a day in the life of a baker

Most weeks, I work just one day: Tuesday, shift 1, a.k.a. The Bake Shift.
(Shift 2 is pastry, shift 3 is afternoon breads, and shift 4 is evening prep.) 
The times noted are a mix of documented fact and educated guesstimates.

***

4:00 My alarm goes off. Despite going to bed early, I had a fitful night of sleep — I got cold, I went pee at least three times, and, for a brief period of time, I couldn’t sleep so I troubleshooted my book (and got some good ideas so it wasn’t all for naught). I make coffee, dress, get my cheese out of the press and into the brine, publish a blog post.

4:46 I leave for work, but the van makes funny noises, so almost immediately I turn around and go back to the house to swap the van out for the little car. (It doesn’t sound much better.)

5:08 I clock in.

5:10 I turn on the proofer, fill the sink with soapy water, pull pastries from the fridge, get a clean apron, clear the night’s previous baking off my work space, and start working on the pies: sour cherry. I’d made all the different components in advance, and Monday’s people pulled them from the freezer to thaw.

They’ll take forever to bake — close to 90 minutes — so I need to get them into the oven as quickly as possible. Once they’re done, I’ll crank up the oven and bake off the pastries.

the fridge, bursting at the seams with all the things I need to bake

the proofer; speed rack on the right with yesterday’s buns awaiting bagging

5:22 I realize the the top oven’s light isn’t on yet. Oh no, it hadn’t been preset! It’s supposed to be at 500 degrees when I arrive, the temp at which we bake the sourdough (and then drop the heat to bake the pastries). There’s nothing I can do — it will take a full hour to preheat — so I turn it on and then focus on baking off as many other things as possible so we’ll have something in the case at opening: orange cranberry scones (that I made last week and froze), chocolate chunk and salted oatmeal cookies, sausage rolls.

sausage rolls, egg-washed and sprinkled with thyme

5:41: I mix up the day’s sourdough and dry mise for the next day’s.

6:18 I’m getting hungry so I grab some granola from the kitchen to tide me over.

6:44 The top oven is finally to temp. I score the loaves — plain sourdough and olive — and load them into the oven. 

6:52 Time to give the sourdough its morning feeding.

7:08 It’s getting light outside and other employees are trickling in. 

7:13 The cherry pies are finally done. Even though the crusts didn’t have holes when I filled them (I checked!), the juice still seeped through the bottom crust. How to remedy this problem? I’m stymied. Two of the pies might not be sellable. 

7:16 The register person (today it’s the bakery manager) arrives. As she bags bread, stocks the case, and counts money, we chatter about all sorts of things.

7:21 The first round of sourdough is done baking, so I sweep out the oven and drop the temp. The kitchen brings over a pan of biscuits for me to bake off.

7:25 The bottom oven is ready for the pastries. I chose three trays of the most popular kind so we’ll have something ready when we open: chai morning buns, vanilla braids, and chocolate croissants. 

vanilla braids, a best seller

7:44 Both ovens are at correct pastry temps. For the next hour, I egg wash and bake dozens of pastries and then finish them off, as per their particular specifications: chai buns get a chai glaze, maple pecan pull-aparts get a maple glaze, vanilla braids get a vanilla glaze, the scones get an orange glaze, cardamom buns get rolled in cardamom sugar, cookies get salted, etc. 

chai morning bun

8:00 The diner opens. The shift 2 person arrives and takes up residency in the back corner where she’ll spend the majority of her day making, sheeting, and shaping the pastries.

8:37 Now that I’m almost done baking off the pastries, I no longer need the top oven, so I crank it back up to 500 degrees and bake off the remaining loaves of sourdough.

8:52 I taste the leftover banana bread I’d made the week before. It’s tangy, so: pig food. I wash dishes and scrub out the sink and refill it.

9:00 My help arrives! Because I’m in charge of pies and some other creative work, another baker is often assigned to my shift. Over the next few hours, my coworker will pound butter blocks, shape the sourdough, mix up maple glaze, make icing, bake off the rye shortbread, wash dishes, and generally keep me company and entertained with talk of books and hiking and family dynamics. (I have the best coworkers.)

9:10 I mix up a double batch of cake. We have an order for one cake, but I decide to make extra to sell out the door. I also want to experiment with baking little cakes in muffin tins, for junior minis.

prepping the cake pans

9:22 Now that the rush of baking is over, my energy lags. One of the other bakers is putting in an order at the bar, so I add mine — a latte. While the cakes bake, I make a red raspberry jam filling for the cakes, wash more dishes, and toss the bread cloths in the washing machine. Gradually, my energy picks up.

10:06 The pastry shift person has a lull, so I slip into the back corner and use the sheeter to roll out dough for five pie shells, the number of plates I can find (we just ordered another batch of plates, but no one can find them). The disks are larger than normal — I later find out that someone thawed ones that were intended for sausage rolls — so I have to cut them down to size.

10:30 I cut into one of the bum-looking cherry pies. There is no burnt flavor, and the crust doesn’t actually look that bad after all, so yay, we can sell them!

