In the baking lab at Algonquin College

HANDS-ON FOOD SAFETY

By Danielle Blais

After much deliberation and a few setbacks, I found myself holding a piece of paper that said I had been accepted by Algonquin College. The first time I applied, insufficient money prevented my entry; the second time, I was offered a winter term, but with only a month to get everything in order, I felt rushed. They like to say that the third time is the charm and so it was for me.

I chose to follow a long-held passion – I began at Algonquin College this September in the baking and pastry arts program. In my first term I had four courses – theory, shop management and sanitation, communications and practical baking. Those first few months in the baking lab provided a great opportunity to learn what to do and what not to do in the lab or workplace, to ensure safety and good health on the job.

Danielle Blais looks into the rotating oven that not only bakes but heats the baking lab and an adjacent lab at Algonquin College to uncomfortably high temperatures. Photo: Julia Smith

Danielle Blais looks into the rotating oven that not only bakes but heats the baking lab and an adjacent lab at Algonquin College to uncomfortably high temperatures. Photo: Julia Smith


We actually started in the baking lab before we had our first sanitation class, but I think you learn a lot from experience and the first day alone provided that. When you walk into the baking lab, the first thing you notice is a large rotating oven at the back of the class. Once on, it heats not only the room but the baking lab beside it as well. This can cause problems, as one of my classmates found out. She was lucky – she noticed her vision going blurry and sat down.

However, another classmate was not so lucky. She doesn’t remember going to the bathroom but remembers going to our teacher and telling him that she didn’t feel good; then she blacked out, falling and hitting her head on a wooden table. Both women reacted to sudden changes in temperature. In this case, the students went from the chilly winds of September to the roaring heat of the oven.

It is very different baking at home compared with baking in the lab, where there are people running around fetching hot pans and sharp knives. Students sometimes find themselves too busy to take a simple drink of water. In the five-hour baking lab that takes place twice a week, we normally have a half-hour break midway, but there are days when we work straight through.

Some of the designs on lemon meringue pies created by baking students practising their piping skills using two different tips, a star tip and a regular circle tip. Photo: Danielle Blais

Some of the designs on lemon meringue pies created by baking students practising their piping skills using two different tips, a star tip and a regular circle tip. Photo: Danielle Blais


You must also be aware of what you’re baking. Many people suffer from allergies and intolerances: peanut allergies and gluten intolerances are common. One of my classmates is allergic to walnuts but not peanuts, while another is allergic to chocolate.

I find that the key is awareness – of yourself, your classmates and your potential clients. This is never more apparent than when you create and handle a baked product. In the sanitation class, we learn proper food- handling skills – for instance, the proper way to keep what we refer to as “potentially hazardous food” (food that, if not treated properly, can make you mighty sick). The first thing you want to do is keep everything at the right temperature. The range known as the danger zone starts at 4°C and ends at about 60°C; anything under 4°C will allow harmful bacteria to stay dormant, whereas temperatures over 60°C should kill off anything harmful. That is why it is important to cook things properly and to the right temperature. In the lab we handle three of these items – butter, milk and eggs. Butter is the least harmful if kept right. Once mouldy, though, it is wise to throw it out as mould can penetrate up to two inches in a product. Milk can be dangerous and should be refrigerated at all times. Most bakeshops use powdered milk, as it keeps longer and can be rehydrated quickly. Eggs, however, are notorious for salmonella and should be handled with the utmost care. There are two ways that you can get sick from eggs – improper cooking and cross contamination. Where I work, when I make an egg sandwich, I crack an egg and then cook it quickly. I change gloves frequently and after each sandwich, I clean my workplace and knives.

Despite the long hours and the hot, chaotic baking lab, I have to say that I am enjoying the challenge of learning new baking techniques while creating a safe and healthy work environment and a product that people can enjoy. I love learning and I love my program.

Danielle Blais, who has previously written for the Glebe Report, is currently a student at Algonquin College in the Baking and Pastry Arts program.

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