Have you ever baked popovers?
…for 120 people?
Not easy. Especially not when you are doing so once a week for 2 months. Especially not when 60 of those 120 people have been coming to the HF Bar Ranch for over six decades, and have high expectations for their popovers. Golden brown, but not too dark. Eggy, but not too dense. Don’t let them collapse. And make sure they come out of the pan clean. I can’t blame them; good popovers are SO good. Bad popovers are shameful.
Popovers are made from four ingredients. Eight ounces whole milk, four ounces eggs, four ounces flour, and a teaspoon of salt will yield you four popovers. When the oven is preheating to 425 degrees, put in the HEAVILY buttered popover tins (empty), allowing them to heat significantly before pouring the batter. When the batter is poured into hot fat, the act of popping over in the oven takes on more aggressive flair. They should bake at 425 degrees for about ten minutes, then drop the heat to 350 degrees until they are a deep golden color, like that of an Eggo waffle. Slather them in butter before serving them, still warm.
160 popovers requires 320 ounces of milk. If you can do math properly, 160 popovers also requires 160 ounces of eggs. And 160 ounces of flour. And 40 teaspoons of salt. And a mixing bowl the size of a bomb crater. And a whisk that slightly resembles the Olympic Torch.
Baking for large quantities of people (successfully) makes you feel like you can conquer the world. When 160 servings of carrot cake come out of the oven in fluffy yet dense perfection, at 2 o’clock in the morning, for an 80th birthday bash the following day, after previously attempting and failing two other recipes, you cry a little bit. Anyone would.
I was never a big creator of things. Writing has always been my creative outlet. But I was never a knitter or a painter or sculptor, not a beader nor a bedazzler. My homemade birthday cards were decent, but the art on them was always questionable. I didn’t make things to give to people that people could ACTUALLY get excited about. I had only just started cooking every meal for myself the year prior, which I enjoyed enough.
I thought my time at the HF Bar would be spent leading trail rides and working with the herd of 200 horses that the wrangling staff was in charge of. Those plans changed when I had a minor accident on the fifth morning of the job, resulting in a month-long hiatus from Wyoming and a ten-inch titanium plate holding my left humerus together. But that’s another story.
This whole world of high-volume, high-stakes baking was thrilling. I could almost pretend that a soccer announcer was narrating my job. “Is she going to drop that kiddie pool-sized pan of sloshy bread pudding while trying to get it in the oven? She looks like she has it under control…uh oh, she’s shaking a little bit…the custard is jiggling…a bead of sweat drips from under her bandana…she’s lifting to the top rack…the bathtub of bread pudding looks like it is stable…GOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!”
10-hour work days were broken up by a break from 2 to 4. Naps, short runs or hikes, trips into town, anything we did in those two hours made it easier to return to the kitchen for dinner prep and service at 4. A playlist stacked with Cher, Madonna, Shania Twain and Avril Lavigne pulsed through the kitchen as the guys worked the line, serving plates of food with the grace of ballerinas and the ferocity of Wall Street stockbrokers.
Few of us had ever worked in a professional kitchen before. Oddly enough, jumping off the deep end and learning along the way was the most satisfying way to get involved in the food service industry. Once we all figured out that we could understand how to follow recipes, and learned the techniques that accompanied them, each day brought a new small success.
By the end of the summer, I was thankful that I had broken my arm. Falling off my horse and landing the baking job ended up being quite the happy accident. I felt blessed with the opportunity to learn a new set of skills, and enjoyed being thrown right into the middle of the creative insanity that is a commercial kitchen. Here’s hoping that summer 2019 brings new recipes, more high quality popovers, and no reconstructive orthopedic surgery.