COVID-19 Diaries: Baking Away The Blues

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Earlier this year in May, when COVID had just taken on the pandemic status and we were all bound to our homes, Instagram convinced me that I was missing out on life because I was not baking.

Most of my baking over the years has been restricted to one of two recipes I knew off the top of my head. Eggless banana bread/cake and a date walnut cake. I made them reliably whenever the mood struck. Pictures of sourdough bread, yeasted bread, braided bread, airy textures, and memories from binge-watching Great British Bake Off, convinced me that life was not worth living without yeast in my home.

Alas, stores nearby were out of yeast. I caved and got a one-pound pack of yeast off Amazon. My first bread was a simple loaf. I, and my children, reveled in watching the yeast do its magic. We screamed in happiness when the dough more than doubled. We punched the dough down, marveled at the magic that is gluten. We talked about sticky dough and elastic dough. We made dents in the dough and watched it spring back slowly.

I shaped the loaf, they watched. We let it rise a second time and then patiently sat through the 40 odd minutes it to bake to a golden brown. The crust was good, the crumb excellent. I had kneaded the dough by hand and it was sheer joy to see that hard work pays off.

My next bake was a take on the khara buns of my childhood. Small buns smelling of onion and green chilies, they make the perfect savory match with a steaming cup of kaapi or chai. I followed instructions; the children watched as the sticky dough never really made it to the elastic stage even with my constant kneading. My arms ached and I gave up. It rose beautifully but remained sticky as before. I shaped them sloppily, watched them rise a second time, and baked them. Midway through the baking process, I realized I had the tray on the lower level than I usually bake. I pulled them out, moved them up, and prayed.

The khara buns smelled amazing, tasted great but the crust was artisanal. I blamed the lack of my kneading power. I blamed the placement of the baking tray. I was happy but kept thinking that if only I had a machine that could knead.

A few weeks later, an impulse buy had a graphite grey KitchenAid stand mixer on my counter. Each weekend, I picked a recipe I wanted to try. There were foibles. The water was too tepid for the yeast to bloom. I used a bowl too big for my dough to double in. I reached out to experts for help and analysis. I read blogs, watched videos.

I did all this in the time I could have been reading and writing. The political uncertainty, the struggles with virtual schooling, the immense pressure I put on myself to be the good parent, the parent who could mother and educate her children, the mother who could parent with connection, ensured I had little of myself to give to anyone, even to myself.

The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg hit me in ways I did not expect. I mourned this woman I barely knew. I read about her life. I read about her tenacity. I read about her wit and humor. I read about how she hung onto dear life for she knew her passing would mean a huge setback to the things she cared about. It made me angry that we as liberals and progressives put so much pressure on one woman, a woman who had already left a trailblazing legacy.

I made rosemary focaccia the next day. I measured and doled out ingredients as I watched the dough hook spin and create magic. I added oil. I watched the dough pull away from the sides and come together. I enjoyed the creative process of making something from raw ingredients. I scraped the dough, kneaded it a bit more just to savor the feeling of dough in my hands. I shaped it lovingly and blessed it with a coating of oil as I put it aside to prove.

The one-hour respite while the yeast did its thing, I fell into a deep, exhausted stupor. The rest of the afternoon, the children and I worked together to pat the dough into shape, make holes, drizzle olive oil and sprinkle coarse sea salt. The home smelled of warm bread and rosemary. I felt calmer than I had in the morning.

I joined groups with world views other than mine. I forced myself not to react and instead listen. I recognized the danger of bubbles and echo chambers, the one that lulls groups into a sense of complacency. I took deep breaths as I walked around my development. I realized there are a few things I can control and many that I cannot.

The same flour, salt, yeast, and sugar works sometimes. Other times, it does not. All I can do is follow the recipe and do what is asked of me. I can do it again and again until I get it right.

I can vote. I can urge people I know and care about to vote. I can raise my children to be good citizens. I can raise them to be aware citizens. I can teach them empathy and kindness. The rest is up to the whims of the universe.

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