NORTH FORK, NY — One of the universal truths to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic is that, along with the ever-elusive rolls of toilet paper, yeast is harder to find than a winning lottery ticket.
For so many who've been holed up in quarantine, cooking — and especially baking — has meant either a return to the comforting recipes of childhood or a foray into a whole new world of culinary creativity. Baking bread from scratch, a long-ago tradition, is suddenly a focus, along with Zoom cocktail parties, Netflix binges, and morning gatherings around the TV to listen to New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo discuss coronavirus strategies, and yes, the meatballs and sauce of his childhood Sundays.
Food. It's become a central character in the coronavirus saga of so many families. And now, East End readers have shared their stories and photos with Patch, about the recipes and reasons why baking and cooking have meant so much during arguably one of the most tumultuous moments in their collective lifetimes.
"My grandma always said, 'Whenever you’re sad or upset, go into the kitchen and make something,'" said Marie Ferrick of East Quogue. "'You’ll feel better in the end and everyone will be happier for it.' I’ve been thinking about her so much lately and her stories of cooking during the Great Depression. She would tell me to take notes because history repeats itself. She was always ahead of her time."
Gabrielle Stroup of Southold said while she always cooks a lot, she "certainly has been trying some new recipes."
Riverhead Town Councilwoman Catherine Kent said while "planning out interesting meals helps keep some kind of schedule during these crazy days, it's been tough on my waistline!"
Joanne Waski of Riverhead said all she's been doing with her free time is cooking. "Since I have more time I am expanding out of my comfort zone and starting to bake a bit," she said. "I really don’t like the idea of many people handling my food so I prefer to just make it myself. The less hands, the better."
Cindy Clifford said she's been doing "so much baking, mostly from scratch, but these cinnamon muffins kept calling to me. Her cat clearly Kebster likes them, too, she laughed. "In a world where we have no control over the big picture, cooking and baking is a win/win. It’s a comforting diversion with reasonable control over the outcome and then we can soothe ourselves, indulging in homemade goodness."
Grandmother's recipes reborn
"I've been wanting to make pizza dough — and pizza‚ like my grandmother for a while and decided now was the perfect time to try, but we could not find any yeast," said Chris DeVivo of Speonk, who has been cooking with his wife Caryn. "After struggling to find yeast for over a month we had a friend from Florida ship us up some and this weekend, we gave it a try. While it didn't taste exactly like I remembered, and I changed the toppings a bit, it was still good for a first try."
Loni Lewis of Riverhead is still working three days a week. "But on the four days I am home I have been cooking and I have started baking once a week. Last week it was a Hummingbird Cake, the week before that was cookies, the week before that was a carrot cake and today, I made all-homemade — including the pastry cream — cream puffs."
Reasons behind the baking frenzy
Many have given their reasons for the uptick in baking and culinary exploration, but according to Michael Kocet, a licensed mental health counselor and professor and department chair of the Counselor Education Department at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, baking provides certainty, "especially in this period of angst and unknowns," according to a post by the CNN Wire posted on CBS58.com. Baking helps to reduce anxiety and can lead to mindfulness, the post added, with the steps involved requiring patience and precision and making an individual feel centered.
For others, baking has been the realization of a long-held dream.
"I've always enjoyed baking and my family has told me for years to open up a bakery," said Susan Hallock of Peconic. "It has never been possible, as we know life happens. But since I’ve been home for quarantine baking has been my happy place. I get requests from friends and family and bake almost every day to keep their stomachs happy. I’ve made brownie cookies, snickerdoodles, peanut butter cookies, peach crumb muffins, blueberry muffins , creamsicle cupcakes, pizza dough and homemade pretzel bread."
Rachel Jannace told Patch that while she's always loved to cook meals, she has "always shied away from baking because of the precision." However, she said, "I purchased a few key pieces of equipment and so far, entirely from scratch, I have made sandwich bread, dinner rolls, baguette bread, pie crust, zucchini bread, banana bread, homemade pizza dough, pasta — and, most recently, I made a sourdough starter and baked my first loaf of sourdough bread!"
KT Dom, meanwhile, made challah bread for the first time. Baking, she said, is "helping hubby and I to stay sane."
Roe Malusa has been baking and cooking every day. "It’s a task that keeps me busy, is a bit of problem solving — using ingredients in the house — and makes for a wonderful shared experience with my family when eating things. This is a flourless chocolate cake, as we were out of flour at the time," she said.
For Breana Elise, cooking and baking are very relaxing. "It takes your mind off all the chaos. I’ve always loved doing it, but haven’t had the time recently, until now. Baking, especially takes a lot of time, patience and trial and error. I’ve had to be gluten-free for several years and now I’ve been able to figure out and create some tasty gluten-free recipes that I’ve been wanting to do. A lot of people think gluten-free means you have to sacrifice flavor, but if you do it right, it’s delicious."
Coronavirus has also sparked a necessity for creativity, many agree, with a need to use ingredients in cupboards during quarantine since trips to the supermarket have been largely foregone and delivery services are booked solid for weeks.
Janice Meyers said while she lives mainly in Arizona, she summers on the North Fork; she and her husband are originally from Long Island and still have family and friends in the area.
Her #quarantinebaking journey began on March 26, her husband's birthday, she said.
"It hit during COVID so what was I to do about a cake? I am a business executive and not at all domestic. But necessity is the mother of invention and using ingredients onhand, I baked him a cake from scratch after finding an eggless chocolate cake recipe online. This led to a newfound endeavor to bake from scratch, including a lemon cake, using lemons from a neighbor’s tree, and a banana bread, adding some blueberries as I ran out of bananas."
