I'll Bite

Remembering a great Charlotte baker

George Schmaren advises student Tony Kweider (right) in his Baking I class at CPCC in 1996.
George Schmaren advises student Tony Kweider (right) in his Baking I class at CPCC in 1996. Observer files/Chris Record

I was so sorry to hear of the death of George Schmaren on Tuesday night. Built like a flour keg with a wicked sense of humor, George was one of the first culinary instructors I got to know. When I first started covering food for The Observer in the 1990s, George took the time to help me figure out what I was doing. We used to judge baking contests together. After we turned in our score cards, I would get George to walk me through the entries and show me what he saw.

It was endlessly instructive: George was like the pastry equivalent of a wine master. He could look at a single slice of cake and tell you everything from the oven temperature to the type of flour to how long the baker had beaten the batter. Just by looking at it.

In 1996, I wrote a profile of George and his mastery of the craft of both baking and teaching. I hope his former students enjoy taking another look at it. He loved you guys. Seriously.

10/23/1996

THE DEAN OF DOUGH

FOR CPCC'S GEORGE SCHMAREN, TEACHING IS A PIECE OF CAKE

On the surface, baking is pretty simple stuff. A little flour, a little fat. Some milk, a couple of eggs. Pretty soon, you've got a cake.

But look below the surface, where protein bonds into gluten, eggs become emulsifiers and yeast eats and grows.

That's not cake, that's chemistry. And that's where George Schmaren lives.

If there were a professor emeritus of baking in Charlotte, Schmaren would be it. After 56 years in professional baking, he knows his way around dough the way some people know their way around car engines. No recipes, no instruction manuals. No mistakes.

At Central Piedmont Community College, students line up to take his baking classes. They listen hard through his heavy New York accent, wave off his harangues - and absorb every word of his lectures.

"He just learned it from the get-go, " says Bob Boll, head of hospitality education at CPCC. "He was mixing dough before they had dough mixers.

"There's no one like him."

"The single most in demand (cook) in the country is a baking chef. They are now getting more than the cooking chefs." George Schmaren

Wearing checkered chefs' pants and sturdy shoes, a handful of Baking I students are already lined up in the hall when Schmaren gets off the elevator at 9:02 a.m.

"He's worth the wait, " says student Dale Harmon.

In the baking lab, they stow their tools and books under the tall workbenches, then grab folding chairs and sit. Every class starts with a little lecture. They may be first-quarter students, but they've already learned that when Schmaren starts talking, they'd better get comfortable.

Kyron Brown stands at his table so he can see better. But he has a chair ready to go. "If he gets into it, you'll probably see me sitting down."

Schmaren promises a short lecture today. "But I have a few words of wisdom, of course." The 12 students laugh.

Short and stocky, with white hair and thick glasses, he looks for all the world like a Prussian general in a white lab coat. As he lectures, his hoarse accent is thick as a Brooklyn egg cream. He paces back and forth clicking a ball point pen, his pronouncements measured and emphatic. The general reviewing his troops.

"All right. We have some doughs." There is a tall rack of doughs that were made the last time the class met and frozen. "I have a comment about the Danish dough. It's a little tough."

"Why?" the dough-maker asks plaintively. Ah, the debate begins. He walks through the reasons: overdeveloped gluten, perhaps. Not enough liquid, perhaps. The student explains they didn't have enough "techs" - pasteurized commercial eggs that the students call high techs. So they compensated with whole eggs and may have gotten the mixture off.

"Be very careful on development on Danish dough, " Schmaren lectures. "It's a question of richness."

Instructor Jeff LaBarge suddenly dashes in with a student in tow. They've got a problem downstairs in the kitchen. A mealy dough in a tart pan is "running" (shrinking) every time they bake it "blind" (unfilled.)

Schmaren turns to the class first. "Anybody want to answer?" They stare back. He turns back to LaBarge. Put an empty tart pan into the shell, then turn it over and bake it upside down. When it is half baked, turn it back up, remove the empty pan and finish baking it.

LaBarge hurries out and Schmaren turns back to his students. "Come on - why does pie dough shrink?"

"Overworked?" one students ventures. He dismisses that. "Liquid, " he says. "Too much liquid will make a piecrust shrink."

