To say that these final two weeks of renovations have been a whirlwind is the understatement of the century (at least in our little corner of the universe). Lately, the Chef and I have become overwhelmed by details -- the types of lightbulbs we'll use, the very specific dimensions of the menu board, whether we should print "cola" or "cane cola" under the beverage portion of the printed menus. Simply put, I spent the first five hours of this past Tuesday hanging and rehanging artwork (are they straight this time? do we like the frames set at this height? or this height?) and ended the evening in tears as we debated (screamed?) about whether our non-meat loving customers would prefer to order vegetarian braised meatballs, veggie braised balls, "veggie" balls, or some other combination of the three. Sigh. And yet, while the details continue to consume us, whether we like it or not, we're scheduled to open next week.
I should tell you about the to-do lists. We've got them everywhere right now. Everywhere. Stuffed into the pockets of our jeans. Saved as notes in our cell phones. Sent back and forth as emails. Written in our individual Moleskins. Scribbled across the giant whiteboard we've kept tilted against the front wall in the shop. Taped along the dashboard of my car.
Our individual thought processes have become frighteningly fragmented and spontaneous. It has become common for one of us to jolt up in the middle of the night, turn on the bedside lamp, and frantically jot a reminder on a scrap of paper before tumbling back to sleep (did anyone remember to order the new t-shirts or the revised business cards?). Or, in the middle of an otherwise normal conversation, to blurt out an unrelated detail about the shop. (Yeah, so you and Daddy are planning to drive to the -- crap, when are the drink dispensers scheduled to arrive? What's that? Sorry. I was totally listening. I swear...)
Earlier this week, as I stood in the center of (what will soon be) our dining room, shifting my gaze back and forth between the notes on the white board and the to-do list on my phone, the details finally got the best of me. How on earth would the three of us get it all done in time for our opening next Friday? Forget that. How would the three of us get it done at all?
Despite all the details we'd already tended to in the past month, there was still admittedly a seemingly endless amount that needed our attention. All around me, unpacked boxes were still stacked on the counter; the kitchen equipment had not yet been set in its permanent place; piles of cardboard rest lifelessly all over the space; the tiles were still in desperate need of a mop and broom; the custom lighting fixtures were still packed in boxes on the floor. Although we've known how we've wanted the shop to look since the first day we set foot in the space, standing there among the mess we've created these last few weeks made it feel somewhat impossible to imagine that anything substantial would come at the end of all this.
Considering our current levels of both physical and mental exhaustion, you'd probably think that embarking on a four-hour baking project less than a week before our opening would be the furthest thing from my mind. However, after dealing with wiring issues, prepping for our health inspection (which we passed...yah!), and learning to love our bright orange bottle of Goo Gone, the thought of becoming lost in a baking project actually sounded like a sort of mini retreat.
It's pretty well known among my family and friends that I have both an insatiable sweet tooth and a constant craving for bread, meaning you can often find me in our home kitchen greasing up a cookie sheet or waving around flour-caked hands. Late night cravings aside, one of the reasons I've long loved baking, however, is because of the process behind it. For me, there is something strangely meditative about setting out on a complicated baking project. When it comes to savory dishes, I almost never read recipes, instead just tossing in a handful of whatever herbs I have on hand, or adding a few glugs of oil or wine at my choosing. But with baking, it's all about the details, the precision of the measurements and the fact that, if you want to turn out something impressive at the end, you must tune out everything around you, concentrate on the specific task at hand, and follow the recipe (very carefully) one step at a time.
And so this week, just as I felt like I was about to lose my sanity while contemplating the merits of various commercial-sized garbage bins, I found myself being saved by a baguette. By a very good baguette as it turns out. One that is slowly steamed, sending a comforting aroma throughout your house, and giving the loaf a crisp golden crust, while preserving an interior that is ideal for sopping up a puddle of olive oil or a quick tomato sauce.
At first, this recipe feels extremely complicated and overly detailed; however, upon closer inspection, you can see that all those details are really just a series of very simple steps. If tackled one at a time, I continued to remind myself, eventually those steps would lead to something worthwhile.
Although it is hard for me to believe, the next time I sit down to write a post for this site, it will not be about our renovations. By then, all the to-do lists will be checked off and complete. Instead, I'll be writing about our opening weekend, the one we've been anticipating for months (or, depending on where you feel a dream really begins, the one we've been anticipating for many years).
Thank you for joining me on this renovation journey these last few weeks. Next week begins a new journey -- one that details our first full year of operation. I hope you'll continue to stop by to see what these next 52 weeks will bring. In the meantime, I hope that you, too, will find some simple and worthwhile comforts in your kitchen and, perhaps, in a loaf of fresh bread.
Four Hour Baguette
- 1 1/2 cups tap water, heated to 115 degrees
- 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 3 1/4 cups flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
- canola oil (for greasing bowl)
- 1/2 - 3/4 cup ice cubes
Whisk together the water and the yeast in a large bowl. Allow to sit until the yeast is foamy and begins to smell like yeast/bread, about 10 minutes.
Add flour to the yeast and stir with a fork until all flour is absorbed and a dough forms. Allow dough to sit, about 20 minutes. Add salt to dough, gently pressing it into the dough. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead until elastic, about 10 minutes. The dough will be quite sticky; when needed, add more flour to the work surface and to your hands in order to knead more efficiently. Form the dough into a ball and transfer to a lightly greased bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in a cold oven in order to allow the dough to double in size, about 45 minutes.
Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface. Shape the dough into an 8"x6" rectangle. Fold the 8" side toward the middle of the rectangle, then fold the shorter sides toward the center. Return the dough, seam side down, to the greased bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and return to oven until the dough doubles in size, about 1 hour.
Remove the bowl from the oven. Place a clean cast iron skillet on the bottom rack of the oven. Position another rack above the skillet and place a baking stone on it. Heat oven to 475 degrees.
Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and cut into three equal pieces. Shape each piece into a 14" rope. Flour a sheet of parchment paper and place on a baking sheet. Place the dough ropes, evenly spaced, onto the floured paper. Lift and gently crease the paper in between each rope in order to form pleats. Place two tightly rolled kitchen towels under the long edges of the paper in order to create support for the loaves. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow to sit until the dough doubles in size, about 50 minutes.
Remove the plastic wrap and the towels and flatten the creases on the parchment paper in order to space out the loaves. Using a sharp paring knife, slash the top of each baguette at 30-degree angles in four spots, being cautious to slash (and not tear) the dough. Slide the parchment paper (with the dough still evenly spaced on top of it) onto the baking stone. Place the ice cubes in the skillet and close the oven door in order to allow steam to immediately form. Very carefully (to avoid steam burns) open the oven door approximately every 10 minutes in order to add more ice cubes (there should always be steam in the oven to avoid the loaves burning). Bake for a total of 30 minutes.