So you’ve been baking a lot over the past year? You, me and everyone we know. I made doughnuts, loaf cakes, babkas, biscuits, cheesecakes, quick breads and a single pie. My husband nurtured a sourdough starter to life last year before the world locked down and has been churning out lovely loaves for our family ever since. Perhaps you’ve been doing the same — or maybe all of this sounds totally exhausting. Either way, I propose we bake our way to the end of this pandemic.
Annie Siebert, OZY Contributor
fresh year, fresh bake
1. Sourdough 2.0
If you managed to keep a starter alive and bang out a few decent loaves during the hellish year of 2020, it’s time to step up your game. Invest in a few cookbooks to really learn the science and art behind bread: Bryan Ford’s New World Sourdough and Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast are must-haves for your shelves if you’re serious about bread. These are homegrown recommendations: My husband often turns to both of these books, and after he baked his last loaf, I declared I would spend $8 on it at a bakery. High praise for a home baker.
2. Go Pro at Home
If you’ve spent the last year making do with what’s already in your kitchen but now find yourself baking a few times a week, it’s time to consider upgrading your tools. Still using those loaf pans that belonged to your grandmother? (Guilty as charged.) Despite their sentimental value, their nonstandard sizes make them less than ideal if you’re committed to concocting the perfect sandwich bread. Like many, our family gave up white bread ages ago, and my husband has been tinkering with different recipes to incorporate more whole grain into his pain de mie. In addition to reliable loaf pans, if you’re finding that your bake times are wildly different than what recipes call for, it’s also worth investing in an oven thermometer. This inexpensive tool showed our oven is 25 degrees off on the cool side, so setting my oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit when the recipe calls for 350 made a world of difference.
3. Diversify Your Flour Collection
Growing up, we only ever had one type of flour on hand: all-purpose. It’s right there in the name! But it’s no secret that gluten can be problematic, even for many without an official diagnosis of celiac disease (including, ironically, bakers). Adding true whole wheat to your pantry can boost the nutritional content of your bakes, and there are dozens of options on the market for those who want to cut back on or eliminate gluten — or just try their hand at baking with different flours. After spending all of quarantine baking — like, apparently, everyone else — we now have all-purpose, cake, whole wheat, bread, durum, semolina, rice, chickpea, double zero, rye and spelt flours on hand to ensure we can knock out everything from bread and cakes to tarts and pizzas when we find a recipe that piques our interest.
4. Fermentation Station
Fermentation is having a moment, with probiotics popping up in pills and a whole YouTube series materializing to explain the art of adding bacteria to food to make it tastier — and perhaps healthier. If you want your microbiome to flourish, you’re better off consuming fermented food and drink than relying on a pill, and baking bread with natural leavening (i.e., a sourdough starter) is just one way to add friendly microbes to your diet.
There’s no discounting the value of an internet connection when learning a new skill, but throughout the pandemic I’ve come to rely on physical cookbooks more than Google. I invested in Claire Saffitz’s Dessert Person, a great book for beginners and skilled home bakers alike. Saffitz categorizes each bake on a scale from 1 to 5 — very easy to very challenging — helping me decide if I have the bandwidth to take on a given cake or tart. (Her sweet yeast dough is my forever babka base.) I also frequently turn to The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum and Dean Bornstein and Richard Sax’s Classic Home Desserts before I settle on a recipe. Sometimes I bake from those books; other times I take the knowledge gleaned from them to pick the perfect recipe online. Either way, they’re worth the space on the shelves.
2. Spread Sugar in Small Doses
Cupcakes may seem a little dated, a relic of the Sex and the City era, but single-serve desserts are perfect for the pandemic. No one is slicing a layer cake that serves 12 and passing out pieces (or at least they shouldn’t be). But many confections beyond cupcakes are suitable in single servings: think cookies, tiramisu, cheesecakes and panna cottas (I like to set my panna cotta in small mason jars and deliver them to friends like a dessert fairy).
