The bakery in the basement

In the basement of Commons, the people who make Yale’s daily bread—actually, its daily pastry—start on the muffins and the caramelized cashews very, very early.

Cathy Shufro teaches writing at Yale.

College Street at 3 a.m., empty of cars, seems spacious. The loudest sound is the hum of a police cruiser idling beside Cross Campus. Its dome light illuminates a policeman, asleep with his hat on.

Down the block, past the curve of Woolsey Hall, 17 steps descend into an alley that ends at a blue door. When the door opens to us, warm air billows into the night, scented with sugar and coconut.

Lights are blazing in the underground bakery. Just inside, six-foot-high baking racks on wheels create a traffic jam, their shelves loaded with saffron-colored muffins and delicate croissants, waiting for pickup. From this night kitchen beneath Commons dining hall comes every cupcake, cookie, and slice of pie that students will eat today in dining halls scattered across campus—everything that’s baked, except for the bread.

A battered clipboard labeled Friday hangs on the wall above head baker Keri Logan. A worksheet on it lists who will bake what. Today’s order: 624 lemon poppy muffins, 1,150 chocolate chip blondies, 25 pans of bread pudding, 1,320 squares of passion fruit coconut-macadamia shortbread, 21 chocolate sheet cakes, and 1,280 super-fudge brownies, plus a number of special-order birthday cakes.

“Most students don’t even know we’re down here,” says Logan cheerfully.

Across the room, near the twin ovens, Pedro Rivera wrests 110 pounds of pastry dough from the Hobart standing mixer. From the mound of dough, the size of a Galápagos tortoise, he pulls off hunks to weigh and trim into nine-pound portions that will each yield 19 pie crusts for next week. Pastry is an art form, says Rivera. “I like to see the beauty in it, and I like to see people enjoy it.”

To Rivera’s right, Rusty Hamilton towers over a butcher-block table. He weighs flour and baking powder for blueberry muffins “for the kids to eat tomorrow.” To arrive at 3 a.m., Hamilton says, “I’ve got to go to bed before Jeopardy comes on.” There are compensations: he plays golf every afternoon. His handicap is 11. What does that mean? “Just put it this way,” Hamilton says. “If we were playing for money, I’d probably take your money.”

Keri Logan is grating orange peel onto cashews laid out on a sheet pan. When the orange is bald, she collapses it in her hand, squeezing its juice onto the nuts. She drizzles them with honey and flings a red handful of cayenne pepper on top. Then she slides the metal pan into a baking rack and wheels the cashews into a walk-in oven at 365 degrees. When the cashews are caramelized and cooled, she’ll add them to eight gallons of popcorn and mix in caramelized butter.

Popcorn and other sweets for special events make up a third of production in the bakeshop. Last week a former British prime minister visited, and, says Logan, “when Tony Blair comes, we do a more upscale dessert.” For the ex-PM and guests, she made 40 banana-chocolate domes: homemade graham crackers, vanilla-bean custard, and chocolate ganache, all drizzled with milk chocolate. For commencement, Logan and her crew will bake pound cake for 4,500, to be served with strawberries and whipped cream. Six bakers and a baker’s helper do it all.

“We’re like a family: we have our good days and our bad days,” says Logan. When the pressure is on, “we rely on each other, and we get things done.”

At 4:30 a.m., the freight elevator rises to the street. It’s filled with baking racks. On the sidewalk above the bakeshop, driver Curtis Mack wheels the racks onto the truck lift gate and hoists them into his sweet-smelling Isuzu box truck. This is Mack’s 46th year driving the circuit of morning deliveries from Commons. When he returns for his second run at 6, the sky over Grove Street Cemetery will have brightened from black to dark blue. At 8, the first of the early risers will wander into college dining halls for morning coffee, and perhaps a fresh muffin.