One thing is conspicuous by its absence. Recipes. No one in the mini-pastry factory is consulting measurement lists or wall posters indicating quantities of sugar or butter to be used. Not a single cookbook is in evidence, and yet an impressive variety of products is being prepared here. From breadloaves to “diplomat pudding” (a classic bread pudding made with leftover Danish dough) to carrot cake and blueberry muffins, walnut loaves, bran muffins, and numerous types of cookies.
I ask Mike about this and he says, “Oh, we have recipes around here somewhere.” He guides me to a chest of drawers near the mixer and pulls one out. He rifles through some yellowed pages, some typewritten with inked notes, but most in cramped handwriting. These pages were written long ago and resemble some unearthed ancient manuscripts with a fine silting of dough like exotic desert sand or temple dust. “We never really look at these,” he says. “We’ve got the recipes up here.” He taps his head.
Another absent item occurs to me. No donuts. “Everybody’s on this health kick, I guess,” Mike says. “Besides, we can’t compete with Vons or Ralphs as far as donuts.”
“This health thing is going to blow over,” I assure him.
“Maybe,” he says. But he might also be thinking that Vons and Ralphs aren’t going anywhere.
Mike suggests I talk with Glenn, a tall man with a mustache unfolding what looks like a beige blanket — Danish dough that had been “put up” the night before. He’s worked at Devany’s “on and off for 20 years. Mike’s hired me several times.” Glenn is fortyish; he came to San Diego to “be in the sun,” and worked in a 7-Eleven before being hired by Mike Devany for the first time.
“Well,” I suggest to the laconic baker, “this must be a lot easier than dealing with wackos at 7-Eleven in the middle of the night. I mean, you probably don’t get many wackos in here at 2:00 in the morning, other than me.”
“That’s a fact,” he says. I give him my spiel about the ancient art he is a part of, the tradition, the history nearly as old as mankind and fire, the nobility of baking grain into sustenance. “It’s a job” is all he says, adding, “but, yeah, it may be the second-oldest profession.” As the night wears on, it is evident that it’s more than clock-punching and assembly-line monotony. Glenn enjoys his work at a level you don’t see at the DMV — or 7-Eleven. It is in his hands and the relaxed but focused posture and easy movements that you see it.
Glenn has flattened the sheet of Danish dough and folded it several times. These will become “snail,” “pretzel,” and “pocket” Danish. He sets the sweetened dough on a conveyor belt and then dusts the surface of the belt with dry flour. He unfolds the layers until it is the size of a small-area carpet. He turns on the conveyor belt, and the swatch of “set up” firm batter advances toward the automatic roller that flattens and thins it further. “You see something you’ve started that goes to completion,” he says. “You can see how much you’ve progressed over the course of a shift. It may not be like American television — 30-second satisfaction, you know — but you get a sense of accomplishment that you can see.”
“Are these really the best Danish in town?” I just want to hear what he says. A Danish, I figure, is a Danish. Maybe I’m testing his espirit de corps or the extent of his public-relations sensibilities. Glenn just shrugs. I don’t get the impression he cares that much what I think. He’s been the “Danish guy” at Devany’s for the better part of two decades and does not appear in a hurry to prove anything. “You compare product with price,” he says simply. “We’re not gonna be beat.”
The baker takes the newly flattened dough, now twice the size of that original area carpet, and lays it out on an adjoining table. He sprinkles water on its surface with his fingers. He then produces a bizarre device: a half-dozen circular pizza slicers on a collapsible frame. He extends the frame and plays the rotating blades over the dough, neatly carving squares to be filled with fistfuls of blueberry, cherry, cream cheese, etc. “This will make about 70 Danish,” he says. He strips away excess dough and tosses it into a bucket where it will be recycled into bear claws or “diplomat pudding.”
It looks easy enough, though I’m not paying close attention. I am studying the plastic canisters of spices to my right: anise, nutmeg, cinnamon, tartar. They are well-handled with floury fingerprints and peeling masking tape identifying the contents. “You wanna try it?” Glenn asks.
“What? Oh, sure.” I take the slicer gizmo and play it over the dough, trying to distribute pressure equally to all the blades. What I accomplish resembles some seriously botched incisions by a drunken surgeon on, say, a wide area of flesh on the back of a fat guy. “Sorry,” I say to Glenn.
“No problem,” he tells me and balls up the odd-shaped bits, then tosses them into the bucket for re-rolling.
“I don’t think I have what it takes,” I tell him.
“Hell, sure you do. Try it again.”
I do it again and this time I manage to get a lot of actual squares the right size. The remaining dough is an acceptable amount, though more than Glenn leaves behind. Now it’s time to fill the squares with fruit filling. Glenn demonstrates the technique.
He grabs a fistful of the gooey fruit in his left hand, squeezes his fingers gently over the individual square. With his right forefinger he makes a swiping motion over his left fist, launching a glob of the stuff onto the center of a single square. He shakes the excess from his left hand over a plastic barrel full of the gelatinous fruit, reaches back in for another handful, and repeats the motion over the next square and the next. This is done with quick, practiced efficiency; he has a tray of filled Danish squares in under a minute. He then folds the four corners of the individual pastries to meet in the middle. This gesture is also done with a factor of zero wasted motion. He invites me to go to work on the next tray.