It’s been nearly a year since COVID-19 lockdowns started to ripple across the country, keeping people in their homes, and enticing many, like Grand Junction resident Julie Baker, into the kitchen.
As baking became a national fad, the part-time pastor started making more goodies with her four young children. It felt old world, grounded and practical. When their milk soured, they made sour-milk biscuits.
But then came a side effect of pandemic baking. Baker is pretty sure she can pinpoint the moment the family put the breaks on traditional treats.
“I think my husband weighed himself and he said, ‘Oh my gosh, we've got to do something different!’” she said, her words punctuated by laughter.
They decided to follow a popular nutrition program called Trim Healthy Mama. Now, white flour is replaced by ingredients like oats, and a Stevia blend is used in place of sugar. But the act of baking still feels comforting and familiar.
Like so many pandemic bakers, Baker is figuring out how to take the hobby beyond quarantine and into her new life.
On a recent Saturday, Baker decided it was time to make her very first cheesecake, with plenty of substitutions, of course. Her children breezed in and out, and her buddy Craig White had stopped by to help. He laughed as he described one of their past baking fails: banana bread, without all the needed ingredients.
“So we just added more butter because we didn't have enough eggs,” he said. “And it turned into like — it was like a brick. It was like banana brick.”
White has also been baking his way through the pandemic, though it was difficult in the beginning, back when yeast was as scarce as toilet paper.
“You can call it luck, providence, whatever,” he said, but after three months of searching, he finally found the coveted staple in Target, hiding behind some Mountain Dew.
“It was like winning the lottery, finding that one jar of yeast,” he said, only a hint of exaggeration in his voice.
“The mountains parted and made a way!” Baker replied. “That’s awesome!”
Hovering over her stand-up mixer, they could only hope luck would smile again.
In a kitchen a few miles away, Rose Petralia has not drastically changed her baking habits in this past year, except for ramping them up. She’s spent much of the pandemic mixing together the same three ingredients: flour, water and bacteria.
The wet blob makes a funny, farty kind of noise, but if you work hard enough, it also makes bread. Petralia has had her sourdough mother so long that she’s even named her.
“Mavis is a pretty strong culture,” she said. “She's a Wild West lady.”
And Petralia’s been able to keep her alive since just before the pandemic hit.
“It does feel pretty good,” she said, with lighthearted pride. “I mean, she's really nice to me. I can ignore her for two weeks and then feed her again. And she is just as beautiful as she was before.”
Sounds like a dream relationship for some people.
“Yeah, it really is,” Petralia said, “and you get bread at the end.”
So much bread. She estimates she makes two loaves a week, Mavis’ golden offspring, which she sometimes documents on her blog, Junktown Cooking . While she shares her bounty with family and friends, she also jokes about how much bread she eats herself.
“A loaf of bread every week,” she said, the realization setting in. “Oh my God. That’s a lot.”
And she invites me to join the club, with my own small jar of sourdough starter. She instructs me to feed Mavis Junior the night before I bake bread and then again in the morning. Yeah, it sounds simple, but if I know anything, it’s that nothing is certain until you open that oven door.
Baker, the pastor and mom and four, knows that all too well. Her excitement was palpable as she finally got a peek of her inaugural cheesecake.
“Oh my God. Look!” she exclaimed as her friend and kids gathered round.
Thanks to the alchemy of heat and leavening, care and time, the creamy white batter has puffed up and started to brown. Her 10-year-old daughter started to rib her for being 37 before reaching this milestone.
“You know what?” Baker replied, laughing and smiling wide, “There’s little victories. That’s what COVID has taught us. You celebrate the little things!”
And I would love to end this story with my own little pandemic baking victory. But Mavis Junior, my sourdough starter, ended up escaping her jar, gurgling onto the counter, and when mixed with flour and water, turned sad, inert and flat. But I’ll keep trying, because there’s much more Mavis Senior to go around, and still some pandemic solitude left, as well.