Nandini’s peach and almond tart (@nandinibake)
Note: Sundial Thoughts content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial team or other contributors.
In 2018, New York Times food reporter Julia Moskin wrote an article on ‘procrastibaking’: the process of baking something completely unnecessary in order to avoid doing any ‘actual’ work. Unknowingly, Moskin had described a phenomenon that would sweep the nation two years later when the world came to a grinding halt as a result of a largely unprecedented global pandemic. The past twelve months have been full of shocking surprises, one of which is the sudden desire to bake an abundance of banana bread, a task that would have probably been further down on the to-do list before. In spite of its randomness, the desire to bake is indicative of a larger emotional response to the pandemic. Whereas Moskin’s definition of ‘procrastibaking’ hearkens back, almost nostalgically, to a pre-lockdown climate where the distraction one sought was from too many deadlines, too much work and generally being too busy, the procrastibaking that happened in 2020 was quite the opposite. We needed some way of escaping the abnormal reality into which we had been thrust; the empty social calendars, the blank university work schedules, and the overwhelming uncertainty over what was next.
In March of last year and indeed during the months that followed, there were many times when I felt like I was lost at sea. Amidst the rising infection rates, death toll and impending cabin fever, I felt like things were spiralling out of control and there was nothing I could do but sit back and watch. It was at this juncture that baking became a sort of oasis. There is a famous adage that claims ‘cooking is an art and baking is a science’. Though the total accuracy of this dictum is debatable, there is no denying that the latter certainly requires an element of precision, concentration and attention to detail. Whether it was something as mundane as weighing out ingredients correctly, or perhaps something a bit more complex like icing a three-tier cake, the act of baking demanded my full attention, a demand that I was more than happy to embrace. After feeling adrift without anything useful to do, it felt rewarding to be fully committed to a task, especially one that provided my day with a sense of purpose and nearly always guaranteed a delicious outcome.
From the moment I put my apron on, I would enter a state of welcome detachment from morbid reality and become immersed in my baking. The warmth from the oven, the smell of different flavours mingling together or even the sounds of the chemical processes – fizzing, crackling, sizzling – all worked together to offer stimulation for a mind and nervous system that were rotting out of lockdown inertia. I felt in touch with my senses as I baked; I felt the tantalising sweetness of caramelised onions skirting across my tongue, the slow crumbling of flour and velvet butter between my fingers, the blasting heat from the oven roaring into my face with all its ardour. I felt transported into another city, another life: I wasn’t a novice éclair-maker stuck at home amidst a global pandemic; I was an expert French patisserie chef, making éclairs in the gossamer dawn of a Parisian morning. The aroma from the pastry, cake, or bread of the day would dance into every corner of the house, touching every crevice with the comforting fragrance of cinnamon or the jubilant brightness of orange zest; in my purposeful detachment, I felt blissful.
However, detachment and feigned ignorance only last so long. After a successful week of beautiful choux pastry, I started encountering errors and the facade of perfect baking I had formed for myself shattered. Suddenly faced with failure – flat macarons, raw doughy bread, hard hot cross buns – I, a self-confessed perfectionist, immediately felt disappointed and downhearted. It was a week where I started to lose faith in my abilities and consequently found it hard not to feel the weight of the lockdown. Yet I moved onto the next week where, as if by magic, I seemed to have recovered all my baking powers and was back with a bang. Obviously, as much as I would like to believe otherwise, it was not some stroke of luck or some foreign sorcery that brought back my baking ability; I hadn’t become a bad baker, I had just had a bad week. But had I chosen not to continue the week after, my last impression of baking would be that I was bad at it and had only achieved initial success out of some fluke or beginner’s luck. Fortunately, due to some inner voice telling me to try again, I moved on and got over it.
By no means am I suggesting that every baker has had this specific experience. Perhaps there indeed exists such a thing as the perfect baker and if so, I would genuinely love to meet them! What I can say with greater certainty, though, is that at some point or another, everyone has encountered a bad week of some description. If not a bad week, then certainly a bad year, and specifically 2020: a derailed year full of bad weeks. Even for those select few who have never experienced a bad week – firstly, what? – 2020 cannot have been an easy year by any means. It would be appropriate at this point to emphasise that by some miracle we are still here. Even after such a disastrous year and despite being in a third national lockdown, we are still here. But to say that it has been a miracle is perhaps missing the point. It is because of the different ways we have found it within us to keep going. For some people it has been baking banana bread, for others it has been formulating excessively complicated Zoom quizzes, (both of which I appreciate greatly, though it must be said you cannot eat the latter). We have all found some way of coping and carrying on, and it has resulted in us not only managing to find a way to escape the lockdown but to rise to the challenge (like the sourdough enthusiasts among us) and actually thrive in one of the most alien situations that many of us will ever experience. There is clearly no knowing when the pandemic will come to an end. I had hoped that a shift in the Gregorian calendar would signal a return to some semblance of normality, but the advent of 2021 has only brought with it a third lockdown, right-wing American terrorism, and countless more deaths. 2021 is off to a bleak start. This is a bad week – and it, too, shall pass. Finally, such a day will arrive where, with no masks or fear of disease, we will hug our loved ones, hold them tight and maybe even share an éclair or two.
Article by Nandini Bulchandani