There’s a tiny window in the morning, somewhere between asleep and awake when I almost forget; the world we recently took for granted has landed on its head. We’ve been flipped upside down like a buttermilk pancake free-falling towards a sizzling griddle. Consumed by social distancing and self-quarantine, some days feel downright dire. Padding across the kitchen in slippered feet, there is no sense of urgency, no scramble for car keys, no train to catch. The house is too quiet and the neighborhood eerily silent. Overdressed in a thinsulate turtleneck, hooded sweatshirt, and corduroys, but hellbent on coffee, I forget to remove the lid from the burr grinder. Coffee beans skittle across the counter, pausing briefly before hitting the floor. Sunshine is tentatively peeking through the window, illuminating the coffee beans circling my slippers. What day is this, I wonder? I answer my own question; a good day to bake.
What I’m hearing these days are stories from pie pals across the country. We are baking out of boredom, out of desperation, out of fear. Baked goods and carbohydrates are what we crave when we struggle to feel better. For many of us, baking is the perfect tactile activity. Looking for a temporary escape from media saturation? Pre-heat your oven. Need a little control in your life? Set the butter on the counter, grab the brown sugar and reach for an unopened bag of semi-sweet chocolate.
Recently, I’ve noticed a damn‘demic surge of bakers seeking solace in sourdough. I am inundated with images of chubby jars filled with pouffy mixtures of flour and water. While I’m more than happy to accept a warm slice of sourdough bread slathered in butter, I draw the line at feeding and caring for an activated bread starter.
Sourdough bread starters remind me of houseplants. There is such promise in the beginning, the joy of nurturing, the gratification of success, until things go south. I recall each houseplant debacle with utmost clarity, beginning with a leggy spider plant my mother carried on her lap on my inaugural car trip to college. As the first semester of freshman year rolled into the second, it was obvious that the spider plant was on a downward trajectory. Sophomore year, a healthy jade plant weathered the four hour car ride wedged between the complete works of William Shakespeare, a small desk lamp, and a pair of tap shoes. The Shakespeare compendium, the desk lamp, and the tap shoes survived. Thankfully, study abroad Junior year negated any chance of transporting greenery overseas. Senior year I lived off-campus and one of my housemates boasted a true green thumb. I took a part-time job at the local bakery, entrusting the plants to someone else. The houseplants thrived and the Pleasant Street housemates (plus much of the theatre department) enjoyed day-old black and white cookies and cream horns.
My very first New York City apartment had an “S” hook screwed into the ceiling, suitable for hanging a macramé planter. My mother provided a healthy wandering Jew plant that fit easily between the intricate knots and twine. Uncertain if by nature the plant prompted guilt, I tended to the plant with great care in the hopes it would flourish. The wandering Jew shared sunlight with an Amana Cool Zone window unit air conditioner. Neither the plant nor the air conditioner survived past August and yes, I felt guilty. The guilt plagued me through unhappy encounters with African violets, Christmas cacti, Paperwhites, and orchids. Even the impatiens of my adult life ultimately grew impatient with me, losing their joie de vivre.
I’m probably overthinking this, but sourdough starter feels very plant-like to me, and perhaps that is why I avoid it. Comfortable yeast doughs appeal to me; pizzas and focaccia, tightly swirled cinnamon buns and babka, top-knotted brioche. But my true love, the dough that serves as a blank canvas for every season, is crafted in an over-sized Pyrex bowl filled with pieces of cold butter, pinches of sugar and salt, and handfuls of flour, In order for pie dough to be tender, not tough, it needs to be spoon-fed just enough ice water to hold itself together, but not too much. I suppose pie dough is akin to sourdough starter in that they need a little nurturing and some time to relax in the fridge.
Situations dictated by unusual circumstances nudge bakers to be creative, to consider hidden treasures tucked away in pantries and freezers. Throughout history, pie bakers have been forced to use what was readily available, more so when times were difficult. My freezer boasts snippets of pie dough made from various flours, each parcel carefully wrapped in plastic. Although the leftover dough is too small to fill a 9” pie plate, it is too large to toss. A deluge of leisure during a difficult time has encouraged me to be crafty, something I'm not. Pie dough shies away from re-rolls, but with some gentle coaxing, odds and ends handily fill a make-shift pie tin. Frozen rhubarb and a few handfuls of fresh strawberries bake up into something that tastes less like the Ides of March and almost like spring. If the world is still upside down once I exhaust the freezer supplies, maybe I'll take up macramé.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm