, the memory of years and years past where I did just the same…reach for the berries, freeze the berries, bake the berries…repeat.

Is there a lesson in there? Probably. But I’m too busy picking and baking to figure it out. Anyone?

Croissant Dough “Log Booms”: Because Even Luxuries Can Use a Little Repurposing

One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. This truism plays out daily in a million yard sales and Craigslists. What’s cool is when it applies to food. Luxury food. Specifically, croissant dough.

Allow me to explain. When the bakery I work in was bought this winter, the new owner brought with her a new–and undeniably better–recipe for our signature croissants. If you’ve read this blog in the past few weeks, you’ve probably heard me moaning about how much muscle power this new recipe required. Life has eased a TREMENDOUS amount since my boss bought us a “sheeter” to roll that stiff dough for us, and the pain in my neck muscles has eased along with it.  But the dough still requires many more steps than the old recipe, and takes up both more time and more space in the fridge. In short, the stuff is gold.

Which is why it bugged the HELL out of me when we began accumulating croissant scraps. See, under the old regime, we simply rolled our dough out into a giant rectangle, cut that into squares and then triangles, and voila–croissants. Of course, given the human touch, those croissants were extremely variable in size and shape. Under the new regime, we use our sheeter to bring the dough to a uniform thickness, then a hand roller to cut out perfect triangles, like this:

Adorable, aren't they?

Adorable, aren’t they?

Result: perfect-looking, perfectly-sized croissants. And tons of scraps. What to do with them? No WAY was I letting anyone throw them away. Do you know how much labor and time each scrap represents? Step away from that compost bucket!

Dough scraps...or unrealized edible glory?

Dough scraps…or unrealized edible glory?

At first we tried to eat our way out of the problem. “What kind of cheese shall we put on the scraps today?” That lasted about two days. We of all people know exactly how much butter is in that dough, since we put it there.

So we put our heads together, my boss and fellow bakers and I. How could we re-think the scraps into something value-added, something we could actually sell? At first I started making these cute little twists:

Dried apricot, brie, rosemary, pecan...mmmm.....

Dried apricot, brie, rosemary, pecan…mmmm…..

But they took too long, without using up enough scraps. We wanted to sell ALL of it, not add more hours to our shift. So…why not just load the “raft” of scraps up with something delicious? Something like…

OMG that looks incredible! What IS it???

OMG that looks incredible! What IS it???

That one’s savory–artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, feta, and fresh herbs, if you want the details. (We also played with figs, goat cheese, and prosciutto; with pesto and arugula; with…you get the idea.) But it still needed a name–something catchy, maybe something including the name of our island. Someone suggested “Lopez Life Raft,” since the lined-up scraps suggested logs lashed together…which made us think–aha! You know the way northwesterners traditionally chain up logs in big clumps to tow them across water? A log boom? Yes! THAT’s what this yummy thing is. Lopez Log Boom.

When we make a sweet one with raspberry jam, we can't help but call it a Log Jam. Can you blame us?

When we make a sweet one with raspberry jam, we can’t help but call it a Log Jam. Can you blame us?

Here’s what’s funny, though. When I first presented the Log Boom with a flourish to some customers, my boss told me quietly, in the kitchen, not to call them “scraps”–bad connotation. My response: This is Lopez, where recycling is a high art, and our Dump/Recycling Center/Take It Or Leave It is our proudest institution! People LOVE scraps. 

So, dear readers, next time you’re at your favorite (non-Lopez Island) bakery, ask them what they do with THEIR croissant scraps. We could start a national Log Boom Dough Recycling movement! 

Oh Boy, Another Life Lesson: My Love-Hate Relationship With French Macarons

Am I the only one out there who HATES doing things I’m not good at?

Hatesss it, Precious.

It’s the reason I don’t play volleyball. Or badminton. Or softball. No one ever taught me the fundamentals, therefore I fundamentally SUCK at all three. [Softball, are you kidding me? That ball hurts when you catch it wrong! I’ll stick with cross-country, thanks.]

This attitude, I just this week realized, extends far beyond the playing field and into the kitchen. I’ve always shrugged my shoulders at French cooking, after a youthful flirtation with Julia Child. “Too fussy,” I’ve always said. “Too many steps.” For decades, I’ve stuck with American, which in my case means about a third Asian, a third Mexican, and a third Mutt food. [Can you say tuna-cheddar eggrolls with spicy salsa?] 

