I'm a decent home cook, capable of rummaging through the pantry to throw together a quickie dinner or, on a quiet Sunday, searching my considerable cookbook collection for more elaborate recipes.
Yet when it comes to any combination of yeast and flour, I've always been a hopeless failure. Even when following the no-way-you-can-blow-it no-knead recipes, I flop.
"Don't be scared," she said soothingly while showing me how to arrange ficelle on a loader, a contraption that looks a little like a hospital gurney, which deposits dough in the red-hot oven.
Like a baton-wielding maestro, Gwen waved a razor blade gracefully to demo the right way to score the perfectly formed lumps of dough: You want to go straight down the middle. Picture a rectangle and stay in the box. Cut smoothly and swiftly. Relax your wrist. Don't overthink it.
Great. Kind of reminded me why I gave up golf. So many little details to try and commit to sense memory.
Funny thing happened in front of that massive oven, though. After a few hours, it all began to jell. Like a rare drive straight down the fairway.
Maybe I could really do this. It helped that Gwen and her small crew - Wendy Scherer, Darren Morey, Devon Deardorf and Nikki Leigh - were so encouraging. Even when I screwed up. Like when I failed to click the dough loader into place and a batch of rolls tumbled into a row of baguettes. Oh man! Rookie mistake.
Wendy was nice about it. Sometimes, you just have to let it go, she consoled. Miraculously, the rolls weren't a total loss - just not as pretty as the others.
I felt bad because I had seen the Herculean effort involved in getting the rolls ready to bake, the measuring and mixing and shaping. I learned the importance of pre-shaping step to let the glutens relax, making it easier to get the proper tension in the final shaping. Pushing dough against the bench - the huge wooden worktable where all the shaping was done - was downright therapeutic.
I don't know why it has always freaked me out. If cooking on the line is one big adrenalin rush, baking bread seems like a brisk walk in the cool woods on a sultry summer afternoon. (Where I might find some of my errant golf balls, perhaps.)
I later learned that it's rare for cooks to cross over to baking. When one cook came to cross train in Gwen's flour-y world, he didn't last a day.
I was pleasantly shocked, though, to feel so much at home. I wasn't afraid anymore.
Anybody care to share their crossover success story or bakery battle scars?
About the author: Leslie Kelly is a Seattle-based freelance food writer whose work has appeared in the (now defunct) Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, and the Spokesman-Review. She's currently working in the kitchens of Tom Douglas restaurants and blogging at Whining & Dining.