• Day Two at the AIB ''Pizza School'

This is the second of four installments -- three lighthearted and one serious -- describing the five-day-long Practical Pizza Production Technology seminar at the American Institute of Baking. Click here to read Day One's entry.

MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Hairnets are ugly, and plastic aprons are hot. But if I've got to wear them to gain entry to the dough lab at the American Institute of Baking, I'll strap 'em on.

After 16 hours of seminars in only a day and a half, my pizza schoolmates and I are ready to abandon our seats and dive into the lab work segment of our course.

AIB's lab is a spectacle that would make Chef Boyardee and Betty Crocker weak in the knees; it's a dough geek's dream. Any piece and type of equipment you'd find in a pizza shop kitchen -- ovens, mixers, sheeters, presses, smallwares -- are here, and in every configuration imaginable.

Dwaraka Rao, Brent Bleazard, Dean Stars and Jeff Zeak cut, ball and tray dough during a 'pizza school' lab.

And that doesn't count the other two-thirds of the building our class won't use, a wing filled with industrial bakery equipment such as a 50-foot-long conveyor oven, spiral mixers large enough to bathe in and mammoth carousel deck ovens.

If everything in this treasure trove of toys were switched all at once, Manhattan surely would experience a brown-out.

At one end of the lab, half the class peers into the bowl of an 80-quart mixer in which Tom Lehmann, AIB's director of bakery assistance, is making dough. At the other end, AIB production manager Jeff Zeak instructs the second half of the group on cutting, weighing, balling and traying dough for refrigeration.

It's easy to distinguish the pros' dough balls from the pretenders'; experienced hands produce creamy, white uniform orbs, while those of ham-fisted amateurs (include me in this group) are over-stretched and misshaped. The pros also ball dough twice as fast and with half the effort of the amateurs.

Some of the dough goes to the cooler for retardation and use later in the week, while another batch is shaped for a take-and-bake test we'll conduct a day later. Pizza consultant "Big Dave" Ostrander gives a few tips on shaping this batch by slapping and tossing -- a skill few in the group have mastered.

"You'll all be pros before we're through here," Ostrander says kindly. "Just follow me."

Best as I could, I follow his instructions. But like several others, I slap and toss -- and tear -- my dough, and when placed on the tray, it's more wrinkled than a seersucker suit.

File this school project under "F."

Lehmann then leads the class through the mixing of a batch of dough infused with cheese powder. The goal, he said, is to develop a uniquely flavored crust an operator could market as a signature product.

The flourescent-orange cheese dough made during a lab seminar raised a few eyebrows. Instructor Tom Lehmann said, however, the bright color would tone down some during baking.

Minutes later he produces a fluorescent-orange dough that raises some eyebrows around the room. Lehmann assures the group, however, that baking would cool the unusually bright color, and that the dough could also be used for cheese breadsticks.

After three hours in the lab, Lehmann dismisses the class a half-hour early -- and a full two hours earlier than the previous day's marathon. Moments later, 30-odd hairnets and plastic aprons are piling up in the garbage can.

And as the group leaves the building, Ostrander takes a quick poll of how well everyone liked the lab time: "So what's the vote: Less lecture or more lab time?" he asks facetiously.

The attendees' collective laugh confirms that the hands-on time is preferred. And that's good, because our syllabus shows half of each of the next two days will find us right there -- in hairnets and plastic aprons.

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