Sunday, October 14th Three months after Josie was born, we moved from Queens, NY to Milford, PA. For months leading up to the move, I consulted on a bakery project. One of my former co-workers, Mark Edmonds, was turning an old carriage house into a bakery. The kitchen was tiny. I helped designed the layout, connected Mark with equipment vendors and worked out a bread menu. I loved the space. When Mark asked me to leave my position as Production Manager at Amy’s Bread to be the Head Baker at The Patisserie, I agreed.
I baked baguettes, ciabatta, miche, focaccia and brioche daily, along with seasonal loaves based on ingredients local farmers dropped off. I had one bread mixer and not a lot of time to get everything mixed, shaped and baked before the customers arrived. While the French dough was mixing, I used plastic tubs to mix the ciabatta and focaccia by hand.
The focaccia was the simplest of all the recipes. It didn’t require a preferment or starter or mother or levain, all baker lingo for dough that needs to be mixed the day before. Instead I squirreled away lumps of fresh focaccia dough for the next day’s loaves. Using old dough helps to add flavor and longevity to the bread. It’s a little less complicated than mixing a preferment.
Amazingly, one can work in a bakery yet, when hungry, starving even, find nothing to eat. I quickly discovered, or maybe Mark discovered, these lumps of old dough made great pizza crust. Using the dough to make focaccia the day it’s mixed, yields a thick, airy crust that we topped with a few fresh slices of tomato and basil leaves. When the dough is refrigerated overnight, it can stretch ten times its size into a thin, crisp pizza crust. Pizzas became the go-to family meal for the bakery staff. We never sold our pizzas to customers.
I lasted for nearly three years in the country before taking a job closer to civilization in Carlstadt, NJ. At Tribeca Oven, I was responsible for developing and testing bread recipes or ‘formulas’ as we say in the industry. I worked with large retailers and restaurant groups like Target, Wegmans, Whole Foods, Uno’s and Hyatt. HMS Host was one of the biggest accounts. If you eat a sandwich in an airport or at a stop on the Jersey Turnpike, the bread was my design!
French dough for baguettes was produced 24/7 in the baking facility. It accounted for 80% of sales. The shaping process created barrels and barrels of scrap dough called “trim.” It couldn’t be incorporated back into other doughs, like I did with the focaccia in Milford, because the fermentation levels were not consistent enough. When working with major corporations, consistency is the number one priority.
The only major difference between French dough and focaccia dough it that focaccia has olive oil blended in and French dough doesn’t. I pulled trim dough off the production floor and let it rest overnight before turning it into pizzas for the staff the next day. The best part of my job at Tribeca Oven was the steady flow of ingredients vendors wanted me to “test.” These cheeses, veggies and seasonings became the pizza toppings for the week.
Flash forward a couple years to Montclair Bread Company. I can’t remember the first time I made pizza in my bakery space but it was 100% a byproduct of something else I was making and it was undoubtedly for a staff meal. Pizza was never the first goal, until the early days of the running club, when I mixed focaccia dough to use for pizzas served at our leadership team meetings. Anne Arthur became an expert in pizza dough stretching and topping. In the months between our meetings, we plotted the toppings for the next month.
Sweet Potato, Blue Cheese & Bacon
Short Rib, Sauteed Onions & Peppers
Asparagus, Corn & Ricotta
Proscuitto, Peas & Caramelized Onion
As the club grew and we designed the membership structure, we opened our monthly pizza sessions up to all the members. In the beginning, before there were 250 members, everyone was able to make their own pizzas with toppings I prepared. After a few of these pizza parties, I realized we could offer pizza making to the general public and I designed a doughnut decorating/pizza party for children’s birthdays.
It wasn’t until three years later, when the MBCo patio became a destination and musicians were scheduled for Friday nights, pizza first appeared for sale on our menu….ten years after I first baked pizza in Milford, PA.
Why the pizza story today? Pizza has become such a huge part of the bakery’s life force that I have commissioned a wood-fired pizza oven to be built for the patio space. Pizzas will be made outdoors, in a beautiful copper domed oven with clay stones imported from France, constructed by a small family-owned company in Maine. This oven has been my dream since I first laid eye on it, six years ago. I’m finally taking the plunge. I put the deposit in the mail today.
Monday, October 15th After a long activity-filled weekend, it was nice to have a quiet leisurely morning before heading to PT. At my therapy session today, I continued to work on single leg squats, lunges and core strengthening. Dr. C told me I’ve progressed beyond the scope of my injury and I’m currently doing all the same exercises he would assign to any weak runner. No one thought I would be in this place for another 4-5 weeks.
After lunch, I went to see Anna at Powerhouse Tattoo. I wanted her to create a positive reminder that this crazy thing happened. My friend Allison once told me that my business strategy - giving my staff creative control and allowing them to take ownership - is like that of a peacock, always leaving beauty in its wake. It resonated with me and I spend a lot of time thinking about that peacock when I’m feeling anxious.
