During the pandemic-induced lockdown, one saw baking emerge as one of the most popular activities to stay busy. First-time bakers kneaded, rolled and tempered their way through the isolation, with the activity becoming a means of not letting anxiety and stress about covid-19 and wellbeing of their loved ones take over their mind. According to a Guardian report, baking your way through anxiety or uncertainty is nothing new. “In fact anxiety has been on the rise since 2016, according to the American Psychiatric Association, and baking has climbed with it. But with the pandemic confining millions to their homes, the practice is rising faster than a packet of quick-acting yeast,” it stated. In fact, in the early days of the lockdown, in the end of March, the hashtag #stressbaking had over 26,000 posts on Instagram [A CNBC report]. In India, during the pandemic, chocolate maker Hershey India saw a sharp increase in the sale of its syrups, spreads and cocoa powder.
One such first-time baker was Noida-based communications professional, Upasana Puri. A novice, she had never tried her hand at either fire cooking or baking before the pandemic, barring a few stray experiments. This is surprising as she grew up in a family enthusiastic about food. “My parents are Punjabi and my mom is from Amritsar. Food is such an integral part of the city’s fabric and it was always a part of the discussions while growing up. But I never took to cooking,” she says. Today, Puri handles communications for leading hospitality and lifestyle brands, working closely with the best chefs and restaurants. “Even so, there has been no inclination towards creating food. I am also married to a chef, who whips up the greatest dishes. Nothing I do can match that,” she laughs.
However, all that changed during the pandemic. She spent the lockdown worrying about her family in Mumbai. As soon as flights started operating, she travelled to visit them. During her stay, one of her cousins would send brownies, cheesecakes and cookies every alternate day. “I kept wondering how was he managing to bake all this while working from home. The desserts were fabulous and didn’t seem homemade at all,” says Puri. When she asked him, the cousins shared links to the Preppy Kitchen, run by John Kanell, a former middle school science teacher turned food-blogging dad in the US. Puri was fascinated and started trying out the dishes mentioned in the videos. “He makes it look really easy to follow. I can’t say I am a master now. I have tried each recipe at least 2-3 times, and maybe by the third time I have felt confident about it. But it has been fun,” she says. Puri now refers to a lot of blogs for recipes. There is a little group that she has formed with friends, who share links whenever they try out a baking recipe.
She finds baking easier than cooking on fire. “I am not very friendly with oil or pressure cooking, or with the act of frying. It freaks me out. I don’t know when I will reach that level,” she elaborates. “Also, while baking you can multitask. You don’t have to keep watching the water or thinking something will get burnt or not. If the recipe says 40 minutes, you can check in 30 minutes to get an idea of where the dish is going.”
Her initial experiments weren’t without their share of hiccups. For instance, Puri didn’t realise that one needed powdered sugar for baking and ended up using the regular white sugar. As a result the first set of brownies had solid white sugar boxes on the top. “The taste was good but the texture and the look of these was horrible. That was my first lesson.” she says. The other thing she didn’t understand was the idea of preheating the oven. None of the blogs or books mentioned how long one needed to preheat the oven for and to what degree. “I did more research into baking and started to understand the nuances. We even invested in a bigger oven,” adds Puri.
She started with baking in the square tin and moved on to the bread loaf and moved on to the muffin moulds. Even now, she tries to do recipes that fit these shapes. Along the way, she has realised the difference between blending and folding and how these change the textures of dishes. “Recently I experimented with egg and spinach muffins. And now I feel I am ready to go over to the savoury side. This has also peaked my curiosity about Indian dishes that can be baked. I would like to experiment with those now,” she says.