It’s been about a month since my last post, and while business has been kind of slow, a lot has transpired in that time period. From a broad bakery standpoint, August-into-September was very quiet. Having never been in Antigua during this time of year, I didn’t know in advance that September is the deadest month of the year. From the boom of July, to a moderate pace in August, as I approached September, I could see what people were talking about.
So while the volume of sales wasn’t what I’d seen before, the relative quiet of the time of year allowed for us to innovate in the bakery and look ahead at expanding our menu and variety of offerings.
The middle of August meant that I was losing my trusted summer employees to the resumption of the academic year. I’d interviewed a variety of people over the previous weeks and had a few come in to work a shift and see how they handled things. While kitchen experience wasn’t a requirement, it was preferred. First, I found a guy named Otto, whose wife had reached out to me on Facebook. He’d been working in kitchens in Maine for a while but was now back in Guatemala. While his experience was much more with lobsters than caramel, it seemed like he might be able to adapt to what I do.
But the real coup was finding a guy, randomly via Facebook, who went to pastry school in the States and had experience doing sourdough bread! His name is Jeffrey and we hit it off right away when I interviewed him. Finalizing Otto and Jeffrey both occurred in the same stretch of days, and I looked forward to getting some permanent staff in, having them trained, and starting to take some of the load off of me.
My friends Jay and Jill had earlier invited me to a local French restaurant’s 10th Anniversary dinner. It’s actually a series of dinners, featuring guest chefs, to highlight the restaurant’s milestone. I was excited to have a nice meal out, since it’s not something I normally take the time to do. So you can imagine my surprise when the head chef of Bistro Cinq, Mario, called me the night before and asked how many sourdough loaves he could have the next morning! At that point, there’s no way to have more dough ready to bake. (In fact, I’m already in process on the following day’s bread.) So, while he wanted six loaves, I told him I could only sell him four. I needed to still have some for my regular customers.
When he came in the next morning to pick up the loaves, I told him I was actually going to the dinner that night and was eager to see what he was going to do with my bread. I didn’t ask what course it would be for, as I wanted to be surprised.
As the meal neared the end, my bread appeared! It was such a bizarre experience to be sitting in a fancy restaurant, enjoying a six- or seven-course meal and be served a dish that contains something you made. The tartine was delicious and I loved eating my own sourdough bread in this setting. It was a lovely evening overall, filled with delicious food and lively conversation.
The next day is when the first major “adventure” in my bakery transpired. Jeffrey was in for his first, or maybe second, day. It was mid-morning and we were prepping some babka loaves and a new bar cookie – the Oatmeal Carmelita – for baking. On a typical day, as we do the dishes, we often stash cleaned (but wet) items in the turned-off oven to dry. The residual heat from the morning bake dries them out quickly and saves us both time and space. Normally, it’s just the aluminum sheet pans that we put in there. However, we’ll occasionally stick in the large, white plastic bins and lids used for our bread dough.
On this particular day, however, I had placed one of the plastic lids on the top rack of the oven. Normally, we empty things out pretty quickly since they dry fast. However, on this day, we didn’t. And because of my height, and the position of the shelves, I didn’t see the lid in there when I turned on the oven to pre-heat for the babka.
About fifteen minutes later, Jeffrey said, “It smells like plastic in here.” In mounting horror, I opened the oven to see clear, melted plastic dripping down from the top rack. It looked so much unlike the white plastic lid that I was sure something else had gotten in there? Plastic wrap? But no…it was the lid. Emphasis on WAS.
And so we spent the next four-and-a-half hours cleaning up the mess I’d made. It was a rotating parade of scraping warm plastic off the oven racks as quickly as possible, without getting burned. Then, as the plastic cooled, whatever we couldn’t pry off with pliers went back into the oven to re-melt. It was an entire wasted afternoon. The only upside to having no customers for the last three or so hours of the day is that we didn’t get interrupted. Seidi went down to the tienda to get us ice cream bars midway through. That was the only bright spot.
About thirty minutes after closing, I finally shut the oven off. I could fully scrape it down and declared the racks clear of plastic. What a disaster! And what a welcome to Canela it was for Jeffrey (although he had to leave at noon that day, so he missed most of the “fun” of scraping racks all afternoon).
