The Floury Art

No one who knew him before he went to college can understand how Keeley O'Donnell became a baker. He doesn't come from a particularly culinary family - his father and grandfather are both meat-and-potatoes men who only eat fish if it's been fried, and his grandmother never met a vegetable or piece of protein that she couldn't overcook. His mother is not a bad cook, but neither is she an inventive one, and Keeley did not learn anything from her except that cooked carrots taste better covered with butter and brown sugar.

But his meat-and-potatoes grandfather used to build little ships in bottles, and his mother who can only do two things to ground beef - hamburgers or meatloaf - knitted hats and mittens for Keeley and his older sister when they were younger. The talents of the O'Donnells, such as they are, run more to the crafty than the artistic, and while no one besides Keeley is culinarily inspired, neither are they entirely creatively pedestrian.

Baking is an art, he says, and on top of everything else he is or does, Keeley is an artist. He has a degree in fine arts - glassblowing and stained glass - and he plays the fiddle in a Celtic folk band, and the one inheritance from his family that they can understand, although he has refined it, is his ability to make things beautiful.

Besides, baked goods make people happy, and he likes having that kind of responsibility. Fresh bread, blueberry scones, lemon-poppyseed loaf - these things bring people joy as much as a well-played reel, and there is beauty in a stack of brownies or a loaf of wheat bread just as there is beauty in a hand-blown perfume bottle or a paperweight with blue and green strands in its heavy glass heart.

Every morning is a new opportunity to make things he likes - sourdough bread, cheese scones, snickerdoodles - to test and refine his floury, yeasty art, and he makes himself remember these many joys on early mornings as he drives, half-awake, to the bakery that has helped him pay his bills for the past several years.

Keeley is not much of a morning person, but most days it is not too difficult to get out of bed, get dressed, make some tea, kiss his boyfriend Tristan good morning and goodbye, and drive to work in the dark. He checks the bulletin board in the kitchen for notices - ingredients they need, ingredients they need to use up, notes from the counter employees or the other baker or the owner. He checks his sourdough starter, believing as he does that you can never have too much sourdough, and sometimes Avi has left him a mound of slow-rising dough from the night before, just to get him started, and after he has looked over his supplies and his tools, Keeley ties a bandanna over his curly hair and starts on breakfast.

He always makes brioche and cinnamon buns and coffee cake and cheese scones - the cheese scones don't sell that well but he can't help himself - he makes three kinds of muffins, cranberry-orange scones and plain scones with raisins, and if he has enough time he'll make cheese danish or sticky pecan buns.

And he makes bread, of course, mixing ingredients and kneading the dough and letting it rise and punching it back down before dividing it and baking it - white, wheat, raisin, oatmeal, his favorite sourdough. He makes potato bread and French baguettes and braided challah with and without raisins, which technique he learned from Avi, the other baker. He makes banana bread, zucchini bread, pumpkin bread in season; Irish soda bread, round rustic loaves with crust a quarter of an inch thick, soft white rolls, Italian rolls with olives, foccaccia with rosemary and caramelized onions.

Keeley loves baking bread - bread is simple and delicious and versatile. He likes the physicality of kneading the dough, he likes the fact that once you have a good basic recipe you can do anything. He likes the fact that bread is easy to make, but it takes dedication and practice and love to do it well.

He bakes what he can in the time he has, and if the breakfast crowd is thin enough - and the remaining baked goods enough to carry over until lunch - he goes home for a couple of hours, usually just to see his boyfriend and nap. He doesn't get much time at home, considering he has to drive from the bakery and back, and when he returns to work, the first thing he does is make sure no one touched anything or threw anything out while he was gone. He has been at the bakery long enough to consider the kitchen his, and he is as particular as any other artist about his space and his tools.

He bakes more bread in the afternoons, but he also makes desserts. Brownies, blondies, carrot cake, chocolate cake, raspberry-lemon pound cake. Sometimes he makes cupcakes, and he bakes cookies - oatmeal raisin, chocolate orange, frosted sugar. Gingersnaps, shortbread, cakey chocolate cookies sandwiched around buttercream frosting. He bakes cookies from cultures not his own - rugelach, matcha cookies, Mexican wedding cookies - and he bakes the fork-marked peanutbutter and Tollhouse and snickerdoodle of his childhood.

By the end of his shift he is always dusted with flour and greased with butter, and sometimes he has managed to burn his hand on a hot pan, and he feels tired but accomplished. He loves his job, as exhausting as it is and as unpleasantly early the first hour and as much as people who have known him all his life look at him sideways and wonder where he picked up his skill in a kitchen. In his more flowery, poetic moments he considers the bakery a temple to flour and yeast and eggs, a studio where he can create and a gallery where he can show his tasty carbohydrate art.