Pecan pie bars, banana cream cheese muffins and blondies, all baked by reporter Hannah LaClaire while working from home during the coronavirus pandemic. Far from a professional baker, LaClaire has found baking to be a relaxing creative outlet. 

BRUNSWICK — As soon as she was out of self-quarantine, Sara Dickey was in the kitchen. 

Finally home after roughly six months in India, the Bowdoin College professor and home baker took stock of her pantry and dug out the mixing bowls. She made granola, chocolate cheesecake, brownies, focaccia, walnut scallion wands, orange chocolate chip muffins, oatmeal bread and chocolate cherry scones, making use of the ingredients already at home and finding substitutions where needed. 

Baking has long been a creative outlet for Dickey, but in this new, socially distanced world, that need has only grown. 

“It’s the way I’m getting through,” she said. 

Dickey is not alone. Across the country, grocery store shelves normally stocked full with flour and yeast are bare. Hannaford spokesperson Eric Blom told the Portland Press Herald that while shipments arrive steadily, customers are grabbing it as soon as it hits the shelves. 

According to Nielsen data and Business Insider, in the week ending March 28, sales of yeast were up 457% over the same week last year. Flour was up 155%, baking powder by 178%, butter 73% and eggs 48%.

Bread, in particular, seems to be having a moment, with pictures of sourdough starters and freshly baked loaves flooding social media. 

Reporter Hannah LaClaire slices homemade pecan pie bars from a recipe from onling food blog, “Add a Pinch” she decided to try while working from home.  The Times Record

Forbes reported that during a recent 36-hour window, #bread was used on the photo-sharing platform Instagram 30,000 times, or about 833 times every hour. 

On Twitter, the mention of the bread more than doubled over the course of a month to more than 80,000 per day, according to Forbes. On March 30 alone, there were 180,000 mentions. 

“Bread is essential to the human condition,” said Eduardo Pazos, director of the Rachel Lord Center for Religious and Spiritual Life at Bowdoin College. 

The food plays an important role in many religious practices, from taking communion to placing two loaves of challah on the eve of Shabbat. 

In its many forms, grain is often at the core of our meals, from pita to tortilla to rice to pasta to French bread. It is sustenance, and a calorie-dense food. There is tradition and comfort in bread. 

It’s what society returns to “when the world stops,” Pazos said. 

“In times of uncertainty and vulnerability, we control the things we can control,” he explained, adding that he expects in a few months we will see more crops planted in neighbors’ backyards and on patios. But it takes time to harvest that first batch of carrots of those vine-ripened tomatoes, whereas “life-giving and life-supporting” bread can be made in just a few hours with simple ingredients.

“It’s a huge payback for a little investment,” he said. 

For Dickey, the process of creating is also rewarding. 

Recently restocked with flour, she has plans for Pain a l’Ancienne and Struan, a Scottish harvest bread, both of which can take several days but are family favorites in her household. 

“There’s something about producing, and combining ingredients,” that is both rewarding and satisfying, she said. 

It requires resourcefulness and creative thinking and, for her, it may occasionally be frustrating, but it’s almost never unpleasant.

“As I work on an article, I might feel like I have very little to show for it at the end of the day, but if I bake a cake or I bake bread, not only do I have a visible product, I have something that brings us pleasure,” she said.  

According to Harvard Health Publishing, calorie-dense foods, especially those with high sugar and fat contents, can dampen stress-related responses and emotions. There’s a reason butter and sugar-laden foods are often known as “comfort food.” 

Food can also be comforting because it’s familiar.

Pazos, who grew up in Mexico, said he recently made enchiladas for his family. 

“In times of crisis we lean on tradition to help us move forward,” he said. “It feels safer.” 

There are, of course, more practical reasons behind a nationwide increase in baking and home cooking and thus, ingredient shortages. 

As the pandemic closes more restaurant dining rooms and as more families start saving money in preparation for an expected economic downturn, people are eating out less and cooking at home more. 

People are also trying to go to the grocery store less frequently to limit the potential for exposure to coronavirus, and may do two weeks worth of shopping and cutting down on short trips to grab just a few items. 

Then, there’s the fact that people are home more. 

“I think people have gotten so far away from (cooking) because our lives are so harried,” said Becky Shepherd, owner of Wild Oats Bakery and Cafe in Brunswick. “Cooking and meals and family dinners got away from us.” 

This pandemic is “forcing us to go back to our essentials and what makes people feel fulfilled and happy,” she said “(Baking) is something you can do as a family and with kids… It’s a perfect story of our values meeting our need to reconnect.” 

Wild Oats closed for a few weeks but reopened for curbside pickup Thursday. To help generate additional business, Shepherd recently launched a recipe subscription service.

For $25, customers can receive one recipe per day for a little over two weeks, and can create their own Wild Oats staples from home. 

So far, the recipes have run the gamut, including sour cream coffee cake, hot cross buns, Hungarian mushroom soup, bacon gouda macaroni and cheese, pesto, bread, sesame noodles, scones, oatcakes and more. Shepherd said she tried to work her way through the “departments” of the store and pick some of the recipes that people have been requesting for years. 

“I have been in my home kitchen testing and testing and testing again” to make sure the recipes work well outside of an industrial kitchen, she said, and so far has not been disappointed. 

Between 300 and 400 people signed up for the first iteration of the service and Shepherd has kept busy answering questions and concerns and putting together tutorials on different topics like yeast or what kind of oil to use. 

“It’s how we’re continuing to be a community asset,” she said, calling it “an amazing connection to have with people.” 

Food is nurturing, and working with your hands can be very grounding and satisfying, she said, adding that there is a rhythm to creating an incredible product. 

Now You’re Cooking in Bath is also adapting to a new world of stay-at-home cooks. The cookware shop is still open and offering contactless pickup and shipping for supplies, but the weekly cooking lessons have now moved to Facebook Live. 

They try to cater to all cooking levels, Heather Fear, director of marketing and outreach said, and the short classes have included pizza, sushi, lobster macaroni and cheese and most recently, quiche Lorraine. 

The videos have proven popular, reaching hundreds of people, Fear said, and serve as one small way the company can give back to the community. 

“People are always asking for techniques and recipes,” she said.

A recipe is posted before each class so people can follow along with the video from home. 

Cooking allows people to flex their creativity, Fear said, and “in a normal time (people) have work, schools or other responsibilities and cooking gets lost in that … it’s fun to take the time to work on those skills and give back to your family in that way.”  

In the Pazos household, they have had more family dinners since they pandemic than ever before. 

“I think the beautiful thing about people cooking, baking and eating more, is that we get to enjoy that,” he said. “In time like this to have these small moments of enjoyment and gratitude and nourishment … it’s a good thing.”

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