On baking and booze
I so wanted to make a galette des rois for Epiphany.
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve turned to baking as equal parts hobby and coping mechanism. You wouldn’t think its fussy nature would suit me, a hopelessly impatient person not exactly known for her carefulness. But baking’s type A personality is exactly what I like about it. It ignites all of my perfectionist tendencies, my ingrained belief that there is a right way to do things. It also gives me something to do in the evenings besides drink.
You can’t cheat with substitutions, like the haphazard way I cook: a dash of this, a pinch of that. You have to be precise, and gentle. No throwing everything together into the pot. You must treat each ingredient with care, in measurement, temperature, and time. Leveling the top of a cup of flour. Taking caramel or curd off the heat at precisely the right moment, not a minute more.
Every household has a vice, and sugar, unequivocally, is ours. Since my husband got sober last year, he says he craves sweets more than ever. As my own alcohol consumption has dwindled and then stopped altogether, I find whisking things to be a pleasant way to keep busy, with a reward you can taste.
Going into January, I knew to operate with a lot of grace for myself and for what I could accomplish. Within the first full week, I was expected back at work in-person for the first time since the pandemic began and Senate control would be determined in a special election by my state, where we found out the lame-duck President pressured election officials to undermine the vote. Casual.
And this was all before the storming of the Capitol.
It happened with crosses and signs that said Jesus Saves on Epiphany, when I had been planning on making an almond and puff pastry confection I grew up on in France.
I don’t even celebrate Epiphany. I wanted to start because it seemed like the epitome of everything lovely about Catholocism, with their high-church rituals and incense and stained-glass windows and wine, that we evangelicals who grew up sitting on folding chairs in rented storefronts rarely experienced. And I’d so far managed to lower my expectations of COVID Christmas (and the holiday magic that moms are typically responsible for) down so low, they were practically six feet under.
But this cake! I couldn’t stop doomscrolling on the couch to get up and make it, and it began to haunt me.
The social media rabble began drowning their blues. I even got served up cheeky ads for Wine of the Month clubs that boldly said “This isn’t the time for dry January.”
Far be it from me to say I wasn’t tempted. There have been times in the pandemic that I’ve basically staggered through. My handle on my addictive tendencies gets better each year, and I have much less tolerance (or desire to parent with a hangover) these days. But the Trump years were certainly a stress test. Its dying breaths were no different.
There will always be a reason to drink, though.
And we need clear heads now more than ever.
With Epiphany far behind us now, and most of January gone in a (sober) blur of too much, and nothing, happening all at once, I’ve set aside my dreams of a galette des rois, with a bean for a fève and a paper crown for Julia. No scoring flaky pastry with the flick of a knife to make decorative designs, or warm bites of almond filling through crisp layers of dough.
It’s the process, after all, that I like about baking. I lose myself by the minute, in carefully watching butter foam and turn golden on the stove, the hypnotizing whir of electric beaters as eggs transform into snowy peaks.
I release any expectation of the result.
With an unexpectedly cathartic inauguration, the month is ending on a higher note than it began. This weekend, when I got too many carrots in my farm bag, I decided to make two cakes, with cardamom and pistachio, cream cheese frosting and a bright orange glaze. I tasted them both on my grandmother’s fine china with a cup of tea at an hour not typically reserved for dessert, but one that was nonetheless happy.