14 May THE CHRONICLES OF A WANNABE BAKER
My grandmother has always said that cooking is an art and baking is a science, and so, as an art history major who cries in the face of math, I have kept my distance from baking. When quarantine was first put into practice, the world seemed to turn to the kitchen. Since then, everyone has been baking fresh bread and attempting various complex desserts. I figured that because I have so much free time, I should hop on the bandwagon and give baking a shot. Unfortunately, I don’t have much experience in this area. I could almost consistently make passable cookies and had attempted cakes every once and a while for my friends’ birthdays; however, my most impressive baking accomplishment by far, in my humble opinion, was combining two rolls of Pillsbury cookie dough to create one massive cookie. My first instinct when I decided to attempt baking was to ask my mother for help, but I was instantly reminded of my fourth birthday when I had begged her to make me a Blues Clues cake. She had tried her best to make the cake look as much like the blue dog as possible and even found a special template online, but something must have gone horribly wrong because when I took my first bite of cake, I threw up blue icing everywhere. Needless to say, I knew that I couldn’t count on my mother to help me succeed in becoming the competent baker that I desperately wanted to be, and so I turned to the three women who I knew could get me through this harrowing adventure: Martha Stewart, Mary Berry, and Claire Saffitz.
Once I had flipped through most of Martha’s cookbook, Cookies, binged The Great British Bake Off, and stalked Claire’s Instagram account, I figured I would be ready to embark on my quest. The first dessert that I attempted to bake was a blueberry pie with a homemade pie crust – a risky choice for a first attempt. I began the process of making the pie crust at about two in the morning and followed Bon Appetit’s Best Blueberry Pie recipe. I decided that it would be better for everyone involved if I began baking in the middle of the night in order to avoid my father’s anxious glances and my mother’s incessant attempts to “help,” which is really code for snacking on the dough. At first, everything was going extremely well and my confidence was frighteningly high. I even started watching Grey’s Anatomy, barely paying attention to my measurements or to the fact that I had forgotten to add the butter, which is a fairly essential ingredient when baking a pie crust. Once I had plopped my dough into the fridge, I began to snack on the leftovers in my mixing bowl and realized that raw pie dough is shockingly underrated. Unfortunately, it was at this point when my father came downstairs to get a glass of water and saw me hunched over the counter eating my very crumbly and very raw pie dough like some kind of goblin. Thankfully, we never spoke of this encounter again, and all I got from him was a confused and slightly disappointed shake of the head. The next day, I pressed on, whipping up the blueberry filling and rolling out my dough. After this, I stuck my pie baby, which was looking slightly wonky at this point, into the oven. I pulled up a chair, turned on the oven light, and watched her bake for 90 long minutes. My plan was to serve my pie to my parents after dinner and impress them with my self-taught baking prowess, but as I watched my pie fall apart in the oven, I realized that my dream was probably not going to become reality. After this pie, I made two more, and while neither of them turned out perfectly, each one was better than the last. My father even told me that my apple pie was “decent!”
The next baked good that I attempted to conquer was sourdough bread. Once quarantine was set in place a sourdough uprising began. Pictures of aesthetically pleasing sourdough loaves were popping up all over social media, and so I wanted to try to make my own. I watched Claire Saffitz and Brad Leone make sourdough bread on Bon Appetit’s YouTube channel and read what felt like a hundred blog posts explaining how to make your own sourdough starter. My starter got messy very quickly. It smelled weird and kept overflowing, and my mother insisted that it would poison us. I didn’t listen to her and continued caring for my crusty little jar of starter, whom I lovingly named Sebastian. I set alarms on my phone for the times that I had to feed Sebastian and even made him a little name tag, hoping that by naming him I would deter my mother from dumping him into the trash. Thankfully, Sebastian survived a full six days and was ready to become a loaf. I felt like a proud mother as I nestled him into my Dutch oven to bake. After removing Sebastian from the oven I immediately noticed that something was wrong as my serrated knife failed to pierce the outer crust. The inside of my bread looked very dense and strange, but I decided to give Sebastian a chance. I bit into that first little piece of bread and felt a snap inside my mouth. My sourdough bread had somehow broken the wire inside my mouth that was meant to keep my teeth straight after my braces had been removed. A small bit of wire was poking out of my mouth and simultaneously stabbing into my tongue. When I attempted to speak, I could only manage a weird, garbled lisp that made my friends wheeze with laughter when I FaceTimed them for guidance. Due to quarantine measures, I had no way of getting proper care from an orthodontist, so I disinfected some pliers and did the best that I could. After this incident, I felt pretty disheartened and decided to move on from sourdough.
The last project that I embarked on was homemade jam, which isn’t a baked good, but at this point, I was sick of using my oven and was craving something different. I was still reeling from my bread related injury and had recently failed to make chocolate chip cookies. How does one mess up chocolate chip cookies? I’m seriously asking. I have no idea what happened. Somehow, my self-proclaimed “fail-safe” cookie recipe gave me bitter tasting cookies, and so, I was done with baking. One night, when I was trying to fall asleep, a wild idea shot through my brain. That idea was jam. I wanted to make homemade jam and deliver it to my friends in the hopes of brightening up their quarantine experience. In a sleep-deprived delirium, I logged into my Canva account and designed a jam company logo, bearing the slogan: “You’re My Jam.” The next day, I read Martha Stewart’s recipe for jam and got to work. Jam is surprisingly easy to make, and I made mine without pectin, so it is definitely something that can be made during quarantine. All you need is some fruit (fresh or frozen) and some sugar. I made my jam using blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries. I also added a lot of lemon juice for acidity, which I highly recommend doing since it nicely juxtaposes the sweetness of the sugar and the fruit. Once the cooking process was complete, I spooned my hot jam into some sterilized mason jars, slapped my freshly printed logo onto the front of each jar, and delivered them to my friends.
Out of all of the food and baked goods that I have made during quarantine, I think that my jam has been the most successful. I have been able to share my jam with so many of my friends. Some of them even came to the end of my driveway and traded bread, cake, or red pepper jelly for it. Although I have not been able to physically spend time with my friends or hug them, I have still been able to connect with them through food and baking. During quarantine I have delivered cookies to my cousins, jam to my friends, and a pie to my grandmother, and while all of this was done at a distance, I was still able to have fun and bond with them. One thing that is very important to keep in mind is that, if you do choose to cook or bake during quarantine, it does not have to be perfect. Your pie crust can be chewy, your bread can be inedible, and your cookies can be bitter. All that matters is that you are trying your best to have fun during this difficult time.