Baking in the Time of Isolation

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For most of last week, I was on edge.

I stayed up late reading article after article, and then worry aroused me before my alarm. My mind drifted during class or while I was trying to finish homework assignments. I fretted over what to do next and if I had a mistake so grave, I couldn’t undo.

The world is in complete disarray, with death counts climbing every day, corporations squeezing as much money as possible out of vulnerable people, and those who typically oppressed are naturally being hit worse during this pandemic.

However, the source of my current anxiety is a jar of flour and water that sits on my countertop. It’s not rising, and I cannot figure out why.

Like many people, I’ve used this time in isolation to dust off hobbies that I thought the perfect version of me would inhibit if I had more time and resources, such as writing poetry, learning Italian, or adopting a dog. My magical fix-it wand is baking. Now, I know I am not alone in this idea to use these extra holes in my schedule to bake as evident by the number of social media photos of items fresh out the oven, the onslaught of think pieces about baking during a pandemic, or that it took visits to five separate grocery stores before I found yeast. However, for the past few weeks, I’ve dirtied, clean, and dirtied my pots, baking sheets, and measuring spoons more times than I can count. Using Pinterest recipes, I’ve made, from scratch, quiche, mini apple pies, cookies, vanilla ice cream as well as a chocolate custard, bagels, a rustic bread birthed in a Dutch oven, strawberry scones, banana oatmeal muffins, and buttercream frosted cupcakes. All of these turned out rather tasty, and I started to build an ego that suggested I could tackle a baked item with more chemistry, which led me to the mecca of baking: sourdough.

 

Maybe it’s the rise of stress baking or just getting older, but tinkering in the kitchen has become one of my anxiety antidotes, earning it’s place with writing and running in my mental health toolbox. It started when I was in the Peace Corps and forced to make almost all of my food from scratch, but with hours upon hours of free time, it was a nice way to keep my hands and mind busy. Back in the U.S., I had access to a real oven, a plethora of ingredients, and a refrigerator, and I found my ultimate taste tester who will eat pretty much anything I put in front of him. Often, it was a good way to end the day, cooking up a meal for E and I, or spending a Sunday shaping and boiling pretzels. Then graduate school started, and almost all of my hobbies got lost like greeting cards shoved into a dusty shoebox. I often daydream about making gnocchi from scratch or French baguettes, but either I never get the block of time to take on such projects or any energy I had to do so is long gone when there is a free block in my schedule.

For a few years, I’ve wanted to try making my own sourdough starter. I’ve made some really fantastic rustic breads, but I wanted to up my bread game with sourdough loaves. Of course, I didn’t have time to do that with school and two jobs, but when we were put on lock down, I knew that this was finally the time to create my own starter. I probably wasn’t going to work on that novel or clean out the closet, but this is one of those long put-off projects I wouldn’t let myself ignore. It was now or never.

For the first few weeks, I browsed different recipes, looking for one that seemed authentic but doable. Five to seven days, it said. That’s all I need to incorporate enough wild yeast from the air into a flour-water mixture to create a heavenly rise in my bread. The motivation came after a pity party I threw myself in which I played my favorite game: comparing myself to both friends and strangers. I couldn’t have a baby, buy a house, or travel to Peru, but I could make a starter. I pulled out an old glass jar, measured equal parts water and flower, mixed it all up and covered the white goo with a tea towel that my great grandmother embroidered for me when I was a child.

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Rustic, no-knead Dutch oven bread.

Each day, I woke up to attend to all the living beings in my house that weren’t me (or my husband, although I often made the coffee for both of us). I fed and walked the dog. Watered the plant and moved her to the sunny part of the ledge. And then, fed my starter by dumping more than half of it out and adding equal parts water and flower. After a few days, I noticed a liquid on top, which I read is hooch and a sign that my start is hungry, so I upped my feedings to twice a day.

The process seems so quaint and simple, just flour and water, but it’s wasteful and messing. Streaks of dried flour coated most surfaces in our kitchen refrigerator handle, the inside walls of the sink, even the buttons on the coffee maker. My husband would go to make lunch and groan. I didn’t have to ask. I know what this verbal frustration was about.

