#503 Hot Sugar

Praline SconesOf all the items on my weekly prep list, the praline is my least favorite. While the rest of my daily baker duties keep me tied to a claustrophobic three square feet of kitchen that contains my work table and my oven, I enjoy nearly every other minute. I jokingly hiss at the line cooks through a cooling rack as they greedily grab my pans of biscuits and sometimes chat with the revolving menagerie of prep chefs who claim workspace next to my own. I talk cheese with one young cook who mongers on the side; I learn the entire plot to Space Jam from my neighbor as he whittles away at broccoli; I commiserate about without words with a short Mexican who breaks down hot rotisserie chickens with a chef’s knife and his fingers.

I squeeze by the other cooks to lug the oversized bowl of the Hobart mixer over to my table to scoop out a mountain of living  focaccia dough from its fat belly onto my work surface. I shape the dough into two dozen round beige balls that reek of yeast and rosemary. I make brief trips around the kitchen to grab chilled cookie dough from the walk-in, carry teetering piles of pans and baking sheets to the dishwasher, and lug 50 pound bags of flour up from the basement storeroom to refill my bins. In the narrow kitchen, each action is planned for efficiency, and each step away from my table is an adventure in navigating errant knives and hot pans.

I am not a trained cook or baker–I landed the gig because I was available and the restaurant was desperate. A few months of teaching myself to bake bread at home served as the only transferable skill on my resume. After a few weeks of training, I find the rhythm and workload satisfying.  The constant stimulation of staccato kitchen callbacks and the combined smells of ginger and korma and freshly baked bread breaks me out of a listless state that has plagued me for months. I expend nearly all my energy at work and collapse into a sticky heap of exhaustion onto our living room couch at the end of each work day.

I look forward to nearly every task on my prep to-do list, except for the praline. I like my little corner of the kitchen, but when making the praline I have to haul my ingredients to the stovetop on the line to melt the sugar. Sometimes I have to boot cooks away to claim a burner. I watch impatiently wanting to get back to my assigned station as the ingredients morph from sandy brown sugar to a rolling caramel-colored boil as I wait for the thermometer to read just the right temp so I know the sugar has caramelized.

Pouring the praline is a two person job as the pan I melt heaps of brown sugar and a brick of butter into is the size of a child’s wading pool. It’s a hard thing for me to ask for help in general, but I have learned over the course of my life that most people are happy and even eager to lend their expertise or a helping hand.

That is, except for when it comes to pouring molten sugar from a giant pot onto three large cookie sheets.

When I need help pouring my praline, my prep cook buddies disappear into their chopping, cleaning, and cooking suddenly too occupied to help. I quickly learn to find the kitchen manager to help me as it is impossible for him to say no without sacrificing a substitute from lower down the hierarchy. He’s always game. But as a hot sugar pourer, he makes me nervous. A chef’s jacket buzzing with kinetic energy, he seems destined to destroy my hands with a caramelized coat of hot sugar as he erupts into song and dance. But against all odds, the pour goes well every time.

Until the one day it doesn’t.

The feeling of hot sugar on my skin is not what I imagine. The hot candy doesn’t coat my whole hand in a painful glove producing a comically skinless fist and a perfect candy shell mold of my hand. Only a small amount  of praline catches on the lip of the pot and transfers to my finger as the kitchen manager pours completely unaware of my pain. It dribbles, then sticks. Accustomed to all manner of kitchen burns by the time I finally feel hot sugar, I don’t cease spreading the praline mixture out onto the pans until I have ensured I have enough for the week’s scones. I am not about to ask for help with a second batch.

By the time I am able to run cold water over the burn the mixture has already cooled into candy–as I peel it away everything beneath feels raw. Like every other kitchen wound I bandage it up and continue with the rest of the day’s work.

Due to relocation, my baking career only lasts a year. While the rest of my kitchen burns are now merely white specks barely discernible from the rest of my skin, the scar from the hot sugar remains raised and puffy and somewhat numb. I catch myself running my thumb across the line of it absent-mindedly when I am bored or listless.  After a handful of years away from the kitchen, the feeling of hot sugar doesn’t burn any longer. It feels like a battle scar and even a sweet memory.

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