personal essay

Baking Beautiful Things Gave Me Hope in a Lost Year

published Mar 10, 2021
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A year ago, when Chicago’s first shelter-in-place order went into effect, I made kardemummabullar, or Swedish cardamom buns, to try to comfort my anxiety. I fished green cardamom pods from the pantry and ground their black seeds from pebbles to sand, the milk-enriched dough strengthening in the stand mixer. Once risen, I flattened the dough carefully with my hands, spread it with cardamom butter, and sliced it into one-inch ropes, then wrapped and knotted the strips around my hands like bandages. When the proofed knots went into the oven, they filled my apartment with their camphorous heat. I listened to a city press conference as they baked: Eight confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Cook County. To the east, ICUs in Manhattan had started to fill. The outline of the death and fear that awaited the country had just begun to emerge.

As the calendar turns yet again to March, the pandemic has made my joy into a scarcity. I’ve often found myself alone throughout this heavy year, with a spouse working longer, fraught hours as an intensive care physician regularly treating COVID-19 patients. In the pandemic’s earlier months, fearing myself a frontline-to-friend vector, I barely left the apartment. Some weeks, when Nick’s working a night schedule, I don’t make noise for days on end, so that he can sleep between shifts. On those days, I work silently in the living room and pantomime my fears to my therapist on Google Meet. The laundry stacks in a pile beside our couch, cotton masks curled beside our unmatched socks and sweats.

Within this isolation, the practice of baking has become a fixation: an outlet for the creation and fostering of beauty in a time bereft of its usual sources. I now spend my non-work hours with cookbooks, raising the stakes a little each week: laminated yeasted dough, first for croissants, next for pains aux raisin. Choux pastry, then rough puff, then — someday — the high drama of full puff pastry. Beauty at a scale that could fill a bakery window — but for now, destined for a freezer drawer, or wrapped and gifted outdoors between sanitized hands. 

Sometimes I’ve chosen baking projects to survive a deeper dip in the year’s already dark water. One late-summer Saturday, the morning before attending my first Zoom funeral, I made almond custard to top coconut-scattered skolebrød buns, each dotted with a small raspberry-jam eye. A savory babka, swirled with caramelized onions and poppy seed, cooled on the counter as I watched early election-night returns on November 3 — an allium cloud summoning the Jewish-deli family feasts of my childhood. Six weeks later, on Christmas Eve, I Swiss-rolled a sticky ginger cake into a yule log, hoping to buoy Nick’s spirits before we opened presents “with” his family, the laptop propped beside the tiny shrub we’d fashioned into a tree.  

There’s no substitute for the joy of eating in community, but baking deliberately beautiful things holds space for the possibility of that joy’s return. The finished creations remind me of the gorgeous meals I once enjoyed with others and of the food that awaits — I hope intensely — in crowded down-the-block restaurants, shoulder-to-shoulder diner counters, and neighborhood potlucks. Some days this winter I’ve allowed myself to picture it: passing slices of cakes or tarts or sourdough bread down a long line at a table, using our bare hands to share without fear, our eyes glassy from excitement — everyone eating together again. Each worried-over beloved’s seat, in my imagination, is filled.

There’s no substitute for the joy of eating in community, but baking deliberately beautiful things holds space for the possibility of that joy’s return.

To imagine this communal joy at times of intense, indefinite solitude, to fantasize my mother’s lilting advice or my sisters’ laughter or my writing workshop’s banter filling an empty room, requires hope: a weakening muscle in my body, but one that I can feel still grinding from my perch in the solitary kitchen. M loves passionfruit, I thought one February morning as I tried whisking its sour, yolk-gold purée into a curd. I’ll make this for her once I can see her again. And again will arrive, I hope, ever closer: Nick’s vaccine card now sits on his desk beside his medical textbooks, both doses dated and stamped. My mother’s one-down, one-to-go card is clipped to her calendar back in Philadelphia.

Hope helps me get through the moments otherwise spent saturated with banal and repetitive dread: tracking quarantine symptoms over the phone, the thermometer resting in the fruit bowl beside the bananas and avocados, the pale-blue hospital scrubs moving in a loop from body to washer to dryer to body. The baking projects, their repetitive, challenging beauties, build pathways for my grief to pass — to become something more manageable within me, even if only for a short time. A fiddly decoration, a custard boiling for exactly two minutes, a pastry butter block meticulously built to six-by-ten inches all make silence expressive. They occupy my hands from over-checking the news, conferring a tactile activity in the absence of hugs and cheek-kisses, dancing close together, subway hand-brushes — pleasures of an era temporarily lost. 

A year ago, when I pulled the cardamom buns out of the oven, some of them spiraled open into misshapen tangles, but a few of them held tight. Those were the ones I placed on top of the cooled-and-glazed pile, just to enjoy how they looked: round and knotted and lacquered like a brooch, I thought, a faux-gold costume one, perhaps like something my grandmothers would wear.

Nick and I ate them standing at the counter that night, asking one another how we spent the difficult day — his spent in the hospital and mine at home, alone. And after that, they were gone.