LaBarge and other instructors, even restaurants, call on Schmaren's expertise all the time. Has LaBarge ever seen him stumped?

"No. I don't think it can be done."

"I could have been a doctor, a chemist. But no, they made me a baker."

- George Schmaren

The lecture lasts only an hour today, and then the students break into two-person teams and start working. Rolling out Danish, filling strudels, shaping hard rolls, rolling and folding puff pastry.

Schmaren is everywhere, lecturing on yeast, poking at doughs, taking a long rolling pin from a hesitant student and handling it as easily as Babe Ruth twirling a bat.

All the time, he's spouting information. These little Danish rolls are called snecken, German for snails. Hard rolls shaped with tapered ends are called schpitz.

And all the time, he's lecturing on professional work habits. Don't put your tools on your workbench, store them on a tray in a rack. Workbenches should have only "dust and dough." Don't spread flour all over your workbench. If it isn't under the dough, it's wasted.

"Work left to right, right to left, doesn't matter. But have a system."

Harmon and Tracy Goin get a little history as Schmaren rolls out their first Danish.

"Keep the edges straight. You think mine was straight the first time? I had two left hands. The teacher made me stay after school every day. I never wanted to be a baker."

CPCC's new baking lab, with its convection baking and computerized rack oven, is a long way from Schmaren's first job in a New York bakery when he was a teen-ager. One of his daily tasks was hauling in coal to fire the bread ovens. His first day's pay was an old pecan ring and a bag of rolls.

He was in the bakery only to satisfy his brothers. It was the end of the Depression in Brooklyn. Hard times. Schmaren's mother was always sickly and when he was 16, she died. His father was never around. So Schmaren's two older brothers looked after him. They both worked low-paying jobs in factories. They wanted better for George. They wanted him to learn a trade. So Schmaren brought home a brochure from his high school's vocational program. Tossed it on the table and ran outside to play ball. His brothers looked over the list of classes. Ah, baker.

When George came back in, his future was decided.

"I never thought I'd enjoy it. Just to satisfy my brothers, I went through the motions. And eventually I had to make a decision."

His decision: Stick with baking. "I was making good money already."

He was usually the only American in his baking classes. In those days, most bakers were European. "They'd say, He's American - vat can he know?' "

The world of baking in those days was strict. Bakeries in New York were union shops. There was even division between the mundane bread bakers and the fancy pastry bakers.

"When we (the bread bakers) came in, they would say, Here come the workhorses.' We called them 'sir of sirs.' "

But it was a great place to learn. He stuck with baking through his quartermaster days in World War II (he first came to Charlotte on weekend passes from basic training). Afterward, he used the GI Bill to keep learning - the American Institute of Baking, the John Zenker School of Decorating ("that's where I learned the fancy stuff"), the Maritime course for bakers.

He was not just learning baking, he was learning technology. In those days, teachers focused on the chemistry.

"My strength is the technology of baking. That's why I've survived as long as I have."

He knows his students don't need that kind of experience. "Charlotte's not blessed with apprentice baking positions." This market doesn't have the big bakeries he knew in New York.

"My biggest complaint is why can't we have a good bakery, why can't we have good bread."

But he wants his students to be prepared, to understand the underpinnings of baking.

"I ridicule them. But they don't know how lucky they are. It's a tough business. I know. Because you gotta produce with your hands."

"I find all chefs have a certain ego, and in order to be a good chef, you have to have a little bit of an ego and a little arrogance too. Food is a funny thing. It sucks you in, it pulls you in."

- George Schmaren

Schmaren didn't plan on being a baker. And he didn't plan on being a teacher, either. It just happened.

He had owned seven bakeries in New York and had moved into restaurant management. After coming to Charlotte 26 years ago, he managed a dozen restaurants around the city. In the late '70s, he started helping out with CPCC's programs. Never full time - "I never wanted to get stuck." He just taught a class here and there. But he finally agreed to become a part-time member of the staff in 1977, teaching restaurant management.

Teaching is a chance to give back. Asked to name his heroes, he names teachers. "My instructors were probably my heroes. . . . I'm a product of my instructors."

It runs in the family, apparently. His wife, Lois, retired as a restaurant manager in April. Now she's at CPCC, teaching nutrition. (They have a grown daughter and three grandchildren in Charlotte.)

