Walking down the grocery store aisles today, it’s hard for my pandemic-fuzzed mind to comprehend that last spring it was really tough to find a bag of flour. And it was near-impossible to find yeast.
Using ingredients I had in the pantry, I began baking almost from day one. Posting pictures of my blueberry and sugar-crusted muffins, double choc and date biscotti, and Anzac biscuits to social media in those early weeks of lockdown helped me stay upbeat and feel connected with my friends and the rapidly growing community of home cooks who filled my social feed with images of their daily kitchen conquests.
Keen to make my annual batch of hot cross buns for Easter, I traded a couple of face masks I sewed together using a stencil from the New York Times for one sachet of Fleischmann’s active dried yeast with my neighbor Alyson. With those warm, spiced, fruity little buns on our plates, the kitchen smelled great and Easter almost felt normal.
Bread soon became as scarce as hen’s teeth, so along with thousands of others I took to making my own. I watched a YouTube tutorial given by a British gent named John Kirkwood on how to bake French baguettes. John’s Paddington Bear-like voice soothed me as I learned how to make a poolish and lightly flour and fold a couche (or my pillowcase substitute) so my little baguettes could “sleep” before baking.
After John, I moved on to YouTube sourdough masterclasses given by a pro Irish baker named Patrick Ryan. Something about the confident way Patrick talked about feeding his years-old sourdough starter and handled and scored his loaves made me feel like I’d tapped into the deep historical vein of my bread-making forefathers. In the weeks that followed, I grew a sourdough starter we affectionately call Audrey II (in tribute to “Little Shop of Horrors”) and baked up loaves that brought my wife and me great joy — but to be truthful resembled tough little bricks. As the pandemic numbers continued to mount and lockdown grew into months, so did my understanding of how to work with flour, salt and water, and I began to achieve better rises with more complex flavors.
Wailing sirens were replaced by police helicopters hovering overhead for weeks as Black Lives Matter protesters assembled in nearby Grand Army Plaza. As nightly fireworks explosions that sounded like gunshots kept the neighborhood from sleeping, I wearily focused on dough. Splitting costs with a handful of bread-making buddies, we started ordering in bulk from flour mills in Texas, Utah and Illinois. On delivery days, our good friend and heart healthy food blogger Cathy Elton (who I learned during the pandemic is related to Abraham Lincoln) puts my 20 lbs of flour on the back seat of her car and we run contactless drop-offs just outside our apartment building.
Weighing out 602g of my custom flour blend, 17g of salt, 397g of lukewarm water and 227g of ripe starter, and working through the two-to-three day, 14-step process of making our weekly loaf grounds me. As winter took hold, we were ridiculously happy when care packages arrived from friends and family, including one containing four delicious jars of homemade jam from our Utah ski buddies Alain and Donna, who have been keenly following my bread posts on social.
In the past year, I’ve made at least one, sometimes two loaves per week, more if I’m gifting to friends. I nicknamed my operation “Lincoln Bakery Brooklyn” (after the place we call home) and learned about the flavor profiles and protein content of red fife, einkorn, rouge de Bordeaux, high mountain hi gluten and hard white whole wheat — all types of flour which this all-purpose-using gal never knew existed.
Along with photo walks, Zoom pilates and volunteer work for the AWNY community, Audrey II’s feeding cycle became go-to anchors during our year in isolation. The steadying routine of watching a starter grow to the point of ripeness where I can make up a crusty loaf is something that connects me to an ancient practice that began with the sourdough-loving Egyptians back in 1500 BC. It’s been an insanely tough year, but with a new administration in the White House and the vaccine roll-out now in full force we hold hope for the future — and I know I’ll be a breadmaker for life.