3. Lock Down Your Go-To Recipes
One perk of being home all the time is the ability to execute test-kitchen-level experiments. Sure, sourdough gets all the headlines, but it’s also worthwhile to figure out how to make the best version of everything you make from scratch. I figured out the best waffle, the best babka, the best muffin and the best loaf cake over the past 10 months. The thing about “best” when it comes to baking is that it’s subjective; my best may very well not be your best. A good place to start is the “best” archive over at Bon Appétit. These recipes will likely get you in the ballpark, even if they require some tweaking to make them your best.
Can I be honest? I might be the kind of gal who makes wholly scratch-made babkas over and over again until they’re just right for a dear friend’s birthday. But do you know what I want for my birthday? (It’s February 28; bake me a cake and don’t ask if I was born during a leap year.) Yellow cake from a box with homemade chocolate buttercream. I challenge you to find a more blissful and nostalgic combination. It’s what my maternal grandmother made for me every year for my birthday, and no matter how much bougie nonsense I buy into, I just can’t quit boxed cake mix. Find this perfect cake mix and other Betty Crocker products at Walmart.com.
My sister, who has two kids and another on the way, has mastered the art of making meals that are suitable for different tastes and dietary restrictions. Her husband is mildly lactose intolerant, her younger son won’t eat chocolate, and she’s trying to eat healthy because she’s expecting. One of her easy-to-customize meals is biscuit sandwiches. She cracks open a can of biscuits and then customizes them to suit each palate: ham and cheese; pizza; turkey and cheese; tomato and mozzarella. She then tosses them under the broiler to melt the cheese and brushes the tops with butter spiked with parsley and garlic (or, for the tomato and mozzarella version, a sprinkle of balsamic vinegar and basil). Find these biscuits and other Pillsbury products at Walmart.com.
Small businesses have been hit hard by the pandemic, and your local bakery could be among them. If you’re not up for an elaborate baking challenge but still crave fresh bread and treats, stop by your local bakery. Furthermore, buying from your neighborhood spot saves both money and time. Between the pans and the accessories and the specialty flours and the books, it’s safe to say my family would’ve been better off financially to just keep buying loaves from our favorite local bakeries than DIY-ing it. There’s no shame in stepping away from the oven.
4. The Opposite of Doomscrolling
Unless you really want to get in the weeds and buy a bunch of single-use tools, some things are best done by professionals. Baking’s a worthy hobby, to be sure, but I’m not looking to make cake art at home, no matter how many episodes of The Great British Baking Show I watch. So, if I need an elaborate cake or French pastries, I outsource it. However! This is art worth appreciating, and I’ve found that filling my Instagram feed with pro bakers and recipe developers and food publications makes for a more soothing end-of-day scroll than, say, Twitter. Dream of icing, my dears, not insurrection.
1. Paul Hollywood
If you’ve seen him tear apart — literally and metaphorically — a dry shortcake on The Great British Baking Show, you know the power of Hollywood, 54, the tough Simon Cowell-style judge of this BBC and Netflix hit. Hollywood trained to be a sculptor but turned his medium from marble to flour, and became a master baker in London. In his free time, he races Aston Martins, because of course he does.
2. Pastry Academy of Elite
The more than 700,000 people who follow this Instagram account know its ability to mesmerize. The feed showcases desserts from top pastry chefs around the globe, displayed in stunning stills or short tasty videos. They are works of art as much as they are food. If you can avoid drooling on your phone, it’s a win.
3. Fabiola Galván
This baker has shaken the bones of living Mexicans with her twist on an old Day of the Dead tradition that’s infiltrated local supermarkets and bakeries: mantemuertos … or, in plain English, “bread of the dead cupcakes.” Cue the screams of culinary traditionalists. Made from the same dough as conventional pan demuerto, the only real difference is being baked in a cupcake shell. They’ve become massively popular since Galván invented them in 2018, so don’t be afraid to add this innovator’s corpse cupcakes to your plate.
She began as a game designer. But then the cravings set in. So now? She designs games you can eat. Raising more than $100,000 from some 1,600 fellow fiending game lovers, Sandercock published the Edible Games Cookbook in May 2019, a (sadly not, itself, edible) tome that has earned a five-star review from Goodreads. Some of the games require finesse. Others simply cookies, M&Ms and a jar of Nutella. But regardless, this gamer-turned-baker has discovered where the two genres meet, at the intersection of challenging and delicious.