A past president of the Charlotte chapter of the American Culinary Federation, Schmaren is a familiar face around the city, judging baking and cake decorating contests, helping out at events like the ACF's recent Charlotte Eats! Festival.

At 71, he is supposed to be partially retired - if you could call teaching four-hour Baking I and Baking III classes six times a week partially retired.

"It's not my bag to sit home. I took the summer off, I gained 15 pounds."

Besides, the job is a lot more fun now. He can schedule a little golf, and he's out of the politics and daily hassles of a regular job.

"Now, I have fun. Now, I enjoy."

He's even experimenting a little with bread sculptures, although he insists his wife doesn't let him in the kitchen at home. "I throw flour around and she has to clean it up."

He moves a little more slowly, he admits. He's one of the only people who take the elevator in CPCC's two-story hospitality education building. Baker's knees. Bakers are famous for having to haul around 50-pound bags of flour.

"Fifty pounds is only recent. They used to be 100 pounds, " he laughs. "I feel like a cripple sometimes. But I'm from the old stock. I don't pamper myself."

All in all, his brothers' decision worked out pretty well.

"It's been satisfying for me. It always earned me a living."

COOK'S PROFILE

Name: George Schmaren, Central Piedmont Community College.

Age: 71.

Background: Master baker, with 56 years of experience.

Favorite cookbook: "The Modern Pastry Chef's Guide to Professional Baking, " by Dominique D'Ermo, a Washington restaurateur and soup maker (Harper and Rowe, 1962).

Secret food passion: Ice cream. "Not that I indulge that much. My wife would kill me if I did." Smoked foods. "And I love my beer."

If you could invite anyone to dinner . . . Joseph Amendola, former president and current ambassador for the Culinary Institute of America. They met in the 1940s and are still friends. "I couldn't get anything by him. . . . He turned out so many great bakers because he knew his stuff."

Chinese Cookies

From George Schmaren. Professional bakers don't measure in cups and teaspoons; they measure in ounces. Schmaren translated this for us, but the quantity is still very large. What do you expect from a baker?

4 cups sugar

4 cups vegetable shortening

5 eggs

Pinch of salt

2 tablespoons almond extract

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

12 cups cake flour (unsifted)

1 1/2 tablespoons baking soda

Toasted chopped nuts such as almonds or hazelnuts

Beat sugar and shortening to smooth paste. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each. Beat in salt, almond and vanilla extracts.

Sift flour with baking soda. Fold into batter to form a smooth dough.

Roll dough into 4 or 5 log shapes. Roll logs in chopped nuts. Refrigerate until logs are firm, at least 1 hour.

When chilled, cut into slices about -1/4-inch thick. Place about 1 inch apart on baking sheet lined with parchment paper or greased and floured.

Bake cookies at 360 degrees until lightly browned. (Watch carefully so they don't burn.)

Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie

From George Schmaren. Instructor Jeff LaBarge, who heads Central Piedmont Community College's culinary program, raves about this pie.

9-inch piecrust or graham cracker crust

3 1/2 cups sifted confectioners' sugar

1 1/4 cups chunky peanut butter

Whipped cream or whipped topping

Chocolate Custard Filling:

2 cups milk, divided

3/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup cornstarch

3 eggs, beaten

1 tablespoon vanilla

2 ounces unsweetened chocolate

Bake crust according to directions and set aside to cool. Meanwhile, rub sugar and peanut butter together to form a coarsely crumbled mixture. Pack 2/3 of mixture into bottom of crust. Fill crust with Chocolate Custard Filling. Top with whipped cream and sprinkle remaining peanut butter mixture over top. Refrigerate until ready to serve and refrigerate leftovers.

Chocolate Custard Filling: Combine 1-1/2 cups milk with sugar and butter in saucepan. Bring to boil. When milk is warm but before it boils, dissolve cornstarch in remaining -1/2 cup milk. Beat in eggs, vanilla and 1 cup of milk mixture (to temper egg and cornstarch mixture). Then gradually add to remaining hot milk mixture, stirring vigorously until mixture returns to boil. Add chocolate and continue stirring until chocolate melts and mixture is well-blended. Use in pie as directed.

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