Linda from the courtesy desk comes by to check on the sticky buns' progress: "Awesome. There's nothing on earth like his breads." She lingers to see if anything is about to come out of the oven, but we're still in the mixing and rising stages and she leaves, sighing.
As the sticky buns rise, Larry has his hands deep in the poolish, also known as starter. "This is the stuff," he says, smiling as if he is smelling it for the first time, not the thousandth. "Smell." It smells like life: yeasty and warm, somewhere between heated earth and opening flowers. Larry makes buckets of the stuff—for baguettes and pizza dough, for ciabatta and peasant rounds.
"If you have this, you can make great bread anywhere." He tosses a rough cupful into a giant mixing bowl and begins adding flour for the baguettes.
A few more people inquire about the sticky buns and go away disappointed.
"People cook the way they are," he says. "There are people who like to cook and people who like to bake. We choose one or the other, based on the rewards. For me there's a romance to baking." He strokes the sticky buns, caressing them into platonic smoothness. "Like a baby's bottom," he says. "The most perfect thing in the world." I make the brown sugar filling, while he snaps a knife through the rosemary-Parmesan dough and puts a damp tea towel over the soft rising loaves.
"Some people are afraid of yeast, and so they don't take the risk of baking. Anyone can learn how—how to judge the feel of the dough and its readiness. That's all you need. That and desire and the willingness to make mistakes." As with so many things.
The sticky buns are done. Sticky buns doesn't really do them justice. They are huge molten spirals, brown sugar and pecans tumbling out of the centers, spilling, hot, shiny, and dark, onto the tray. They cool, and the air that was warm and tender with dough is now shimmering with sugar. We frost them, much to Larry's dismay. He prefers them pure, but in South Dakota a sticky bun without a big glob of cream cheese frosting is naked. Impartial and open-minded, I try one of each. For your grown-up brunch, leave the frosting off or in a nearby bowl for surreptitious dunking. For children and sweet freaks, bring it on. Either way, prepare for laughter and tears and people following you home.
How commmunity shaped Larry Smith into a baker