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The Sweet Science of Baking While Sheltering in Place

Retreating to our kitchens offers a sense of calm and clarity in these uncertain times

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Two weeks ago, I bought a refurbished almond-cream-colored KitchenAid Artisan stand mixer. Of course, I felt foolish and a little too self-indulgent for spending a couple of hundred dollars as the global economy collapses to launch myself into the general baking-in-place trend, which has produced so much sourdough. But I’ve got so many chair-bound occupations—writing, reading, gaming—whereas baking would keep me on my toes while confined to my home. For three days before Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered New Yorkers to shelter in place, I stockpiled 15 pounds of unbleached, all-purpose flour. I found active dry yeast, too, despite these ingredients being cleared from every shelf in every baking aisle except for one within a mile of my apartment. I take some comfort in knowing we’re all botching recipes together.

There’s no big mystery in so many people, stuck at home and prevented from going to their favorite restaurants and bars, turning to home cooking as a pastime during the coronavirus pandemic. There are mouths to feed, stresses to relieve, cravings to satisfy, and pantries to exploit. But why baking in particular? Why’s everyone making sourdough, which takes a week to prep from scratch? How much banana bread can a single household digest? Why do all the Big Flour producers have to reassure everyone that the global supply chains haven’t collapsed due to emergency restrictions; the grocery stores are just struggling to keep pace with the demand for flour, yeast, and eggs in the past few weeks as everyone’s suddenly gotten into baking. General Mills chief executive officer Jeff Harmening says “The change in consumer behavior are the likes of which we have never seen.” King Arthur Flour baker Martin Philip compares these shoppers to goddamn preppers!

If you’re hoping to regain some local control during this period of prolonged defenselessness, then the deeper appeal seems obvious enough: Baking happens to be the fussiest, most control-freakish cooking you can do, requiring so much precision in measurement and so much patience in proofing and cooling. It’s like chemistry for people who love food and want to avoid calculus. The modern kitchen oven—a big, hot, central installation—is the deepest, darkest corner in any given home. It’s the final frontier in domestication. At various points over the past decade, I’ve mustered the sloppy confidence to attempt to make even the most labor-intensive entrées—braises, stews, casseroles—but have nonetheless hesitated to bake any breads or sweets more complicated than chocolate chip cookies. I cannot even begin to compare the good taste required to bake macaroni and cheese (without bread crumbs, without cream cheese, without input from Californians) to the greater humility required to bake breads, biscuits, cakes, pastries, etc. I can get drunk, wave a chipped knife, and pull some cassoulet together. I don’t think I could suffer so much as a headache while trying to assemble a layer cake.

A couple of weekends ago, I started with Yossy Arefi’s recipe for lemon sweet rolls with cardamom. I spent a Saturday baking two batches. I nailed the second batch in the afternoon after having failed, in a rash and predictable fashion, to produce the first flat batch in the morning. I consulted my mother, a former caterer, who used to spend weekends churning out pound cakes, cheesecakes, and sweet potato pies by the dozen. Recreationally, she’s mastered German chocolate cake, French coconut pie, and other recipes handwritten in cursive onto index cards stained by time and filed in a hidden Rolodex sleeve. Naturally, I compared my mother’s astute and industrious baking against my own failure, at age 32, to distinguish between a dough that has doubled in volume and a dough that has barely risen at all. My mother told me to slow down. I’m not catering, and, in fact, I’ve got nowhere to go. There’s no rush. I can take these recipes one weekend at a time. The next weekend, I baked Julia Moskin’s recipe for rainbow sprinkle cake despite knowing no birthday to celebrate in particular. These are practice runs for delicious gifts and dinner party contributions, which we can indeed share once we’ve each re-emerged, 15 pounds heavier, from this fearful hibernation.

I’m already feeling social and outgoing in the deliberative space between recipes. My mother has, with some hesitation, given me her cheesecake recipe. My colleague Alison Herman made babka, and now I want to make babka, too, if only to overcome my hesitation to twist dough into artful, challenging patterns. Another colleague, Sean Fennessey, has tempted me to make a kardemummabulle—Swedish cardamom buns—using the many green cardamom pods which I happen to have stashed in my pantry from previous, semi-frequent attempts to master Nik Sharma’s recipe for curry leaf popcorn chicken. I can’t imagine wasting my flour on drumsticks in this economy.