Perspective | Baking my way through a pandemic

Illustration by Erin Joo

Georgia Geen, Executive Editor

On my shopping list for my last outing before confining myself almost exclusively to my one-bedroom apartment last week was flour, sugar, evaporated milk and an electric mixer. 

I loved baking when I was a kid. One of my earliest memories is standing on a stepping stool at the counter next to my Nana helping her make Christmas cookies as a toddler. As a teenager, I took to baking bread and attempting complicated recipes. That faded away for the most part when I got to college and lost access to my disaster-ready mother’s well-stocked pantry.

In fact, until recently, I hardly used my tiny kitchen at all. Preparing food was a time-consuming obstacle that got in the way of productivity. 

Then, about a week ago, things started to get serious. Or at least that’s when Americans really started paying attention to COVID-19 and pieces of our lives began to slow — classes went online, public schools shut down and businesses closed. Across the country, people are starting to lose loved ones, and waves of uncertainty are peaking in the distance, about to crash over us as the days go on. 

It’s not an easy time for people with mental health issues. Professionals have thrown around a few disorders that might apply to me over the years, but all I know for sure is that I’ve been living with mental illness for years now. I needed something to keep me going for what could be weeks, or months, of little-to-no contact with my friends and family. 

Let me be clear that a hobby is no replacement for therapy and/or medication, and that I am not a mental health professional. My experience has been that occupying my hands and mind with a low-stakes activity that isn’t connected to school or work in the face of a terrifying, unfamiliar new world is the best way for me to cope. 

Here are some of the recipes that are getting me through these challenging times.

 

Peanut butter pie — Food Network

I’ve never loved fruit pies, so this has been my go-to to bring to Thanksgiving for years. This time around, I made it for Pi Day and added crumbled Reese’s on top as a general coping mechanism. Crushing up the Oreos for the crust is also therapeutic. 

The filling for this pie is super quick and easy — you probably already have all the ingredients, save the frozen whipped topping, but you could probably substitute that for a lot of whipped cream. The only thing I change about it is I add even more peanut butter. 

When I say this pie is easy to make, I mean it. The prep time takes about 15 minutes, plus a few minutes to bake the crust and time to let it chill in the fridge — and it’s hard to mess up stirring peanut butter, powdered sugar, frozen whipped topping and cream cheese until it’s mixed together. 

 

Spiced olive oil cake — New York Times Cooking

This is far from a boring pound cake. The olive oil gave me pause, but hear me out: It lets the flavors of the spices through much better than butter, and the cake doesn’t dry out as quickly. The result is a really intriguing and delicious flavor.

The recipe recommends starting with whole cardamom, fennel or coriander. I don’t know about you, but my pantry is not that advanced — in my experience, the powder was just fine. I opted for cardamom because I love how it tastes with citrus, especially orange. I also didn’t have any dark rum on hand, so I skipped that ingredient. 

Whenever I’m baking, I always take the “flavoring” quantity as a starting point. I doubled, maybe even tripled, the amount of orange zest in the dough. Honestly, who knows how much ginger and cardamom I put in that cake? I added some nutmeg for good measure, too. 

If you’re not familiar with glazes, don’t worry, they’re really easy to make; just whisk together the orange juice and powdered sugar thoroughly until there aren’t any clumps. 

 

The best chocolate sheet cake. Ever. — The Pioneer Woman

I’m not super well versed in chocolate sheet cakes, namely because this is the one I’ve grown up with. It’s one recipe I haven’t messed with much by adding different flavorings because the original is so classic and rich. 

Anyone with basic baking ingredients should be able to whip this cake together, and this recipe provides an easy alternative to buttermilk that I’ve used successfully in a lot of recipes. 

This is a good recipe to tackle if you live with a partner, family or roommates, because if you live alone, you’re going to be left with an intimidating amount of chocolate sheet cake. And now isn’t necessarily the best time to share homemade baked goods with friends and neighbors.

 

Lemon sweet rolls with cream cheese icing — New York Times Cooking

Cinnamon rolls didn’t feel quite right to me this week, so I tried out something different. And honestly, I might not go back. 

The dough is the perfect level of light and fluffy, and wasn’t too challenging for someone who’s getting back into baking after a bit of a hiatus. But if you’re totally new, there might be some trial and error. The recipe does require yeast, so be careful that you’re not heating the milk too much or the dough won’t rise. If you’re nervous about this recipe, which is a little more challenging, remember that the stakes are low. If you mess up, you can toss the results and eat some Oreos instead. 

If you couldn’t tell by this point that my baking technique is “more,” I added a lot more lemon zest and juice to this recipe — the juice and zest from two average-sized lemons was enough, and I added some juice to the dough, too. If you go my route, it might be too tangy for your liking, depending on your tastes. 

I’ll definitely be making this recipe again, but next time I’ll probably add more cardamom to the filling, and at some point make these rolls with orange instead of lemon. 

 

Have you been using baking as a way to get through social distancing and/or quarantine? Share your recipes with me at geengr@commonwealthtimes.org or send me a direct message on Twitter at @georgia_geen. 

 

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