10:42 I crimp the pie pastry, line the shells with parchment paper and fill them with beans, and pop them into the top oven to bake off. We find the box of new plates (under the oven), and I briefly consider rolling out a few more crusts but then decide against it. I’m getting tired and running out of time.

dwindling stock

11:07 I put in an order for lunch: sourdough toast with Sunday sauce, which is a meaty bolognese and cheese, topped with an egg. I ask for a half order (with a side of greens), but then the cook comes over to ask what, exactly, a “half order” means since it’s only one piece of bread and a single egg, ha! I get the whole order and then convince my co-worker to help me eat it.

11:21 The jam isn’t completely cool, but I have to get cracking on those cakes. It takes a good while to split, fill, and ice the cakes, but it’s fun so I don’t mind. (I snitch the berries and mint from the kitchen, shh, don’t tell.)

bakery instagrammer

12:00 The new hire, a high school student, comes in to run the register and help knock things off the task list. (When the manager prompts her, she tells me that she and her boyfriend were voted homecoming queen over the weekend, whoo-hoo!) There are now five people in the bakery, plus the in-and-out customers and servers. The small space is busy and full, but somehow I don’t feel cramped.

12:45 My coworker needs to shape sourdough on the same table, so I scooch to one end and attempt to consolidate my mess.

seconds before I snapped the photo, the dough was hanging off the edge of the table

1:43 My daughter pops in begging for snacks. I direct her to the leftover grits pie in the fridge and ask her to get me another coffee — this time, an iced brown sugar latte. 

1:56 My coworker finishes shaping the sourdough and begins pounding out the butter blocks. The bakery and diner close for the day.

2:15 I give the starter its afternoon feeding.

2:28 I wrap and date the cooled pie crusts and leftover pie dough and run them over to the freezer in the storage room. While there, I take inventory of the fruits, crusts, fillings, and crumb toppings (what will we make next week?). A friend is passing through the co-working space and we chat for a bit. 

2:42: The manager and I discuss plans for next week’s bakes and my Saturday responsibilities (I’m swapping shifts with another baker and need a refresher on baguette procedure). I never got around to typing up a cup-to-gram cheat sheet (I’m sick of looking up stuff on my phone) and recording some recipes, but I decide I’ll do that work from home.

2:53 I organize the cakes in the fridge, scribbling notes so tomorrow’s team will know what’s what. 

3:04 My coworker has switched to her afternoon bread-baking duties (today, she’s also Shift 3). I’m not sure what she’s making, but there’s an enormous bowl of dough rising on the counter. 

3:20 I fish stale bread out of the bin and snag that tangy banana bread (for the pigs), hand off my not-terribly-dirty apron to the manager (who doesn’t want to run back to storage to get herself a clean one), grab a bag of leftover wheat rolls from the help-yourself stack, and clock out.

3:36 After nearly eleven hours, I’m back home.

The End.

This same time, years previous: soft sourdough bread, the soiree of 2019, curbing the technology addiction, another farm, another job, impressing us, three feet, a dell-ish ordeal, field work, the reading week, autumn walk.

10 Comments

  • Nat

    Maybe you’ve already written about this before and I missed it, but how do you choose what to bake at the bakery? Like you made a few extra cakes to sell. Are there things you make all the time like the bread and things you make for a while before moving on to something else? If I came into your bakery every week would I see the same chai bun every week or do you try something else after a while? Do you have the freedom to experiment a new recipe just to see how it sells or is it too risky? Do you just stick to what is popular and sells well?
    I’m so curious because I’ve always dreamt of working or owning a bakery and baking all my favorite recipes and I love experimenting with new recipes. I was excited to see you make a few extra cakes to sell. makes it sound like the bakery gives you that freedom and trusts what you make, will sell.

    • Jennifer Jo

      The bakery has a bunch of core products that change with the season/demand. Everyone is encouraged to make suggestions and be creative, but our shifts are pretty packed and space is limited. Management sometimes asks me (or another baker) to come up with something, and I (usually) get approval for a new idea before I try it. And yes, the bakery does give me/us lots of freedom and trust — which I so appreciate.

  • Cheryl

    Wow…I’m tired just from reading about your work day! It’s good to be young, eh?

    At 68 years young, my butt would be dragging right around 8 am, lol. And to think,I used to work 16 hour days in a plastics factory!

    I bet it sure smells yummy working there….wish we had smellavision! Thanks for sharing!

  • Elva

    Sounds as tiring as my former dairy farmer days were! Very impressive, and it looks like an absolutely great place to work and eat at!

  • Elizabeth Lockhart

    You can sprinkle the base of a fruit pie with a little semolina or ground rice and it helps prevent a soggy bottom and leakage. It’s an old Delia Smith tip, she makes a pie that’s not done in a dish. It’s a sort of freeform bundle and she uses it in that.

  • Laurie Lasala-Tuttle

    Thanks so much for sharing your bakery day! I’ve been wondering what your workday looks like, and it looks both amazing AND exhausting!! I can see that your kitchen talents and personality are a great match at the bakery. If I lived on the east coast I’d visit. 🙂

Leave a Reply