Lockdown has been hard, but there is no denying it – many of our life skills have gone through a major overhaul, particularly in the kitchen. From London to Lisbon, Sydney to Seoul, we have collectively improved as chefs while labouring over the stove for the nth time, resisting temptation to thrust the chopping knife in the direction of whoever uttered the maddening words: what’s for dinner? (Surely I cant be the only one? Asking for a friend!).
Cooking brings comfort and joy – and, er, the occassional fit of murderous rage – and while we might feel fed up of the endless, breakless meal prepping, the comfort factor of a home made dish remains intact. Food is the only constant entertainment that has survived the rigorous wringing of 2020, allowing us some degree of normalcy in these ‘unprecedented’ times. Can you blame us for being obsessed?
When lockdown began, the first wave of supermarket attack came from a place of basic survival instincts: we raided disinfectants, hand sanitisers and loo rolls, followed by frozen food, pasta, and tinned tomatoes. The next wave was more visceral: anything and everything that could be used for baking vanished before we could spell c-a-k-e. The obsession got so wild that even when the pandemic’s hottest commodities made a comeback (eggs come to mind), flour and yeast remained ostentatiously missing from supermarket shelves. In April, Google searches for cake, bread and flour shot up, manifesting on our Instagram feeds as #quarantinecookies and #quarantinebreads.
So why did baking become such a pandemic sensation? Dissecting this question is as laborious as following a sourdough recipe. Maybe because there was more time at hand to indulge in it. Maybe we missed our café staples, along with our favourite hot drinks. Maybe because its one of those rare activities that can keep our children engaged for more than one whole minute. Maybe it was the dopamine hit from dropping off sweet treats on the doorsteps of loved ones. Maybe it was simply to avoid going out of the house. Maybe it was our inner chemist marveling at the magic of risen dough. Maybe it was a coping mechanism to deal with all the uncertainty – baking has been linked to stress release, offering “cognitive behaviour therapy” that improves our problem-solving skills. Whatever the reason, baking has emerged as one of pandemic’s most rewarding activities.
My Pandemic Baking Journey
At the peak of the flour crisis, I chanced upon this magic dust at Tesco, shoved so far back inside the shelf that it seemed suspiciously deliberate. I only discovered it because I had dropped low to the floor in true millennial apple-bottom-jeans-boots-with-the-fur fashion for a thorough search, a ritual that I had been practicing without reward for days. I nearly jumped at the sight of those coveted red packets, grabbing them with greedy glee, like a child who had chanced upon her favourite limited edition toy. I felt obliged to give Nizar a call to share the news even though I was a short walk away from home. And to think, flour has never been my grocery list staple! I always had some in the pantry for the odd pancake or pasta roux but these were rare occasions. Now that lockdown has shuffled my preferences, baking items have climbed to the top of my shopping list, just like every other Briton baking like their life depended on it.
Baking has helped me get to grips with the massive changes and adjustments over the past few months. When there is so much anxiety bubbling in your mind, distractions, especially in the form of food, can really make a difference. Lockdown, furlough, Ramadan, lack of childcare, cooking the 100th meal, wiping after an energetic 2 year old for the zillionth time – life as a toddler mom has been slow but not exactly relaxed. Baking helped me to get creative and calmed my nerves.
I started off with making pizza dough from scratch. The first try was intimidating – all the pulling, rolling, kneading felt like too much work for my novice baker hands. Fortunately, the pizza turned out surprisingly delish. I got hooked, so much so that it has became a staple in our dinner rotations.
Over Ramadan, I baked Nizar’s favourite Nutella muffins. They were sinfully scrummy, if I say so myself. When I got my hands on a loaf tin, I immediately joined the bandwagon to make banana bread, the indisputable baking sensation of Covid-19. Its been made so many times all over the world that it warrants its own chapter in Coronavirus’ historical records.
I don’t like walnuts in my banana bread but we did experiment with Nutella – as expected, it was magical! Long Ramadan days on furlough gave me time to experiment further – from chicken buns to apple crumble cake, I was on a roll.
Its strange that it took a pandemic to get me baking because I have always wanted to. I had a go at making banana bread during maternity leave but the spell was short lived. Nizar is not a fan of cakes – unless its disproportionately chocolaty – which left me alone to deal with the double edged guilt of carb overdose and food wastage. Now that we have a deadly virus lurking outside, its easier to allow myself some extra indulgence. Gaining calories is certainly not the worst thing that can happen during a pandemic. It even feels justified to soothe myself with some carbs right now. My favourite baked items reminds me of pre corona normalcy, and helps me bring some of it back into my post corona life. It helps me de-stress, gives me the joy of familiarity and encourages mindfulness.
I don’t know how my new normal will look like once the dust settles, or if it ever will. But one thing is for sure – baking will be a part of it.