The Baker’s Magic Hour

2:00 in the afternoon and she’s been on her feet for 10 hours at this point. The coffee and malformed croissant she nabbed off the tray at opening some seven hours ago are long gone, having given up their energy for the morning production. She now faces a prep list of some length. Alone in the kitchen, she pauses to eat. She mindlessly nibbles on a bowl of salad. She spares the washing of the fork by pinching the greens with her bare fingers. She stares into the empty space around her. She tears at pieces of a rough brown loaf and dips them in a small bowl of olive oil left from dressing the focaccia. She is awaiting the second (or third) wind that she’ll need to get through the remainder of the day.

“Are you sure you don’t want us to stay?” asked her coworkers an hour ago. She insisted she would be fine, that she only wanted to get a few things prepped for the morning. There was levain to feed; two cookie doughs to measure out and mix up; one more turn on the croissant dough was required; then the cleaning at the end. Good God, she thought, I’ll be here two more hours! Better get started.

With the dish man gone, she carefully reuses measuring cups and spatulas. Earlier in the day, with the whole scene humming along, people are almost reckless with their use of utensils. The parsimony of the late day is a welcome respite from that frenzy. One worker, one project at a time. There can be found, once again, the joy and the zen that brought her to these ovens in the first place.

The pull of the pile of bills waiting in the office falls away. The thought of writing next week’s schedule takes a backseat to the magic of flour and water in the bowl. There are only the few ingredients before her and the alchemy that heat and time and mixing can bring to them. The point of the business is solely the second word in the name: Bakery. All the other expectations can be set aside for now…for this magic hour in the kitchen.

My Addiction: The Truth Revealed

My name is Jason and I am addicted….to COFFEE.

I have been drinking coffee since I was 16 years old.  (What does that make it now…10 years?  15?  HA!)  In the beginning, I mimicked the way my parents drank it, which was straight up black.  Over the years, I have added more and more cream to it, but never any sugar.  The only time I’ll take it plain is when the only creamer available is powdered.  This abominable concoction is sweet (probably to cover up the chemical taste) and just ruins the coffee for me.

So of course I am writing this with a cup by my side (latte with and extra shot).  This is my second cup of the day.  The first gets administered immediately when I roll out of bed.  The speed at which this coffee is prepared is of the utmost importance.  For more than a decade, I actually heated my milk and water in the microwave and drank instant.  That way I was drinking coffee 90 seconds after getting up.  My coffeemaker right now is a Keurig single-cup brewing system, which requires a seemingly interminable THREE MINUTES to brew a cup.  It does make a remarkably good cup-o-joe, so I put up with the delay.

I have used a wide variety of coffeemakers over the years.  I started with a stovetop percolator in my first apartment which made terrible coffee.  Luckily I was working the breakfast shift in a kitchen so I could have it at work.  I have used a couple of different Melitta drip cone models, but they take too long for me at that hour.  I had an electric espresso machine at one point that made excellent coffee, but it was far too complicated for me before I have had caffeine.  I used a Moka Pot for awhile, the flaw with that one being that I had to operate the stove; open flames that early are problematic.  (Nothing is more brutal than setting off your smoke alarm before your first cup!)  I bought a Neapolitan Pot once and used that briefly, too.  Although not technically complicated, it did involve turning on the stove (see above) and then, unbelievably, grasping the whole, scalding hot contraption from atop the flame and TURNING IT UPSIDE DOWN.  Okay, so that one lasted about a week.  I even own a French Press Pot, but I rarely use it.  It is, though, my favorite way to order coffee when having breakfast at Muse.

There is a major flaw with nearly all of these brewing systems.  You must, annoyingly, clean them before you can use them again.  In the many years that I worked early shifts (i.e. 4:00 am), there was no stopping to clean a coffee pot before I went out the door.  Facing a dirty coffeepot upon awakening is NOT a good way to start the day, let me tell you.  This is what led me to Nescafe Instant.  There was never a dirty pot to clean and I could alter the strength to suit my taste.  I want to make clear that I was not drinking just any instant coffee.  It had to be Nescafe and it had to be from a particular country of origin.  Nestle makes different coffees for different markets.  I learned that the ones manufactured for the U.S. and Canada were not strong enough for me.  In my neighborhood market in Chicago, I was able to buy the Mexican version.  I have also enjoyed jars of this product from Greece, Ivory Coast, Spain and several other locations.

When we travel, one of the most important activities on our first day anywhere is figuring when and where we can get coffee the following morning.  When we are on a cruise, it’s usually easy.  Normally the buffet is open 24 hours.  If not, there is always coffee available somewhere on the ship.  On our summer driving vacations, it can be a bit more complicated.  Sometimes, we have our own coffeemaker in the room.  Sometimes, we have to get up and go out for coffee before the bed-n-breakfast has it ready.  Once, early on in our relationship, we ran into a real coffee snafu.  We checked into a bed-n-breakfast in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.  It was a beautiful room in a lovely, charming inn.  We were informed, upon check-in, that coffee would be available at 8:00 am sharp.  The tone of this declaration clearly left no room for discussion.  8:00, take it or leave it.  We are always awake hours before this, so we set out after dinner to figure out where we could get an early cup.  This charming town has strict zoning laws, so there was no Starbucks.  There was no fast food of any kind…not even an early-opening McDonald’s.  The one coffee shop on the Main Street opened at 10:00 am.  WHAT???  There was a diner in town, but they were closed for the evening and had no sign posted with their hours.  Our AAA guidebook told us they opened at 8:00, but still…so late?  Our conclusion:  There is no coffee available to the public in Niagara-on-the-Lake before EIGHT O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING.  We first found this criminal, then entirely laughable.  It’s an adorable little town, but not really set up for guests like us.

Costa Rica

Our first port on the Pacific Coast was Puntarenas, Costa Rica.  We boarded our plush, Mercedes-Benz bus early in the morning and headed up into the mountains.  After a shopping stop (an unusual placement at the beginning of the day’s tour), we parked in the town of Palmares.  We walked around the town square, complete with a statue of the founding father and a brightly painted gazebo set in lush gardens.  We were far from alone here;  a quick scan of the trees above revealed a nest of brightly colored parrots and a couple of iguanas lazing about on the high branches.  After a tour of the stone church, built by the Conquistadors, we headed back across the mountain range to the Doka Estate coffee plantation.  We got a hands-on trip through the entire process of coffee production…a product near and dear to me.  For the first time in my life, I was able to see coffee beans on the actual bush!  We walked through the facility with our guide and ended up enjoying a delicious lunch in an open pavilion overlooking the fields.  We were served chicken and vegetables, black beans and rice, plantains cooked with butter and palm sugar, as well as coconut bars for dessert.  Of course, there was also all the coffee you could drink.

Our final stop of the day was a the Lankester Botanical Garden.   We arrived to the typical afternoon deluge, only to find we had forgotten our rain ponchos.  The rain eased after just a few minutes and we were able to join the tour.  The specialty here is orchids.  We saw literally hundreds of different types, with blooms ranging in size from the width of your thumbnail to that of your entire hand.  The scent was intoxicating.  One plant even had the aroma of chocolate!  This garden is also home to families of scarlet macaws and cockatoos.  They love the rain and made quite a racket during the storm.  We boarded the bus one final time and made the perilous journey back to the ship.  Many of the roads were really only one lane wide.  Sometimes cut from the sheer rock face of the mountainside, there were rarely guard rails or painted edge lines.  There were several moments when one side of our bus gave up a collective gasp as we rounded a particularly treacherous bend.