When I was in elementary school, my grandmother would take me to visit her parents. They lived a couple miles away, down a windy country road with no visible neighbors. They had an acre or two of land where they grew fruits and vegetables for the family and a trellis supporting clusters of grapes my grandmother turned into jelly every fall. My great-grandfather was a milk man, delivering dairy to doorsteps, before it fell out of style. His Model-T Ford was parked in his garage. My great-grandmother was a teacher in a one room school house until she retired. She was also an expert in caning chairs. She always had a project in the works…soaking cane in basins, chairs turned upside down on the porch. Going to visit them was like stepping back in time.
Aside from the grapes, my great-grandfather’s napkin animals (his bunnies were the best!) and his harmonica playing skills, what I remember most about visiting the farmhouse are the peacocks that roamed the yard. They were often in the giant oak tree perched on a branch. They never showed their feathers…they were always dragging behind them in a tight coil. I do remember, they would create quite a ruckus, chattering back and forth to each other.
When I mentioned peacock to Anna, she was all over it. I wanted to her include a few Pennsylvania Dutch influenced flowers to give a little nod to my childhood. She has a way with colors and flowers. I saw the design for the first time, minutes before Anna made it a permanent fixture on my thigh, the thigh that was slammed against the pavement two months ago. Now, when I look down, I’ll know this accident WILL leave beauty in its wake. I WILL be strong again and I WILL NOT take life for granted.
Tuesday, October 16th Yesterday at PT, I realized most of the exercises I completed were the same as what I would do in a group class at Architect Studios. This morning, I got up at 5am to attend Adrienne’s HIIT class. I wasn’t sure how much I would be able to do but, having joined her after several other progressions back from minor injuries, I was too familiar with modifications. Thankfully, this particular class focused on body weight. I was able to keep up with the group and make it through to the end. It felt almost normal.
I didn’t have much time to shower and reassemble myself before it was time to drive to Hyde Park, NY for the Culinary Institute of America’s career fair. This was my longest car ride, or length sitting in one position.
Students in the Baking and Pastry program are only given a total of six weeks out of a two year program to learn about breads. When I enrolled in the program, I wanted to make fancy wedding cakes, just like my grandmother. I think 98% of the students enrolled for the same reason - the showmanship. The program was set up as a progression. The students move through a series of classes, three weeks at a time, starting with Hearth Breads & Rolls. Everyone dreaded the bread class. Yeast is scary. It was simply a stepping stone to move on to something more fun, like Chocolates & Confections.
When I walked into Bakeshop 6, it smelled like my grandma’s basement - damp, yeasty, earthy. Chef Nick Greco was so passionate about fermenting flour, it was impossible not to get excited. Each of us created our own sourdough that we fed and nurtured for two weeks until we were able to use our culture to create a loaf of bread. I was hooked! I decided then and there, I wanted to be a bread baker. Fancy cakes are great but they’re only a part of someone’s life for a special occasion. Bread is everyday life…toast in the morning, a sandwich at lunch, on the table at dinner. Being a bread baker would allow me to be a part of my community every, single, day.
Returning the the Culinary Institute of America reminds me of the reasons I chose this life. It makes me forget the angry customers, the staffing issues and the equipment repairs. It inspires me to return to the basics and bake better bread.
Wednesday, October 17th - This morning, Brad and I woke up in Poughkeepsie and drove up route 9 to Rhinebeck where we turned to head across the river into Kingston. When I was a student at the CIA, I navigated this course at 2am, almost every day. I continued past Kingston and up Route 28 to Boiceville, where I snuggled in next to the bakers to shape as many loaves of bread as they would allow before my shift as a barista started.
Three weeks in bread class wasn’t enough to learn all I wanted to know. I needed more. I asked Chef Greco what I could do. He sent me to his friend Dan Leader who owned Bread Alone Bakery. When I met with Dan, he told me there was no work for bakers, he had a strong team already in place. He had an opening for a barista, which I happily took. That’s when I started driving an hour every morning to arrive at Bread Alone, four hours before my retail shift started.
I nudged my way in between the bakers and tried to keep up. The bakery smelled like yeast and toast. Reggaeton blared over the speakers. The team worked to the beat to keep pace. They could shape eight loaves in the time it took me to shape one. Their hands stayed clean. Mine were covered in tacky dough. After weeks of trying to not make a mess, I finally started to get it right.
Somewhere along the way, I was introduced to Sharon, Dan’s business partner. Sharon was the life force of the bakery. She ran the business end but that was just the beginning. She handled all the large catering orders, trained the staff, participated in community events, developed new recipes, figured out delivery routes and logistics for farmers markets…she really did it all. She called on me for help from time to time and I did anything and everything she asked, just to have a little time learning from this amazing woman.