This bar cookie was a longtime favorite of mine, from when my mom used to make them. I don’t know why it took me two months into running the bakery before I decided to finally make them myself…but I did. (I had made them for Cookie Captain last fall.) An oatmeal and brown sugar crust, topped with homemade caramel sauce, dark chocolate and walnuts – it’s a flavor bomb! The early customers gave it rave reviews on its launch day.
Meanwhile, Friday challah sales continue to be brisk. Christina, a friend, texted me back a picture of her lunch featuring the challah she’d just bought.
Ever since running the ice cream cookie sandwich promotion with Glacy, back in June, I had been planning to do the same thing in the shop. I finally decided it was time! We discussed the ice cream recipes to make, and the cookies to pair them with. I had been saving unsold cinnamon rolls in the freezer, and started off with a cinnamon ice cream base (using a model recipe from one of my favorite new books, “Hello, My Name is Ice Cream” by Publican’s Dana Cree.)
We then decided on a few more flavors: Dark Chocolate and Lime. Next up was finalizing the pairings. I didn’t want to pre-make any of the sandwiches. Doing so would mean frozen, hard cookies. By the time the cookie was soft enough to bite into, the ice cream would have melted. So we’d build them on the spot, with soft cookies right out of the case. And while people could pick and choose, we wanted to have cookie-and-ice cream combos recommended.
I wasn’t sure if people would like the lime-on-lime citrus overdose, but it was the better tasting combo.
Once again, cinnamon-with-cinnamon was the winning combo.
Finally, we had contrasting – but complementary – flavors in a combo. While the chocolate-on-chocolate was tasty, it didn’t come close to the perfect balance between the peanut butter in the cookie and the deep, dark chocolate of the ice cream.
I was excited for us to launch these flavors, which I had scheduled for my birthday. Since I needed to work and be at the bakery on my birthday, I figured this would be a fun way to celebrate! At the same time, we were planning to launch savory sandwiches (or “real” sandwiches, as I was referring to them) the day after. So, Otto, Jeffrey and I made sure everything tasted perfect with our chorizo, cheddar cheese and caramelized onion paninis. Six thumbs up!
The ice cream sandwiches were a resounding hit, and we sold out of both the chocolate and the cinnamon roll ice creams. There was a little bit of lime left over (it was actually a slightly larger batch), but I didn’t mind. More ice cream for me! Based on the volume of sales and positive feedback, I decided I’d continue the ice cream cookie sandwiches as a weekly special.
Meanwhile, on Friday, while we didn’t sell a lot of chorizo paninis on their launch day, the prep and process for making them for customers was pretty streamlined. So, I officially made them a menu item the next day. Next up would be to finalize the vegetarian/vegan version for customers who preferred to eat that way.
On Saturday afternoon, after closing up the shop, I met up with Rache, Kurt and their kids for an early dinner at Ta’Cool. It’s nice to be able to step out of the bakery/house after work, since if I was left to my own devices, I’d probably just relax on the couch every evening. We had a fun time at dinner, especially after the enormous margarita that Rache accidentally ordered arrived.
On Sunday night, I headed over to the Westby house for a Sunday dinner. Soon after arriving in Antigua, Lourdes had told me she’d make me hilachas, a favorite Guatemalan dish of mine, whenever I wanted. I just had to let her know. Well, I finally let her know I’d like to take her up on her hilachas offer, and it turned into an impromptu birthday celebration as well. They decorated the dining room with a few signs, a bunch of funny emoji balloons and other items. We played some games, ate great food, and then had some dessert by combining the cookies and other treats I brought with the ice cream they had. It was a wonderful night and a fun way to celebrate my birthday.
And then, for a third straight night, I went out! That was probably more than in the entire previous month. This time, I headed over to the Hardison’s place for another game night with Bethany, Paul and their sons. Bethany made chili and corn bread, we played ladder ball outside in their yard, and then card games once it got dark. It turns out that they know (and love) a card game that I have enjoyed playing ever since learning it in college. It goes by various names: I learned it first as “Snerts,” from a suitemate in college; played it many, many times in Chicago under the name “Pounce” (with my sister and our close family friends the Blenners); and now enjoyed it again, for the first time since leaving Chicago, as “Nerts.” It’s an active, heart-pounding game and was a fun way to end my singular day off of the week.
The next day, we’d be opening on a Tuesday for the first time. With two employees, and an upcoming two-week break as I traveled to Los Angeles, I felt it was time to make the bakery a six-day-a-week business, which would also give people an opportunity to stock up on my pastries to tide them over. Time would tell if this was a good idea or not!