And dessert? German, baby. Or good old American PIE.

You’ve heard me bitch about the new croissant dough we’ve been making at Holly B’s Bakery. My boss and I have taken to calling it “Croissant-fit” and joking about charging people to come make it for us–free workout, folks! But the actual steps of croissants aren’t tricky to follow. All you need is muscle.

Enter the French Macarons. Not the coconut thingies; these macarons are made with ground-up almonds and egg whites and sugar and human tears. We’ve never made them at my bakery before, and we’re getting a lot of compliments on them. But they make me hate my life.

These little boogers. (photo by Stephanie Smith)

These little boogers. Gluten-free. Also evil. (photo by Stephanie Smith)

They are notoriously, ridiculously, insanely picky to make. The ingredients have to be not just measured but weighed. Don’t even think of starting to beat your egg whites until your boiling sugar has reached 239 degrees–but don’t let it go past 244. And that’s just the mixing. Then the plopping-out-of-the-pasty-bag part (can you tell I’m new at this? I’m sure there’s a French word for it) is the trickiest of all.

Don’t squeeze out too much. Don’t tilt your bag. Don’t hold it too high or press too low. Don’t drag the tip. Don’t swirl. Just…DON’T.

The other day when I got done trying to follow these directions, my boss noticed my face or my body language or my general loathing of existence. “Don’t be too hard on yourself,” she said kindly. “They’re hard.”

“I just HATE not being good at this,” I blurted. And there it was. Gretchen the Proud Pie Maven has met her match in a crumby little cookie. Steep learning curve in baking? Moi? 

So THAT’s why I’ve avoided French cooking all these years!

Watching the little suckers in the oven, I confess to feeling some pride despite myself. Hey, they’re puffing! They’re not cracking! Okay, most of ’em have “nipples” where I dragged the pastry bag tip, but look, there’s a smooth one! Kinda cute really…maybe a nice lemon butter cream in there…or cinnamon…?

So, yeah. Another Life Lesson, at age fifty-something. If you force yourself to do something you’re not good at, two things happen: 1) you get humble, and 2) you improve. And both of those things are good.

Bring on the macarons. But please let me keep making pie too. A girl’s got her pride.

Love & Butter & Muscle: Who Needs The Gym When You Have a Bakery?

In case anyone’s wondering where I’ve been for the past few days–no, I did not zoom off on another vacation while forgetting to blog ahead. I’m back at work, ok?  For a former teacher, the idea that “work” now means playing with dough and chocolate is pretty darn delightful. But last week the delight caught up with me.

See, Holly B’s reopened last week under new ownership. I cut my road trip short to fly home to prep for the opening, and I have no regrets. It was a BLAST, being in on the ground floor of a new enterprise (or a newly-imagined, beloved old enterprise, since Holly B’s turns 40 this year).

(image courtesy Stephanie Smith)

(image courtesy Stephanie Smith)

It was also EXHAUSTING. The reason I haven’t blogged yet? I’ve been resting up.

Long story short: we’ve switched croissant recipes. Turns out this new one involves more than twice the number of steps as the old one (mix, rest, roll, encase butter, roll, chill, roll, fold, chill, roll, fold, chill…ah, darn it, I’ve lost count, but I’m pretty sure we don’t have croissants yet…). It also takes approximately 15 times the arm strength. That. Dough. Is. STIFF.

But just look at all those layers! (remaining images courtesy Ann Hoag)

But just look at all those layers! (remaining images courtesy Ann Hoag)

Now, I’ve been doing my little weenie weights and push-ups like a good girl, but I’m a distance runner, people. Let’s just say my arms are NOT responsible for my Personal Bests.

...and these...Worth the sweat. Totally.

…and these…Worth the sweat. Totally.

At one point, mid-way through the second day’s croissant dough batch, around slab number 9 or thereabouts, I started whining like a two year-old. If my younger and WAY STRONGER colleague Ann hadn’t been there to shoulder (and bicep, and tricep) the dough burden, our poor new boss would have been there finishing it herself at midnight, ’cause my arms were DONE.

The good news? The new owner is buying a “sheeter” to do our rolling for us. The bad? It won’t be here for another three weeks at least. So, I guess the better news is…I can quit with the weights and the push-ups for now. This croissant dough will be my free gym.

Oh, you look all sweet and innocent NOW, you little boogers...

