Lessons In Quarantine Baking

by Katherine McLaughlin

Hours later and all I’ve made is a mess I think to myself, standing in my kitchen. My legs hurt and my body feels like it’s been tapped for all its energy. All I want is to sit down on the couch and doze off to the sound of HGTV. But I’ve been baking. I’ve got flour all over the counters, a pile of dishes to wash, and burnt pastries in the oven to dispose of. 

This has become an unfortunately common occurrence for me over the past few months. Since the coronavirus lockdown hit the United States, I’ve been, like everyone, spending all of my time in my house. And like so many others, I’ve picked up baking as a way to pass the time. 

I’ve never been much of a baker. The occasional chocolate chip cookie or maybe a sheet of brownies is as far as my culinary skills ever took me. I had thought about attending some cake classes near me but I never took the plunge. That said, I figured why not? How hard could it be to follow instructions, right? 

I started off simple, a sheet cake and homemade icing. Then, I moved onto monster cookies and blondies. I thought it would be relaxing and make my house smell like a candle. Maybe better, because it’d be the real thing. If only I’d known how difficult it would become. 

Turns out, I wasn’t good at following these so-called “instructions”. I found myself getting impatient and trying to do steps before it was time or substituting ingredients without really knowing if or why it would make a difference. 

Most recently I wanted to make banana ice cream (if you’re unfamiliar, the entire recipe is frozen bananas blended together). It could not be simpler, it’s one ingredient and one step! I messed it up because I was too impatient to wait for the bananas to freeze fully.

I made countless mistakes, most commonly overcooking sweet treats. And I was always left with a huge mess I didn’t want to deal with. My adventures were anything but relaxing and my house smelled more like charred desserts and smoke than anything else. Despite all of this, I still kept looking up recipes and going back into the kitchen to try again. 

I had to ask myself if I’m so bad at this, why do I keep doing it? I didn’t have any desire to master the craft and wasn’t particularly intent on proving that I could accomplish it. So what drew me back to the mixing bowl every day? 

When lockdown started, I felt extremely anxious and unsure about how the future would play out. How could I not see my friends for months? I didn’t know how long I could handle “waiting it out”. And it was unbelievably stressful entering into a period where I had no idea what the outcome would be, I could only hope for the best. 

Over time I realized that as everything moved to a digital space-my school, my job, my social life-baking was the one thing that can’t be done over the internet. I could fail as many times as I want, but it doesn’t change that I failed in person. Even if I’m horrible at it, it’s become something tactile to hold onto while everything else slipped into wires, cables, and wifi. Apart from being my one physical solace, I slowly realized that baking was also teaching me how to combat all the anxiety I felt about being quarantined.

I quickly learned the value of patience. All of my pastries were failing because I was rushing through them.  As someone who’s constantly juggling responsibilities and schedules, I knew why I was doing this. I’d gotten so used to the hustle before COVID that I didn’t know how to slow down. Once I started to embrace the tranquility of the current time, my patience grew and my pastries improved. 

I started to accept solitude and assume responsibility for everything that happened during those one or two hours in the kitchen-good or bad. Usually, I’d fill the days at home texting or video-calling friends, trying desperately to stay connected to other people, and refusing to connect with myself. When I was baking, it was nearly impossible to stand right in front of a computer or hear people over the whirring of a mixer. I had to take that time to truly be alone with myself and my thoughts. Everything that happened during that period was on me-any mistake, idea, or outcome. When something went wrong, I accepted my role. When desserts turned out great, that was also all me. I felt equally proud of what I could accomplish all by myself.

Above all, I learned how to trust the process. I can’t be sure that everything I make will taste good, or even be edible. I do know that by following through and having faith in the recipe there’s a much better chance. After many attempts, I finally made it through a baking session with minimal mess and golden cookies- not pitch black ones. 

When we first started lockdown, I turned to baking because I thought it would be a good way to fill the long, seemingly endless, days. I was anxious and scared about the future, and needed to do something so I wasn’t thinking about everything going on outside my home. I didn’t realize that the lessons baking would teach me while where exactly what I needed to survive this period of isolation: trust, patience, and comfort in solitude. 

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