I am not much of a baker. I have a signature one-bowl chocolate cake recipe that tolerates unsifted flour and a generous dose of extra cook time when the timer is forgotten. My second go-to is the pumpkin pie recipe on the back of the Libby’s can. We make it all year long and do not deviate. I prefer cooking savory dishes over sweet and, frankly, expanding my baking repertoire and figuring out the joy of baking was never high enough on the priority list. After all, we’re a family of four with two working parents. Then, COVID-19 struck.
It turns out that prolonged uncertainty due to a massive global crisis—and a subsequent abundance of free time—is the perfect impetus to try one’s hand at baking. In fact, I’ve learned that the rewards are so rich and it can be done daily, which means I’ve really come to appreciate flour.
First, I tried to diversify my baking game by making a Dutch baby.
When sheltering in place became the normal way of life for much of the country, people started baking. Photos of cookies, scones, and even gorgeous multitiered cakes made on a Tuesday afternoon began appearing on social media. Two different friends shared posts of what looked like deformed pancakes. Many of the enthusiastic comments were versions of “we love a Dutch baby!” And my interest was piqued. I had never heard of the thing. But I was eager for a distraction and got the recipe from the original poster. The ingredients included flour.
On my first try, I didn’t have any whole milk, which the recipe also required. But that didn’t deter me in the slightest. Yet I soon learned that oat milk is not an appropriate substitute, because my baby came out flat and dense. We ate it anyway, and the kids were impressed.
My second attempt commenced immediately, following a trip to the corner bodega for cow’s milk. I poured the new batter into the hot pan, as the melted butter sloshed over the top, and closed the oven door. After ten minutes, smoke had filled the kitchen. The baby came out charred. My son ate the bottom, and my daughter encouraged me, “The next one will be better!”
The next day, the kids got in on the action. We read the recipe slowly, making sure the eggs and milk were at room temperature. And we ditched the traditional baking pan, removing the rubber handle cover from the cast iron skillet for its first go around in the oven. We peeked through the oven door glass and gasped in unison as we took it out. Finally, we had triumphed! In one sitting, we devoured the entire Dutch baby.
My teen found the joy of baking through homemade English muffins.
By the end of the first week of everyone at home, I’d noticed that we had adopted a new behavior: constantly rummaging through the cabinets, looking for snacks. During one of these snack-rummaging sessions, my son pondered aloud as he ate the last English muffin, “Is it possible to make these things from scratch?” Fortunately, he completely ignored my absent-minded response, “The store-bought ones are so good.”
As social distancing took hold, my energetic son had taken up several hobbies, including composting and gardening Making homemade English muffin was next. He looked up recipes, compared reviews, and settled on one, which—you guessed it—required flour. I watched him painstakingly roll out the dough then allow it to rest as he watched the clock. Then he used an inverted glass to make perfectly-shaped English Muffins. He proudly gazed at them as they cooled on the rack. He toasted them, added butter and jam, and served them to us.
The results were indeed impressive. As a parent, it was a pleasure to observe from afar not only his commitment to the project, but the level of patience and attention to detail I might have predicted were unlikely.
Want your kids to get along? Have them make donuts.
Sibling squabbles are natural. And with few breaks from one another, sheltering in place often means that sibling conflict gets even more intense. Despite this, after my son successfully made the perfect English muffin, he had the grace to include his younger sister in the next audacious endeavor: donut holes.
The kids combined the ingredients and used every drop of oil in the house. As the donuts came out of the bubbling oil, my son patiently explained the benefits of smaller donuts and higher heat, and my daughter hung onto his every word. They perfected their methodology and even filled a few with jelly. Sure, they have argued since. A lot. They have also gone on to make muffins and cinnamon buns and bread—all recipes that need flour—and enjoyed those moments as much as any.
Flour and the joy of baking is an integral part of our new normal.
As the days have turned into weeks and now almost months, flour has been at the heart of many a day. I have relieved myself of worry over loved ones and strangers alike by stepping into the kitchen, whipping up a quick bread, and surprising my family with a midday treat. After a particularly challenging day, when bickering and irritation take hold, I help myself, and the family, pivot, with help from an after-dinner, gooey treat. It really is an example of how experiences are better than things.
We have made a variety of muffins, dozens of cookies, no-knead bread, and lemon pound cake. And, of course, we’ll never tire of our tried-and-true pumpkin pie. On a Tuesday. In April. As we strive, as a family, to endure the COVID-19 pandemic.