My year of obsessive, indifferent baking

I've never needed my kitchen, and needed to get away from it, more

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 26, 2020 5:30PM (EST)

 (Photo illustration by Salon/Mary Elizabeth Williams)
(Photo illustration by Salon/Mary Elizabeth Williams)

The baking started immediately. My eldest daughter, arriving home from college for what was supposed to be spring break — but we all knew was an indefinite campus shutdown — dropped her bags near the door and requested chocolate chip cookies. It was March 13. I haven't taken my apron off since. I'm not unique in baking my way through this dumpster fire of a year. But what has surprised me in all of this has been discovering the limits of even the most consoling of rituals.

I don't know how I thought this was going to go — it's my first pandemic. I can however say that I vastly overestimated my own degree of "Keep calm and carry on" competence. In other times, getting food on the table was a pleasant occupation, a daily ritual built on equal parts muscle memory and creative expression. In other times, though, there weren't four full-sized individuals doing their jobs and school work and managing a full slate of new, suddenly life-and-death routines all day long in the confines of one tiny, inescapable New York apartment.

The clock and the calendar, abruptly bereft of events to fill them, have contorted themselves in peculiar ways. There have been sleepless nights that felt endless. There have been many, many weekends worked straight through. There have been days when I looked up that had somehow turned into evenings. Always, there has been the need to keep everyone fed, a seemingly round the clock, out-of-tune drumbeat.

RELATED: These two-ingredient brownies are one baking hack that doesn't sacrifice on flavor

The kitchen has long been my chief place of solace and joy. It still is — It's just also now my prison, too. How, at the end of a day filled with grim news and constant interruptions — a delivery of groceries once easily purchased in person, a new COVID-19 case at a parent's nursing home — does one balance the need to feel reassured, to feel civilized, with the bone-weary desire to do absolutely zilch? How does one create comfort, while simultaneously feeling so afflicted? My therapist told me I needed to create more routines. But in the chaos, where does one find them?

My cooking this year, and in particular my baking, have adapted. My most useful resource has been Jamie Oliver's "5 Ingredients," a book that's damn near prescient in its understanding of that moment in the day where extreme exhaustion and high emotion intersect. It's dinnertime.

It was still early days when I found myself mildly dissociating as my blender chugged away on what would become a pan of brownies fashioned from only two ingredients. That's when I knew — I think — what was different. About me. About everything.

RELATED: These three-ingredient peanut butter cookies are hands-down the best cookies in the world

I lazily stirred up something called Depression cake, a dessert made of cheap pantry ingredients which also reflected the global mood. I tinkered with box mixes for St. Louis gooey cake and supermarket pie dough for cutout cookies. Turning to both Christina Tosi and Chrissy Teigen, I pulled together meringues and crunchies and globby candies that relied on breakfast cereals.

In more ambitious moods, I made little ice cream cakes which evoked my New Jersey childhood. In less motivated humors, I squished donuts from the shop down the street in the waffle iron. I sought distraction in hot fudge and milkshakes. On two separate occasions, with two different daughters, we concluded an hours-long cryfest over our stand mixer. The younger one and I made a boxed yellow cake with buttercream frosting. The older one and I made the Alison Roman chocolate chunk shortbread cookies. We devoured our handiwork greedily and tearfully.

All of this has recalibrated my relationship with the word "bittersweet." I have longed to nourish my family with gestures of love. I have resented the washing of another damn cup. I have discovered the connection that comes from attempting a recipe that's a viral hit. I baked the Basque cheesecake over and over, and I was right there when one daughter went through an intense phase with that TikTok famous espresso drink.

I chopped and stirred and frosted while on Zoom with friends I haven't seen in ages (and don't know when I'll see again). I repainted the kitchen. I pulled out the Instant Pot. I have overindulged, and I have lost my appetite. I've stood at the stove as the waves of 7 p.m. cheers floated into the city streets, and sobbed into my morning coffee at the endless, ominous drone of sirens. I've gone through through unfathomable amounts of sugar, butter, flour and eggs, and I don't know if the verb I'd use for that process is "blazed" or "slogged."

For me, cooking is now equal parts tyranny and therapy. It's obligation and expression. Whatever it was I needed this year, I knew I couldn't just buy it all wrapped up and ready to go. I also knew I couldn't be that person with the Instagram perfect focaccia. So I've searched to find my place in the liminal space, settling somewhere that our Gov. Andrew Cuomo's ex-girlfriend Sandra Lee somewhat infamously calls "semi-homemade." I've embraced the messy half-assedness of it all, the work shirt on top and sweatpants on the bottom approach which encapsulates this entire year of doing our best and lowering the bar.

Last night, I made my family a pumpkin pizza with canned pumpkin, mozzarella, ricotta and slow cooked onions, which came together in a few minutes. I followed it with my three-ingredient peanut butter cookies, which remind me of my favorite, now shuttered bakery. As we sat together at the table, I felt acutely aware of how much we have — and how much we have lost. Another beautiful, terrible, fleeting, endless day, punctuated the only way I know how — with something a little sweet. And then we cleared the plates, and we started everything all over again.


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By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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