Oh, you look all sweet and innocent NOW, you little boogers…

Seriously, though…I LOVE my job. I am the luckiest tired lil’ baker in the west. And if I don’t blog again for awhile…well, now you know why. C’mon, sheeter!



Instant Vacation: The “Kids” Are Home

“Happy Thanksgiving!” “Merry Christmas!” I had a tough time keeping myself from calling out these greetings as I hiked with my family. Last Friday. January 15. But you can’t blame me for being confused. That was the day The Mate and I were having.

Sons One and Two (25 and 23) arrived in time for dinner Thursday night–a gift in itself, since we hadn’t expected them until the 9 pm ferry. For dessert we ate the leftover cake from my Mate’s birthday, which I’d been saving in the freezer. (This cake is SPECIAL: 15 layers and as tall as a tophat.)

The next morning I got up early and made our traditional Christmas morning Danish (from Holly B’s cookbook, of course). When the “boys” finally arose, it was time to open presents–okay, no stockings this year, but then we had no Christmas tree either. (I mean, it IS mid-January. I put lights on our houseplants.)

Dinner was full-on Thanksgiving: turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce (thanks to a friend who had some cranberries in her freezer–try buying ’em fresh in January!), roasted sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts, and Yorkshire pudding. (Yeah, sounds weird, but we like it better than stuffing.) We couldn’t quite face pie after all that rich food…but I made one next day, just ’cause.

Christmas Danish, baby.

Christmas Danish, baby.

‘Cause why? Vacation, that’s why! In my book, when you’re down to rare sightings of your offspring, ANY time with them becomes instant fun-time. Grocery shopping? Sure! Folding laundry? Absolutely! Our best time on this “holiday” weekend wasn’t even that hike; it was working together to make a new compost pit.

I don’t have any digital baby pics of our boys, and I don’t like to violate their adult privacy by posting current pics, so I’m compromising by posting one from 8 years ago. They look a bit different now. 🙂

Gotta grab those precious moments while you can...sometimes literally.

Gotta grab those precious moments while you can…sometimes literally.

So, did I get any writing work done since my last post? How ’bout choosing that new blog theme?

That’s a big fat No. Do I care? An even fatter, happier, more grateful No. Merry Thanksmas!

Happy “Independence” Day to All You Small Business Owners…Bless Your Hearts!

When I left teaching to become a baker, some of my former students were confused. “How’s your bakery?” I would sometimes see on Facebook.

Well, they were half right. I do feel like it’s MY bakery, especially when I unlock the doors at oh-dark-thirty and turn our oven on. But in truth, Holly B’s Bakery (“Holly’s Buns Are Best”) is not MINE…for which I thank my lucky stars. Especially at this time of year.

For a little bakery in a town with a tourist-dependent economy, July Fourth is Black Friday and the post-Christmas sales all wrapped up in one buttery croissant. Or make that 250 croissants.

Our kitchen is TINY. Three bakers have to squeeze past each other. We have only one oven. But the food must be baked! Here, I’ll try to give you some visuals:


cinn rolls


full racks

overflow 1

overflow 2

Can you imagine the planning all this bounty requires? The ordering, the scheduling, the storage? What if you get it wrong? What if you run out of chocolate chips? What if you bake too many pesto baguettes and not enough of the olive tapenade? What if you make too much? What if you don’t make enough?

How does Holly ever sleep in late June (let alone continue to be the World’s Nicest Boss)???


Holly’s oldest son, Ty, is now co-owner (and the World’s Second Nicest Boss). Maybe it eases the stress to have someone to plan with. I sure hope so!

bread rack

I LOVE my job. I love “my” bakery. But around Independence Day, I am extra-super grateful that I’m fairly “independent” of the stress of being in charge, and I take my hat off to all those brave souls who carry that load.


Happy Independence Day, business owners! Now go get some sleep.


How ’bout you? Do you own your own business? ARE you your own business? Or do you have that in your family? How do people COPE????

Life of Pie: Crusty Author Gives Flaky Secrets

Fill in the blank: “It’s as American as apple _________.”

Not cupcakes. Not tarts. Not even empanadas. PIE, damnit. As far as I’m concerned, pie is IT and always will be.

I’m a pie girl from way back. My family had an apple tree that bore gazillion apples every September. Not too great for eating, but nice and tart, perfect for–no, not tarts!! PIE. I made two pies every day for as long as those apples kept coming, one for our dinner and one for the freezer.

I got pretty good at pie.

