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Reflecting on one year of pandemic baking

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On March 25th, 2020, I made a loaf of banana bread mostly because I was bored and everyone else was doing it. It didn’t take long before the aroma of sugary bananas and melty chocolate chips took me back to my childhood, reminding me how much I enjoyed baking. You see, I have always loved baking, I just never found the time for it. To me, baking was like that really good friend who you don’t see very often and barely keep in touch with, but every few years when you do see each other you’re able to pick up right where you left off as if no time had passed.

My mom taught me to bake when I was little. We frequently made the cookie recipe from the back of the Ghiradelli chocolate chip bag, and almost every recipe from Martha Stewart’s Cookies cookbook. Occasionally we’d make pies and cakes too.

Proof that I always liked cake.

In my early 20s, my parents bought me an ice cream maker and I went through a brief stint of obsessively making ice cream. It even got to the point where the guys who worked at the corner store next to my San Francisco apartment asked what flavor I was making next when I’d suspiciously buy their entire stock of chocolate bars. I guess I got busy because after about six months I just sort of stopped. Over the next few years, I’d make scones for friends once (maybe twice) a year, but that was about it. My job involved an increasing amount of travel, and during this time I turned on my oven and stove fewer times than I’d care to admit.

Fast forward to one year ago when I was reunited with my long lost friend, baking. Suddenly, the only place to travel was from the bedroom to the kitchen. The following week I decided to make the same banana bread recipe again because my fiancé and I liked it, and I loved the process. Around the same time, our friend gave us some sourdough starter which we named Wilson. This was strange and new and intriguing, and I made a few loaves of sourdough. I loved seeing how much the dough would rise overnight, and that tasty bite of buttery bread fresh from the oven. As much as I enjoyed making bread, I wasn’t convinced that my 24-hour sourdough tasted much better than bread from the bakery across the street, so baking bread slowly evolved into making cake.

I discovered that there were so many parts of baking I loved. I loved watching flour blend with a buttery, sugary, egg mixture. I loved the idea that I had created something entirely new from a few bags of ingredients. I loved the intricacies of cake decorating and the feeling of smooth frosting. I loved how slightly changing one ingredient could affect the entire end result. So yeah, I guess you could say I was into this.

And today is my bakeaversary! That is a thing I’ve made up, but I’ll take any excuse for something to celebrate right now. For the occasion I’ve whipped up a batch of my favorite banana bread recipe (the very same one I made exactly a year ago), added chocolate chips, and baked it in a muffin tin. I’ve been working on my food photography too. Check out the glow up.

I’ve baked more than I ever anticipated over the past year and I thought it would be fun to share some highlights and lowlights here.

The bake I’m most proud of

If you had told me one year ago that I’d make my own wedding cake and there would be a total of four people including my husband and I at our apartment Zoom wedding, I’m not sure what I would have done. But I definitely wouldn’t have believed you because that sounds absurd. It was absurd, but it also turned into the most beautiful magical day we could have never imagined.

Being my own cake customer meant I could be extremely picky. I wanted each tier to tell a story about my husband and I, and be delicious. I sketched out my idea British Bake Off style, and the result turned out pretty darn close!

The bottom tier was a 6-inch Funfetti cake, a classic American cake that is fun and celebratory and one of my favorites. My husband is British (and an American citizen!), so I wanted that to be reflected in the cake too. For the middle tier I made a 4-inch fruitcake, which is traditionally served at British weddings. I made this layer gluten free since my mom is GF. I also wanted something Jewish in the mix, so I made the top tier a 2.5-inch honey cake. Honey cake is typically served on Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) to signify a sweet new year. I covered it all in a ton of American buttercream, and forgot to take a picture that looked as good as my sketch because we massacred it:

The three tiers after we dug in, not so gracefully. We were hungry.

That ridiculously cool blue cake stand was a gift from my friends who attended our wedding virtually and made the day absolutely amazing. Also I cannot forget to mention that they MADE this cake stand. It has our wedding date on it and a note from each of them on the bottom. Yup. I have the best friends.

(One of) the bakes that failed

Not all baking turns out like the beautiful pictures we see on Instagram. At the beginning of the pandemic I had a vision for a cake that said “wear a mask,” and no matter how hard I tried, this cake just looked like crap. There’s probably a metaphor for 2020 somewhere in there.

You can’t win ’em all, folks.

The surprisingly fun hybrid bake

I really love scones. During my long baking hiatus, scones were the only thing I still baked. I also love challah, but I have yet to fully master it. Getting challah dough to rise correctly intimidates me. So one Friday evening I thought: I am good at making scones…what if I take scone dough, braid it, and call it a challah? This, my friends, worked surprisingly well and tasted great. I call it a schallah. You know, scone challah.

Three little scone challahs. Shabbat sha’scone!

My “this can’t be real life but it is so I must turn it into cake” bake

I can’t read the words “Four Seasons Total Landscaping” without bursting out laughing. When this ridiculous event that just so happened to be real life occurred, I knew I had to turn it into a cake. And that I did. FSTL even re-shared it on their Instagram story AND Jake Tapper retweeted it, so that was exciting.

Four Seasons Total Landscaping. Gets me every time I read about it.

Slightly related to this cake: when I made this I was trying to figure out how to get perfectly white buttercream frosting. The best tips I found were:

  • Use the lightest color butter you can find.
  • Skip the vanilla extract. Also, do not get artificial clear vanilla extract just because you want vanilla flavor without the color. It is not good, peeps. There is a reason vanilla extract is brown. If you’re looking for pearly white frosting (which by my perfectionist standards I didn’t quite achieve in the above cake), just leave out the vanilla. You can add a drop of almond extract if you want a little flavor.
  • This is the most mind-blowing one of all. Are you ready? Use the TINIEST drop of purple food coloring. You heard me right. Purple. This works because purple is opposite yellow on the color wheel so it cancels the yellow out. How cool is that? I add it with a toothpick to make sure I don’t overdo it.

What will I bake next?

There you have it! One of the silver linings of this very strange year is that I’ve rediscovered my love of baking. And I can’t wait to see what the next year of baking will bring. Watch this space (and my Instagram) for my latest baking adventures.

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