I had my own irritation with starter. While little bubbles were spreading across the top, it wasn’t growing as much as it should. A ripe starter should double in size after a feeding, but mine wouldn’t move half an inch. More Googling brought me to several articles and videos, and all of them said that it was so easy to make your own. But, they also said, based on how mine was rising, it likely wouldn’t be strong enough to support a bread rise.

For days, I wondered out loud about whether I should attempt to use the starter in a bread or toss it. One more day, I kept telling myself, only to have no changes in results after two more rounds of feedings. My husband was getting very tired of hearing about it, and in fact, after one unrelated fight, he said, “You either have to bake the bread or give it up.” The starter was stressing me so much that I even had dreams about it.

Of course, this is sourdough starter is not just about bread. The starter represents a complicated task that takes skill, patience, and knowledge. With so much of our lives flipped upside down, we need the little wins more than ever. We need to feel accomplished and productive and that we can do hard things, even if they aren’t meaningful.

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Bagels, deliciousness. 

It’s also about who I think I really am. We all like to believe that there is a better version of ourselves hiding within, someone who is just waiting for more money, time, love, or whatever to water us so that we can bloom into the people we know we truly are. The better me only shops from sustainable, ethical businesses, lives in an apartment overrun with plants, and bakes her own bread, if not daily then weekly. This is my time to find that version of me, and if I let go of the starter, then I am afraid I will never find her, that she isn’t as real as I long for her to be.

But more, it’s about the anger and lack of control I feel right now. Sure, my husband and I both lost our incomes, but I am more frustrated about the deficiency of a national paid sick leave policy and affordable healthcare, that big businesses are putting low wage employees on to the front lines and shrugging their shoulders when they die, that certain leaders refuse to admit the gravity of this situation and would rather play to their party than protect their citizens, that people of color are disproportionally affected by this disease and all of us with white privilege don’t get why, and that this never had to be this bad. Also, I miss my people, and I really want to hug them. Right now, I feel so helpless, and every time, I try to think about what more I can do, my anxiety immobilizes me.

What I can do, though, is practice a centuries old tradition of growing a starter, or so I thought. It was easy for me to funnel all of my anxiety and despair into this one activity because I thought I could actually make this work. That if I just kept pushing through the challenges, and gave it enough patience, my sourdough starter would eventually grow. I could feel a sense of triumph in the little things and maybe that could lead to hope for the big things.

After about 10 days, when it should have been ripe and ready to use, my starter was still fairly flat, but I decided to attempt bread anyway. I made the autolyze, and let it rise overnight. It should have been fluffy enough that if I picked off a piece it would float. It did not, so I put some instant yeast into the dough, kneaded it a bit, and let it rise again. It still didn’t go much further, but I baked it anyway.

With some research, I realized that likely my biggest problem was that my proportions were off. For most baking, but specifically bread baking, weight is more accurate than volume, and I was using measuring cups. I probably didn’t have equal amounts.

As the bread was baking, I decided to dump the starter. It wasn’t where it should be, and I knew that I could buy one from a local bakery and feed that to keep in the back of my fridge for whenever I wanted a loaf. Plus, I would have likely need to buy another thing of flour to keep it alive, and it didn’t seem worth it.

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Pale, dense, but tasty. 

The sourdough was, to my surprise, tasty. It was incredibly dense, and Paul Hollywood would NOT have shaken my hand, but it was good enough for my husband and I, so much that I regretted throwing out the starter (when I said as much my husband replied, “Stop.”) But, instead, I will support a local business and get a really healthy starter that I know will give me those big lofty holes in my bread.

Even though the starter didn’t last, and it won’t be something I pass along to my children, (“Kids, I started this back in the pandemic of 2020”), I still made the bread, and that is an accomplishment. But, it also showed me that I can still win, and while I can’t control everything, I still can control me. That night, I made a few small donations to local charities and vowed to do more as I am able and to quit complaining about money and what I don’t have. Also, I am going to keep making bread, because both the baking and the eating of it make happy. I may not be able to save the world, but if I can make myself happy, I have at doing some good in the world.

 

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