Last Sunday morning, at 3:30am, I dragged myself out of bed, hastily threw on whatever random items of clothing I could find, half-consciously gulped down a cup of tea and drove 10 minutes to the Polish Princess Bakery in Lancaster, New Hampshire. 3:30am? The only reason I’m ever awake at 3:30am is insomnia. What could possibly motivate me?
Well, I’ve been an amateur baker for many years. And for some time, I’ve wanted to learn first-hand about the inner workings of a commercial bakery. I’m especially interested in the early morning schedule for baking breads and pastries and how to coordinate mixing, rising, shaping, decorating, proofing and baking. The best way to learn? Spend a morning at the Polish Princess. In early 2014, Magdalena Randall opened this remarkable bakery and cafe on Main Street in Lancaster. For several years prior to opening, she’d already built a reputation and following as an accomplished baker, first selling out of her home, and then at the weekly farmers’ market.
I’ve been a regular customer since the bakery opened, but now was the time, I decided, to learn the workings of the “back of the house.” Magda graciously let me come to observe, ask questions, and even help out a little with the shaping of the loaves. Throughout the morning, Magda answered my questions about baking, but also shared amusing, fascinating, and sometimes heartrending stories about her struggles as a small business owner and entrepreneur.
Magda and one employee, Lorien, arrived-as they do all mornings–at 4:00am sharp. The first two tasks were to turn on the propane steam oven (since it takes at least 90 minutes to warm up), and then to take the temperature of the poolish sitting in the industrial-size mixing stand. The poolish is a pre-ferment leavening agent, a mix of water, flour and yeast which sits for at least 12 hours, overnight. Temperature matters a lot for serious bakers. In fact, I lost count of how many times I saw Magda look at the bakery thermometer or take the temperature of the poolish or the water. The overall temperature in the bakery governs all of the other steps involved in bread baking, such as the level of hydration in the overall dough and the rising and baking times.
Next step was to mix the poolish (pre-ferment) with the remaining flour and water (but not salt or yeast, yet) for the “autolyse,” a period of about 20-30 minutes in which the dough simply sits at rest. Meanwhile, Magda pulled out a huge box of apples and started cutting and peeling by hand–I’ve never seen anyone prep apples so fast as she did that morning. Across the room, her employee, using a table rolling machine, flattened out a huge chunk of croissant dough, and began cutting and rolling it into shape. The croissant dough had been “laminated,” a time-consuming process of folding and refolding the pastry into layers around a butter block, the previous day, and then refrigerated. Plain, almond and chocolate croissants are all daily staples of this particular bakery, and I watched in amazement as the ingredients were deftly, and at lightning speed, inserted into the layers of pastry, then stored in a proofing machine (for rising).
Morning production at the bakery is a complex dance in which the bakers must coordinate rolling out, proofing, inserting filling or toppings, second risings, then baking and cooling. Once the croissants were done, Magda’s employee set to work on lemon curd and apple tarts, blackberry muffins, orange/cranberry scones, cinnamon buns, and cookies. Meanwhile, Magda checked her orders from the previous day, which included an order for 4 pies (two apple and two cherry) and 2 quiches (broccoli and olive). She keeps a giant mix of quiche filling in the big refrigerator, and once the pie shells are rolled out and the veggies cut up, the filling gets poured in.
There are two ovens at the bakery, the huge propane, steam oven for the breads and bagels, and then the smaller oven for pastries. Magda kept a close eye on the pastry oven to make sure it was turned off as needed when not in use. Her electric bill at the bakery, she told me, is higher than her rent, and the small oven and the cappuccino/espresso machine are the big electricity drains.
By now, the french bread dough has gone through autolyse, two mixings on different speeds, and has to rise for about two hours. And of course, those two hours are full of other work, like the bagels and the assortment of pastries. When the dough is risen to her satisfaction, Magda hauls the massive hunk onto the cutting board table, where she uses a hand dough scraper to cut it into chunks for loaves and baguettes. She works quickly and efficiently, using a scale to make sure each chunk is the right size for the type of loaf. And she reserves one sizable chunk as pizza dough, in case anyone orders a pizza for lunch. (Edward and I have often done this!)
The poolish-fed dough is central to the morning’s production, but it’s not the only bread in the works. Sitting inside a plastic covered rack are lovely round loaves in baskets and longer loaves hidden in the folds of linen. These are various sourdough loaves mixed the previous day and proofed overnight. And of course, the beautiful bagels, which as far as I can taste and tell, rival any from New York.
Now, she starts baking the sourdough loaves, and while they bake, she starts shaping the french bread into baguettes and loaves. I’m watching closely, because I want to remember how she does this, and she has me help her shape and roll out the baguettes, in very precise fashion indeed. After this, they are placed, seam side up, into the folds of bakers’ linen, for a final rising.
I’m envious of Magda’s big steam oven. All she has to do for that lovely steam is to push a button. At home, I usually have to throw ice cubes into a pan on the oven floor 5 minutes before baking, and then a cup of boiling water is poured into a hot pan in the oven right before the loaves go in. It’s tricky to get it right, and avoid being burned by the steam.
After the final rising of the baguettes and french loaves, Magda scores them with a razor held at a 30 degree angle and they go into the oven for around 24-26 minutes, but the time really depends on how they look to Magda, and what she knows about the temperature in the bakery and the rising periods leading up to the baking. It seems complicated to me, but Magda has developed an instinctive sense for how the dough looks and feels as it goes through its many stages.
At about 6:30am, a second employee arrives, and begins to set up the front of the house. Pastries have been steadily coming out of the smaller oven–croissants, muffins, tarts, scones, the pies on order, a coffee cake. Those pastries cool in tall, plastic-covered racks and now are moved into the glass case on the counter, looking tempting and glorious. The pace in the room becomes a little feverish, in anticipation of opening at 7am. The pastries will be ready by then, although most of the bread isn’t ready until about 8am. Magda has been preoccupied with the dough and the ovens until now, but at this stage, she has to stand on the customer counter to repair a light. Someone rolls up the blinds. There’s a brief discussion about the choice of music for the morning.
By 8:00am, the baguettes and virtually all the bread are stacked on a tall cart and rolled close to the counter, where customers can eyeball the loaves and decide which ones they want. Soon enough, there’s a steady stream of customers, and before long, it will be time to prep the soups and sandwiches for lunch.
I leave at about 8:15am, tired but happy. Four magical hours at the Polish Princess, and I’ve got a new outlook on baking, with some important new tips and tricks. I’ve been over to the bakery as a customer twice since that early morning adventure and now, of course, I see the Polish Princess in a wholly different light…