Nearly fifteen years later, I’m still learning from Sharon. We spend a week together in Maine at a Kneading Conference most summers. Last summer, she taught me how to take my pizza dough to the next level and egged me on when I told her I wanted my own pizza oven. She recently visited my bakery to see how I handle my doughnut production. It was the biggest compliment I’ve gotten in my professional lifetime.
Sharon gave Brad and I a tour of her new baking facility in Kingston. Three years ago, when she opened, the bakery had more space than she could have dreamed but she’s already outgrown it. It’s comforting to know we all have the same struggles with space and time.
Thursday, October 18th When I was pregnant with my daughter Josie, I gained 85 pounds. Truth be told, I was a solid 110 soaking wet, before my pregnancy…the annoying girl who could eat an entire chocolate cake and lose 10 pounds. Morning sickness took its toll and I lost weight during my first trimester. Then, Ronnybrook Dairy opened across the hall from Amy’s Bread in Chelsea Market, where I was working. I drank a quart of their chocolate milk nearly everyday.
My midwife told me I needed to stop eating bread (and drinking chocolate milk) because my weight gain was excessive. Instead, I developed a bread recipe that would support a healthy pregnancy and included all the vitamins and nutrients she told me I needed to eat. I included black strap molasses for iron, flax for omega-3’s, pumpkin seeds for B vitamins and potassium and currants for vitamin C, magnesium, more B vitamins. The loaves were made with 100% whole grain flours. I had the recipe certified by the Cleveland Clinic with their seal of approval for healthy foods. Five years after I developed the Currant Seeded Bread, I competed in the America’s Best Raisin Bread Competition and it won the Grand Prize!
As I struggle to keep my weight at a normal level with less activity, I crave this bread. During the last couple months, I’ve wanted to be strong enough to bake a batch but I wasn’t quite ready. Today, I lifted a 50 pound bag of flour…or six of them to be exact. The whole wheat flour bin was empty and the bag I needed was buried under a stack of five other bags.
I mixed the sourdough biga and scaled the ingredients. Everything is prepped and ready to go for a Friday bake!
When I returned home from the bakery, I carried my laundry down two flights of stairs to the basement. The flour bags and the laundry process were two major obstacles standing in my way of returning to full functioning. At this point, the only thing I really can’t do is run.
Friday, October 19th I pushed myself to my limit today. I’m not sure what I was thinking. In addition to my currant seeded bread, I set up a croissant dough test yesterday to be completed today. I greatly underestimated the amount of time it would take me to finish these doughs because, at the same time, I had to prepare for our open house at the Montclair Running Company.
I woke up around 5am, made coffee, sat at home and worked on the computer for a couple hours. At 7am, I went to the bakery to mix the seeded dough and assess the croissant situation. I pulled butter out of the fridge to soften. At 9am, I drove to the new bakery retail space in Upper Montclair to meet with the electrician. I rushed back to Label Street by 10am to divide my seeded dough into loaves. By 11am, I moved onto laminating the croissant dough. I had to pound the butter flat and roll the dough thin enough to wrap around the butter. Over the next 3 hours, I laminated layers of butter between layers of dough through a series of resting, folding, rolling and repeat. I was working with 25 pounds of butter and dough. It was exhausting.
During this process, around 1pm, I loaded the seeded loaves into the oven. I think that was the also the time I took a break to inhale a meatball sandwich. Once I finished creating the layered dough, it was time to shape it into croissants. I rolled the four inch thick dough down to a sheet that was 3 millimeters thin. I could only handle a small portion of the dough at one time. It spread across my entire work surface where I cut it into triangle which I rolled into croissants…36 of them. I repeated this process three more times. I finished the last croissant at 4:30pm, ran home, showered off the flour and made it back to he bakery just in time to set up for the event at the running store.
The first runners arrived at 5:30pm. While I was busy tending to my dough, Brad was cleaning, stocking and organizing the running store. Miraculously, we were set up for sales, just in time. Over the next three hours, Brad and I enjoyed a ‘relaxing’ evening chatting with running friends about our plans to complete the Running Co. space and the new inventory we’re stocking.
We made it home just in time to beat the food delivery I ordered for dinner. I went to bed the second after I took the last bite. It was a long day.
Saturday, October 20th Not a day goes by without a note from a kind-hearted soul. So many people have reached out to share their injury and recovery stories with me. Even more have shared relatable stories about people in their lives. I read every word and I am grateful for every well wish, even if I don’t have a quick response. Your cards, your emails, text messages and notes on social media have been instrumental in my recovery process. Some are from people I hardly know, some are from people I haven’t spoken to in years, and some are from people I see every day.
I’m keeping this recovery journal public in hopes that someone going through a similar situation will find comfort knowing they are not alone. It helps me communicate my feelings, mental and physical, with the outside world. The word, ‘inspiration', is thrown in my direction often but all of your well wishes are the real inspiration. Your kindness inspires me to be a better, kinder person and to stay connected with my community here and communities I’ve left behind over the years. I will be forever grateful for your thoughtful support.