Cooking is also about making memories, many agreed.
Tara Lynn said she's been making apple cinnamon muffins. "I’ve always loved to bake, especially now! Baking and cooking definitely makes this quarantine a little easier as the hours go by a little more quickly. My kids get involved too, so it’s great, kind of like a cooking class," she said.
Suzanne Hall Varbero said her third grader and fifth grader are in charge of each cooking a complete dinner once a week. "It is teaching them great skills and keeping them busy. My son has made Chinese chicken and broccoli and a BLT. My daughter has made chicken Marsala and lemon chicken. It has been amazing," she said.
Others said it's a sheer survival tactic.
Daniel Fischer noted, of his cookies: "Perhaps not as good a Xanax but still quite satisfying."
And for many, the art of cooking can be savored with the gift of precious time.
Tanya McDowell of Mattituck said she loves cooking, and "quarantine has given me back the time to do more of it. I usually work several jobs so a nice planned meal with the time to spend making it is great! It’s my time to listen to music and enjoy a glass of wine during the prepping. I’m truly missing my gym membership with all this cooking," she said, adding that her pizza on the barbecue was a hit. She also has gotten creative with cocktails, including fresh basil and blueberry margaritas.
Alison Sierras of Riverhead said she's always wanted to make bread but waiting around for dough to rise is time she never had. "Plus, I don’t have much time to clean while staying home now because I’m still working and need that concentration. But working at home and waiting for bread to rise is doable," she said.
For others, cooking is a way to relax.
"Baking and cooking has always been a stress reliever for me," said Melissa Louise.
Dina Drisgula said she had never been much of a baker, mostly focusing on cooking savory dishes.
"I love to experiment and try new things but with baking, it’s limited because it’s so technical — or so I thought. I felt like the quarantine was a great opportunity to really focus my attention on baking and experiment with different flavor combinations and techniques. Since my husband and I are both home during the day now, he is around to care for our 18-month old so I can get more time in the kitchen to practice my baking skills. It also calms me down a lot! And during this pandemic, I needed to be calmed constantly. Idle hands are the devil's workshop and there has not been a single day that my hands have been idle in this kitchen during this quarantine! There’s no better time than the present to work on your skills and gain more and more knowledge every day. Also, we love cake."
Melissa Louise of Riverhead agreed: "Cooking and baking have always been a stress reliever for me. I take pride in feeding my family of six. And, taking quarantine seriously has allowed me more time in the kitchen to make more involved dishes. I also try to limit our exposure. I go out only weekly for groceries and take out is once a week. Because let's face it, even those who love to be in the kitchen need a break, too!"
Others say it's all for the kids.
Linda Braun of Shirley laughed: "I hate cooking and baking. I'm the only one washing dishes three times a day! But cooking or baking with my kids gives them something to do besides my hearing, 'I'm bored' all day. At least they are learning cooking skills and we are trying new recipes because it gets boring having the same thing all the time. It's bonding and quality time."
Kim Swicicki said her children have started a cooking challenge each week. "They each select a recipe, make a shopping list for me, and cook and serve the family. It’s been so much fun and is definitely teaching the a much needed life skill," she said.
And for others, cooking means self-nurturing.
"I've been cooking up a storm for myself. I haven't cooked for myself post divorce. I mainly started cooking again because I didn't want to risk getting take out every single day, but it's actually saving me money, naturally, and it's a lot healthier," said Angelina Belfiore of Shirley. "It actually feels great to cook again. I've forgotten how good it was to have a nice, home-cooked meal."
Janine Schoenewerk said the gift of time has allowed her the chance to try cooking new recipes, including "loaded burger bowls" that were easy, quick and delicious.
Linda Aydinian of Riverhead has been "cooking and baking up a storm due to being quarantined. And it’s not even a favorite hobby of mine— but there’s only so many books I can read and TV I can watch."
Lisa Votino of Southampton said she was known for not cooking — until coronavirus and quarantine. In the past weeks she's made double chocolate cupcakes, copycat Cracker Barrel hash brown casserole, beer bread, crockpot General Tso's chicken, garlic lime shrimp stir fry, and dark chocolate, raspberry banana bread. Her little girl Lily won't always try new foods, she said, so she's left to experiment on her own.
Others say baking has become a quarantine must. "I can't stop making chocolate chip banana bread and muffins," Rebecca Jensen said. "Baking gives me something to look forward to while stuck at home."
Gwen DeFriest said she has even begun growing herbs so she can cook. "I find I am trying new things and I have the time to plant more and cook more," she said.
Donna Washburn, of Florida, said cooking can also bring the world closer together during a global pandemic, with recipes creating lifelines from areas such as Italy, hit hard by coronavirus. "My husband Brian is the volunteer assistant coach for the Flagler College men's basketball team. For the past four years he has worked with a group of students who are all international — great group of young men and we have met some of their parents as well. For four of them, this is their senior year and tomorrow would have been graduation."
One, she said, flew home to northern Italy. "We were very worried about him, even offered for him to stay with us. But, as you can imagine, his parents wanted him home. They are all safe and healthy. His dad Claudio sent us a video of them making homemade pasta along with the recipe, so Brian made the homemade pasta in honor of our friendship. It is such a small world — talking to people in Italy, sharing the same problems and making homemade pasta 'together.' Pretty cool," she said.
Now, if only there were yeast.