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The Great American Baking Boom shakes the Upper Valley

  • Alicia Barrow kisses her son Ossian, 10, while preparing to bake with sourdough that has been rising in her White River Junction, Vt., kitchen Thursday, April 30, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • After about 12 hours from first preparing a batch of dough from her sourdough starter, Alicia Barrow kneads and stretches the dough in White River Junction, Vt., Thursday, April 30, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Alicia Barrow feeds the sourdough starter she has kept for over a year at home in White River Junction, Vt., Thursday, April 30, 2020. While staying at home with her five children in White River Junction, Vt., during the COVID-19 pandemic, she has made a daily practice of baking. “A starter is alive, it’s got its own identity and you’ve got to feed it,” she said. Baking with sourdough is, “turning a life form into something that you can share. It’s a life form that’s nourishing us.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/1/2020 9:19:34 PM
Modified: 5/1/2020 9:19:25 PM

Madeline Wolfe was already a regular baker before the novel coronavirus put a damper on her senior year at Lebanon High School.

She had spent a lot of time in the kitchen with her parents when she was little, and as she baked on her own she found an antidote to the stress of school.

“I sometimes will wake up before school and bake,” Wolfe, 17, said in a recent phone interview. “Junior year I did quite a lot.” She bakes a lot of chocolate chip cookies, and dried cranberry, white chocolate chip oatmeal cookies, which often end up in the hands of friends or her running teams. “That one probably has the best dough to eat,” she said.

Confined to their Grantham home, Wolfe and her family have time to bake things they’ve never had time to attempt before. Cookies are one thing, but croissants are something else. The recipe Wolfe followed said it would take 4½, but to fold, laminate, chill and proof the dough through all the necessary steps took her eight hours, all of them worth it.

For many, the order to stay home has engendered a quest for one of home’s great comforts, a loaf of bread, a pie or a batch of cookies, still warm from the oven and spreading their perfume beyond the kitchen. These are boom times for baking.

Historically, King Arthur Flour, the Norwich-based center of its own doughy galaxy, has seen increases in baking when people are at home, said Bill Tine, King Arthur’s vice president for marketing. Even during previous recessions, baking has surged as a pastime.

But what’s happening now is “at this scale, without precedent,” Tine said. March sales of King Arthur all-purpose flour were 285% higher than March 2019. Store shelves have often been as bare of flour as of toilet paper, though only about a quarter of sales has been attributed to stockpiling, Tine said.

While some stores struggle to keep flour in stock, Tine stressed that there is no shortage of flour. Any delays have more to do with packaging capacity, he said. The same is true for yeast, which also has been selling out, even at King Arthur’s store and website.

King Arthur has managed its increase in sales while retooling. The company added shifts and changed its workstations to accommodate social distancing requirements. It moved some shipments from rail to truck freight, which is more flexible. And it expanded the capacity of its recently redeveloped website to handle more orders.

In addition, the closure of the company’s baking schools in Norwich and near Seattle meant it moved baking instructors into social media roles and to help with calls to the company’s baker’s hotline. King Arthur is posting videos to social media and seeing huge volumes of calls and written inquiries.

“If you’re just starting to get into sourdough baking, you have a lot of questions,” Tine said.

Indeed, bread, and sourdough in particular, are leading the baking boom. Because it relies on a well-tended starter, rather than commercial yeast, for fermentation, sourdough is something many bakers want to try, but don’t feel they have the time. It’s also a more self-sustaining way to make bread.

“I want to broaden my horizons,” said Alicia Barrow, of White River Junction. Barrow has baked since she was a girl, and specializes in cakes. But since she’s been at home with her five kids, ages 10 to 18, “I made English muffins for the first time. I’ve done a sourdough boule, ... a big plate of cinnamon rolls, baguettes,” along with such favorites as banana bread. She made a steamed Boston brown bread to accompany her grandmother’s baked beans recipe.

Everything has worked out well so far except the baguettes. The first batch “came out like a ceramic baguette”; the second try was merely “edible,” Barrow, 37, said in a phone interview.

“I like failing at baking, because it gives me something to work on,” she said.

At the same time, baking is part of the economical way of cooking that she grew up with. “I grew up really poor,” she said, and with only her mother and brothers at home, she was cooking full meals by the time she was 11. Barrow, a recently elected member of the Hartford Selectboard, has worked in food security and is currently laid off from a job at a car dealership. Making meals at home from inexpensive ingredients remains a way of life.

“Food has always been a connection for me,” Barrow said. “Now, in this current situation … I just feel like this love for discovery has been renewed in me.” She’s working on ancient bread recipes, including an Egyptian flatbread.

Another White River Junction resident, Martin Philip, has that same sense of baking bread as connection, to family, to time and place, to something that stands outside the moment and requires a baker to be fully present.

“I think that when we are making, to a certain degree, it ensures a level of focus, to the exclusion of others,” Philip, who is head baker at King Arthur Flour and the author of Breaking Bread: A Baker’s Journey Home in 75 Recipes, said in a phone interview. Nearly everyone who spoke for this story called baking “therapeutic.” In an anxious time, baking settles the mind, at least for a while. “Maybe some of the chatter falls away,” Philip said.

Since he’s been home, Philip and his son, Arlo, who turns 12 next month, have been making baking videos for King Arthur three times a week, with his middle child, daughter Anthem, 15, handling the camerawork. (His eldest, Clementine, 17, is up to her neck in AP classes at Hartford High School.)

In the Wolfe household, schoolwork hasn’t interfered with the baking. 

“Once we hit this zone we thought, ‘Well, we’ve got all this time to let stuff proof,” John Wolfe, who is working from home in his job at Hypertherm. So far, they’ve made hamburger buns and naan, a flatbread most common in South Asian cooking. Wolfe made a fougasse, a French loaf that’s heavily slashed and produces a lot of crust, partly because it’s easier than it looks, and partly to remind his daughter who’s the baking boss.

In addition to croissants, Madeline has made bagels, and her brother, Tommy, 14, has been turning out biscuits, cookies and muffins. John Wolfe, who cooked in a restaurant in Park City, Utah, and was a longtime homebrewer, said he finds bread, and meals in general, more important now. His wife, Elizabeth, is a doctor, and no one — either in medicine or out — is untouched by concerns about the coronavirus. 

In particular, dinnertime is central.

“We usually look forward to it,” John Wolfe said, “but it’s very much more so right now.”

It’s no surprise to Philip that baking has come on strong during the current crisis.

In the absence of our customary contact with friends, family and neighbors, the kitchen offers connection.

“Food, in general, is a place where community began,” he said.

“Someone handing food to another person,” he added, “it’s an act of love, it’s an act of caring, it’s an act of compassion.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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