In early spring, I wandered into the baking aisle of my grocery store and found myself staring at one lone red velvet cookie mix. Otherwise, the shelves had been decimated — few mixes were left, little flour remained and the yeast was all but gone.
The first weeks of the pandemic of COVID-19 (that eventually sent most of us to hunker down at home) had shown that people were panic-buying, wildly hoarding things like toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
But the baking binge blindsided me. Suddenly, everyone was a cake-maker or a bread-baker? Who knew people would turn to their baking pans in the wake of a pandemic?
Then again, maybe it was not that much of a surprise. I’ve long known baking as a balm in stressful times. That’s why we now have the terms “procrastibaking,” “distractibaking,” “stress-baking,” and my own “escabaking.” In the madness, there is a method — completed through flour and sugar — that works.
The great food writer, MFK Fisher, summed it up herself in her 1942 book, “How to Cook a Wolf”:
“There is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel, that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.”
So would-be bread bakers had scarfed up all the yeast, maybe looking for relief from bad thoughts, and hopefully their efforts ended in some nice homemade bread. Or maybe those who couldn’t find yeast began their own sourdough starter (one in my love and care for years has helped me produce some fine loaves, no yeast required).
My local stores also seemed to have a dearth of eggs, milk and butter. And I considered MFK Fisher’s “War Cake,” also from “How to Cook a Wolf,” a loaf cake made with raisins and spices and none of the aforementioned eggs and dairy, a recipe that was borne out of wartime rationing.
This was not war (in that sense), and it seemed needless, to me, all this gather-hoarding, but I hoped those who copped all the eggs and butter maybe baked lofty cakes and tender cookies (and likely even needed to whip up a soufflé).
Bakers before us found a way around true scarcity of ingredients during challenging times. World War II is credited in producing another dairy-defying delight known as “wacky cake” (also known as “crazy cake,” “Joe cake,” “water cake” or “cake pan cake”), which has no eggs, milk or butter (but does include some fat from oil), and uses vinegar to provide the lift and texture for a deliciously moist and tender one-layer wonder (recipe shared here).
Hell-bent with scrounged ingredients, I took this time of stay-at-home isolation (which I believe rural folks are conditioned to weather way better than others) as an opportunity for more of the baking — stress or otherwise — that I love (and counter by regular walks and the fresh veggies no one seems to hoard). And as I baked my way through a pandemic, I felt an easing comfort, thinking of those who might be doing the same. I understood why so many were turning to — and turning on — their ovens.
This strange and devastating time may have pulled many people — especially families with children — away from screens, into the kitchen, and reacquainted them with the magic of baking.
They may have discovered baking’s nurturing and comforting abilities, as I did when I baked my way back to my childhood and one of the first recipes I ever made — chocolate chip cookies.
They may have experienced the bliss of being in the moment while kneading warm, fleshy bread dough, being mindful of the task at hand, rather than dwelling in a mind full of worries.
They may have reconnected to their creativity, and the art, math and science of a recipe. And figured out how to work with or without certain ingredients. Or allowed themselves a chance to be truly sensory in noticing the difference in taste once nuts have been toasted or the floury feel of crimping a pie crust, or of taking in the aroma of warm vanilla and cinnamon, or watching a simple batch of biscuits double in height in the oven.
I hoped that baking helped lessen feeling trapped, helpless or uncertain, as it always does for me. I hoped that, even if their breads didn’t rise or their cakes flopped, would-be bakers felt they took back some control — in the kitchen, at least — and were rewarded with seeing something through, from start to finish. And in the long wait of waiting out a virus, I hoped baking could be seen as one small way of moving forward … in far less time.
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and has written for the Los Angeles Daily News, the Los Angeles Times and LA Parent Magazine, and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”