Becoming a baker and barista during quarantine

By no means am I bored at home during the COVID pandemic lockdown like many others seem to be. With three kids under four, there aren’t a lot of down moments to get bored. I’m not looking for the next Netflix binge recommendation or a knitting project. However, I have needed an outlet for some of my home time and I’ve largely found baking and experimenting with new types of coffee to be best for me. I know everyone in the world seems to have a sourdough starter now, but there’s a reason it’s become such a popular past time for other families stuck in quarantine.

I dabbled in bread baking before the pandemic shutdown. I used to make bread machine bread periodically before. While the bread was good, I actually most enjoyed the process of making it and the smell and homey-ness it would give the whole house. A house feels most like a home when a loaf of fresh bread is cooking. I’d also occasionally make a quick bread to use up home brewed beer that didn’t go well or other ingredients.

I’m usually not the one in our family found in the kitchen. While I was known to make a mean sandwich, burger, or fries in college (and can still whip these up when needed), my wife does almost all the cooking in the house. I’ve always wanted to pull more weight there but my wife finds cooking to be a great stress reliever and loves researching recipe books and doing the shopping. During the summer I get to contribute more with grilling meals and am always on the hunt for a new grilled zucchini recipe, but it’s still not much. So with the extra time at home during quarantine since we aren’t going to zoos, museums, or aquariums, I wanted to find ways to help out. Since meals were typically already covered, I decided to grab the baking.

One of the things that appeals to me about baking is how scientific it is. It reminds me of a lab experiment from college. Adding together the right amount of ingredients and following each direction results in a great baked good, but the process itself is just as fun and rewarding. Much like planning a trip, the preparation, research, and anticipation is often more fun than the payoff at the end. With a scientific, methodical mind, I love following a lengthy complex recipe directions exactly, sometimes over multiple days to get something to go from a pile of flour to delicious rolls, buns, or loaves. Learning to culture a yeast starter also involves learning measurements and the chemistry of yeast reproduction, very similar to home brewing. After incorrectly feeding my starter for a week I even accidentally created a small amount of moonshine.

Everyone else is also creating starters for sourdough now. I discovered later that I never needed to because I had apparently stocked two pounds of instant yeast years ago during my bread machine craze. But when it looked like yeast might be hard to come by, a starter seemed like a fun way to learn a new skill and even harken back to the days after WW2 when victory gardens and yeast starters were ways to help the economy and recovery efforts. I think a lot of my fellow yeast starters harbor a desire to prove that as coddled as we are made out to be, our generation can create and cultivate independence from the massive global supply chain we’re otherwise so reliant on. Yes, we live our daily lives dependent on the globalized market and expect fresh produce from around the world all year round, but when it comes down to it, we can be independent and off the grid in small ways as well.

Thanks to a healthy starter I got going in the first week of the quarantine, I’ve made four big sourdough loaves. Of course they weren’t bad with just butter, but some colder weather would have made them perfect as bowls for some chowder. Too bad each batch took half a bag of difficult to find flour. Once tired of that, I moved on to pizza dough from sourdough starter which was the perfect project to share with our boys. Not only did they love getting messy with the flour and other ingredients while they made and later rolled the dough, they enjoyed picking out interesting toppings to throw on before we quickly grilled them up in the grill. Beside the first one which ended up more like a calzone when it got stuck on the grill, it worked very well.

After that it was on to buttery sourdough rolls which took the otherwise relatively coarse dough from sourdough and made it a but more fluffy and chewy. It also took more technique than I’d used before in baking to roll out and prepare the rolls. From that, it was a natural progression to cinnamon rolls which were the culmination of my baking skills so far; requiring dough preparation, making filling, rolling it in, creating icing, and putting it all together to make delicious rolls.

Beyond baking, I’ve also become more interested in good coffee and various brewing and serving techniques during the quarantine. By no means have I become good at it, but instead of surviving on a espresso pods every day, I’ve been grinding beans, making cold brew, steaming espresso, and experimenting with additives for flavor. It all began by drinking two cups off coffee a day. For some reason, I didn’t know how to use our drip coffee machine, so I ended up either making Nespresso or going through the hassle of making two pots of stovetop espresso each day.

Then I figured out how to make it in the machine as well as that a little scoop of cinnamon could greatly improve the flavor. Then we received some incredible beans from our friends in Philadelphia which drastically improved the quality of our morning brews. From there, I started using the AeroPress we had but hadn’t used for years to get the most flavor out of the beans. Then another day I tried the famed whipped coffee that became a viral sensation in the early weeks of the pandemic. Later on, I found a recipe for easy overnight cold brew coffee, “magical style” which suggested adding some almond and fennel seed to make it more Scandinavian, which I simply could not resist. I couldn’t find fennel seed extract in our pantry – I guess I’m not a good Dane – but the almond and some cinnamon made it incredibly rich and delicious. I’m at the point where I just ordered Blue Bottle select beans and am considering a Chemex. The pandemic is apparently turning me into a hipster.

Before the pandemic and quarantine at home, I had dabbled in the at home hobbies of baking and coffee making. But I had never really gone deep with them because my at home time was limited thanks to frequent excursions with the kids. When I did have time, my hobby focused just about entirely on home brewing beer. Thanks to the additional time at home now, I’ve discovered the enjoyment and contentment that comes from practicing and improving at baking and coffee brewing. Maybe it was the binge of all the seasons of the British Baking Show last year that made me think, “I could do that”, or perhaps just the desire to contribute some food onto the family table, but I’m glad to have found the time and space to dabble in these arts.

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