Over the years, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon: people are afraid of pie crust. They tell me horror stories of bad pie-crust trips that scarred them for life and sent them running, thereafter, for the frozen-food section to buy nice, safe flaky ones made by a machine. Or they gave up completely and just bought the whole pie. (Or went gluten-free, but that’s another story.)

Or, like the World’s Nicest Boss, Holly B (of Holly B’s Bakery, where “Holly’s Buns Are Best”), they moved permanently to the land of pie surrogate: Crumble. Tart. Danish.

When I first started working for Holly three years ago, she told me, “I’m scared of pie.” This is a woman who can make croissants from scratch that dissolve into a million tiny buttery leaves on your tongue. If SHE’S scared of pie…well, dang. That must be one scary pastry.

I bugged her, off and on for three years, to let me make a pie sometime and sell it. Granted, until this year my status as Assistant Baker was not much of a bully pulpit. But once I started Head Baking, a couple of months ago, I became more of a pie bully.

Me: So, Holly, will you let me make a pie sometime?

Holly: Well, sure…

Me: How about tomorrow?

Holly: Well, we still have more than half a marionberry crumble to sell…Let’s use that up first, then maybe…

Finally last month she relented, probably just to shut me up. I was SO excited, I brought my own ingredients with me to work: the instant tapioca that I use for thickener (which the bakery doesn’t carry) and my own blackberries picked from the roadside, plus a couple of nectarines bought from a stand. I wanted my pie to make a statement.

Like most people, I prefer my stories with happy endings, so I’ll try to manufacture one for this anecdote. My pie sold out, while the marionberry crumble did not. People said nice things. And I got to see, for one brief shining moment, a “Gretchen’s Fresh Blackberry-Nectarine Pie” sign out on our bakery counter (in fact, the sign was Holly’s idea–told you she was the World’s Nicest Boss).

Too bad I didn’t take a picture, ’cause that sign hasn’t been back, not even in a different flavor. The problem? I didn’t bring my A game when I needed it most. Using the Cuisinart for the first time threw me off (I don’t own one, so I always make my crust by hand). I cut the butter too small, reducing FP (flakiness potential) by half. And, scared of overly gloppy pie slices when my masterpiece was cut, I overdid it on the instant tapioca. The result was a delicious-tasting blackberry-nectarine medley with the consistency of…let’s say slightly melted gummi bears.

Holly was not impressed. Of course, being the World’s Nicest Boss, all she said was, “Let’s work together to find a crust recipe we both like, shall we?” Nothing about the gummi bears. I made a personal vow to hit one out of the park on my next pie at-bat. But I didn’t get the chance. August passed into September, our bakery hours began to wane, and I began to resign myself to another year of pielessness…

…until last week, when Holly invited me to make an apple…tart.

Hey, fruit in a crust? Sounds like pie to me.

Not. Gonna. Mess. This. Up.

Not. Gonna. Mess. This. Up.

We used her recipe. I watched the Cuisinart like a hawk and shut it off when the butter chunks were still the size of almonds. Then I mixed the water in by hand like I do at home. And since we were using apples instead of berries–no tapioca to worry about, just a little flour & some spices.

The result:

It's called a Rustic Tart for a reason, OK?

It’s called a Rustic Tart for a reason, OK?

I like my stories with morals too, so here’s one: Perseverance pays. That “Rustic Apple Tart” was so ridiculously flaky and delicious, both Holly’s and my confidence soared. Yesterday she told me, “I want you to keep doing that.”

And you know what? I will. I’ll make Rustic Tarts every day if she wants. Only in my head, I’ll be calling them pies.

Since you’ve read so far, here’s your reward: Gretchen’s Three Secrets to Perfect Flaky Crust.
1. Use ALL BUTTER. Yes, Crisco makes flakes. But it also tastes like Crisco. And a butter crust is delicious even a few days later, while a Crisco crust just tastes like…soggy Crisco. Good ratio: 2 cups flour/ 8 oz. butter

2. Leave the butter in ALMOND-SIZED CHUNKS when you cut it into the flour.

3. Use ICE WATER to moisten your crust.

4. When moistening dough, DON’T SQUEEZE. Handle it as little as possible. It should be very tender. If it breaks, so what? It’s dough. Stick it back together with some water.

OK, I lied–that was Four Secrets. But yeah, I’m a little flaky.

If you must, weigh in with your own PIE SECRETS. But I probably won’t listen. On this topic, I’m a tad close-minded.