Bread camp at The Back Home Bakery
I had the pleasure of spending a week working as a baking intern for Mark Sinclair at his The Back Home Bakery in Kalispell, Montana. Other than the sleep deprivation, it was a thoroughly enjoyable week of measuring ingredients, washing dishes, mixing bigas and doughs, washing dishes, stretching and folding dough, washing dishes, pre-shaping and shaping loaves, washing dishes, making pastries and fillings, washing dishes, scraping the workbench, washing dishes, packaging the finished breads/pastries, building friendships with Mark and Sharon (his wife), and washing dishes.
A typical day would start at 2:00 or 2:30 in the morning. We'd begin by pulling bigas from the refrigerator (they had been mixed the previous afternoon or evening) and measuring the ingredients for each bread. Most of the breads were mixed in a 20-quart mixer, except for the baguettes, which were a larger batch that was mixed in the 60-quart mixer. The other exception was on Saturday morning, when about half of the breads were mixed in the 60-quart mixer because of the larger batches being prepared for the Kalispell farmers' market later that morning. Mark also pulled 2 or 3 frozen pastry doughs from the freezer at about the same time so that they could be thawed and ready for sheeting and shaping during a lull in the bread production.
After mixing, the bread doughs were placed in a proofer. Most were given 3 stretch and folds at 45-minute intervals. After proofing, the doughs were shaped and placed on sheet pans, then put back in the proofer for their final proof prior to slashing and baking. The baguettes, again, were an exception to this general practice; they received a pre-shape, then a ferment at room temperature, followed by a final shaping and final room-temperature ferment before slashing and loading into the oven. Mark uses two convection ovens; one is electric and the other is gas fired. All of the baking is done on sheet pans, rather than on a deck or stone. Neither oven is steam-injected, so Mark throws a can of water on a cast-iron griddle sitting in the bottom of the oven when a bread requires steaming.
What I haven't conveyed well is the overall planning that Mark does in deciding which doughs are mixed first and which are mixed last. Based on experienced he has gained and on the particular day's product roster (it varies from day to day), Mark sequences the production steps so that he can maintain a steady flow of bread or pastries in and out of the ovens without creating bottlenecks or gaps. And it's all subject to change, depending on the activity of the doughs. There are anywhere from 1 to 4 timers in use at any given point and each step of the process for each bread or pastry is noted on a sheet of paper. If it didn't get written down, it would get lost in the ever-changing flow of the work. A couple of examples may help to illustrate just how important time management is in a bakery. One: "If you have time to stand around, you've probably missed something." Two: Mark muttering "That timer rules my life" as he leaves the dinner table to put the rye starter in the refrigerator for the night.
I encountered several surprises during my week at The Back Home Bakery:
- Mark produces a variety of pastries, using both croissant dough and puff pastry dough. I had preconceived that he was primarily making breads, but that was a misconception on my part.
- Mark uses Wheat Montana's AP flour, which most other milling companies would label as a high-protein bread flour. Still, he produces incredibly tender and flaky pastries and robust breads using that same flour. The man knows what he's doing.
- Aforesaid pastries, still warm from the oven, make a spectacular breakfast. My wife ran out of adjectives by Thursday.
- Mark is something of a Renaissance man: teacher, coach, log home builder and baker. And very patient with a well-meaning but sometimes-addled assistant. I'm sticking with the sleep deprivation defense as long as I can.
Saturday was the biggest production day of the week because of the Kalispell farmers market, so we were up at 1:00 a.m. Sharon also pitched in, so there were three of us banging around in the bakery, trying not to trip over each other. That morning we produced and packaged:
- bear claws
- cherry croissants
- blueberry croissants
- cheese danish
- pain au chocolat
- apple strudel
- ham and cheese croissants
- sticky buns
- sour rye bread (based on Eric's Fav Rye)
- rustic white bread
- buckwheat-flax bread
- Sal's rolls (torpedo shaped, made from baguette dough)
- Portuguese sweet bread (shaped as rolls)
- Kalamata jack bread
All of the above was loaded in the van, along with the booth and display fixtures, and ready to roll by 7:30.
Here are a couple of pictures from that morning:
Sharon, wisely, bundled up for the chilly morning. Mark's concession to the cold was to change from shorts to jeans and put on a cap.
Sharon waiting on early customers.
Mark's commitment to putting out a high-quality product is paying off. He has loyal customers who come looking for their favorites and who are very disappointed if they arrive too late and find that item has sold out.
I'm very grateful to have had a week working with Mark and getting to know both he and Sharon. Should you have the opportunity to pursue a future internship, I can highly recommend it.