The pandemic has turned many non-cooks and bakers into kitchen experts, trapped as we have been for so long without the option of dining out. Those of us who have always liked to cook and bake have become increasingly creative and imaginative to keep ourselves inspired and those who eat our food interested in what is being put on the table.
After four months of pandemic living, we have worked our way through what seemed back then to be a lifetime supply of flour, countless bags of sugar, many pounds of pasta, onions, cheese and vegetables. We have survived the yeast shortage crisis. We have tried new recipes and returned to the comfort of old ones as well.
Most of us are now in a routine (or, perhaps, a rut). We are no longer baking frenetically every day, and meals have returned to less extravagant undertakings.
And, just as some of us were getting ready to admit that cooking every day was becoming, well, a bit of a burden, restaurants opened for in-person dining; first, on patios and, more recently, for inside eating as well.
As Grace Dent recently wrote in The Guardian Weekly:
“Restaurants are go! . . . I’m back in the game. Phew. I can even eat dinner in three specific courses, rather than loading a plate with colliding items . . . . Dinner will have shape again and, afterwards, the plates will be whisked away.
“Are you brave enough to come out? Brave, foolhardy, nonchalant – whatever you wish to call it . . . If the next six months kill me, I want you to know that, when the grim reaper finally caught up, I’d had a lovely three-course lunch beforehand.”
While I am not quite ready to be added to the grim reaper’s list, I get where Dent is coming from. For those of us fortunate enough to be able to afford it, the odd meal out, just like the occasional shopping expedition, helps us feel like we have not lost everything we once took for granted.
I have eaten out three times since restaurants began to reopen, always on a patio, and have enjoyed every aspect of the experience: the surroundings, having strangers around me, being served and, of course, the food; although it was perhaps the least important element of the outing.
Of course, eating in requires cooking in. While there is a certain tedium to cooking every day, it’s a way to break up what Jay Rayner calls “another shapeless, meandering day of working from home.” I find my work and my cooking both go better when I move back and forth between them. Chopping ingredients or making a sauce makes for a refreshing change from sitting at my desk staring at a computer screen. By dinner time, putting the meal together is relatively quick because all the preliminary steps have been completed during short work breaks throughout the day.
As Rayner writes:
“[T]he thing I’ve really clocked during the past few months is that there are certain jobs during cookery, simple tasks, which give me such intense satisfaction they can improve my sense of wellbeing. . . . [W]hat they give me is a sense of power in an overwhelming world, and the more of that we have right now the better.”
Cooking has always been therapeutic for me. I am competent in the kitchen, and the process of preparing a meal or doing some baking leaves me feeling calmer and more grounded than I did when I started. Right now, we are living in the midst of a story that affects almost every aspect of our lives, over which we have almost no control and the ending to which is unknown. The simple tasks of cooking are all the more important; even if it is just a carrot or peach, preparing that food let’s us feel we have power and control over something.
I don’t have a box or file folder filled with recipes handed down from my mother. She put basic, nutritious meals on the table that fit within her limited budget and, as was the way for wives and mothers in the 1950s and ‘60s, met my father’s expectations and demands, but she has never been known for her cooking.
She did have a few specialties. On Christmas mornings, she made a delicious coffee cake, adapted to suit my youngest sister’s serious nut allergy. It’s my go-to coffee cake recipe, with the nuts added back in, and I made it last week for a special breakfast while my partner and I were at a cottage for a few days. Here it is:
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease an 8×8 baking pan.
For the topping, combine 2 Tbsp. melted butter, ¾ cup brown sugar, 1 tsp. cinnamon and ¾ cup chopped pecans or walnuts. Set aside.
Blend together well 1¾ cups flour, 1 Tbsp. baking powder, ¼ tsp. salt and 2/3 cup white sugar. Cut in 1/3 cup shortening until mixture is the consistency of small pebbles. Make a hollow and pour into it 1 egg, 1 cup milk and ½ tsp. vanilla. Mix until all ingredients are well combined.
Pour into pan, sprinkle with topping and bake for 40 minutes.
Serve warm – with lots of butter!