Oven On: Baking during a time of stress

By Sandra G. Ndengue

The search for the perfect banana bread muffins

As Malden and the rest of the state shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I sought comfort in baking.  I’m not alone. A story posted by CNBC declares that “everyone is #quarantinebaking their way through the coronavirus pandemic.” 

My adventures in quarantine baking has not only taught me a lot about how to bake the perfect loaf of banana bread, but has emphasized the importance of family connections and that there’s one source I can always count on – my mom. 

Let me explain that banana bread has become an obsession of mine. Last year I decided to opt for a healthier diet so banana bread became my daily bread. Two slices of bread accompanied with low fat vanilla yogurt and oat fruit cereal serve as my breakfast. 

I usually bought the banana bread at my local grocery. 

But then came the stay-at-home recommendations. I reduced my trips to the grocery store and the few times I have been there, banana bread has always been sold out. So, I made the decision to make it myself, because it’s cheaper, safer, healthier and fun.

Malden resident Karen Yates has become obsessed with crumpets during the pandemic and baked these using her own homemade sourdough starter — posted on the “Frustrated Foodies’ Facebook page.

My banana bread passion is not unique. Banana bread apparently has become the unofficial baked good of a pandemic. According to food historian Sarah Wassberg Johnson, banana bread was likely first made during the Great Depression—another time of extreme economic and social hardship. “Supposedly, a housewife had some bananas that were going bad and decided to try and make bread out of it,” Johnson says.  According to Google Trends, banana bread is the number one recipe Googled worldwide since March 1.  It’s no surprise because it’s delicious and healthy.  

At Stop & Shop in Malden, the shelves with flour and other baking supplies have been sparse for months.

So I was excited to begin my banana bread journey. Alas, it first turned out to be a real fiasco. I followed the classic recipes I found online word for word and nothing worked! The cake was always wet inside and not well cooked. I even tried a banana bread mix and it was just as bad. I then decided to opt for it in muffins and bake it in a smaller quantity and again I got the same results.

Yet again, I found I was not alone. Stephanie Schorow, the coordinator of Malden’s Citizen Journalism program, tells me how she attempted to make banana bread when she found herself with two overly ripe ones. “It didn’t turn out well,” she admitted ruefully, adding, “But I ate it.”

Still Schorow is also taking comfort from baking. She is growing rhubarb in her garden and has used this as an inspiration to bake pies – strawberry rhubarb and apple rhubarb. She even made a rhubarb-orange sauce for chicken. She recounts not be able to find certain items in store and having to get creative — like the time she baked a flourless chocolate cake with eggs and a cup of red wine.  

Schorow’s attempt at a flourless chocolate cake; raspberries, yogurt added.

Kiyah Douglas of Quincy, 22, who just graduated from Salem State University, tells me that the lockdown changed some of her eating habits.  “As a fitness coach, I’m generally not allowed to have sweets and my work always keeps me busy; I don’t have time to bake but the lockdown gave me excess time to do whatever,’’ she said. 

“I use this time to cook and bake brownies and cookies, still making sure that whatever I do, it remains as healthy as possible.’’ However, when asked about results, she admits she wishes she had obtained something closer to perfection. 

For many, baking has become a way to relieve stress. Culinary therapist Julie Ohana says baking brings a lot of comfort in times of uncertainty.

Also on the “Frustrated Foodies” Facebook page, Paul Betz posted this photo and his recipe for blueberry cake, though he stresses he “usually adds more blueberries.”

 Schorow doesn’t quite agree: “Baking is “creative but not as stress free as a warm bath.”

And as for me, after three failed attempts at banana bread, I decided to call the one person whose recipes I know never fail.

“Hello mom? I really need your help. I have tried baking banana bread for the past couple weeks and it’s a flop, no matter what I do.” 

That’s weird! How are you baking it?” Mom asked. 

“I’m following the classic American recipes I find online but nothing seems to work. I mashed the banana and continue by mixing the ingredients in the batter.” 

“Why are you doing it that way? Do it the opposite way! Work the mixture and add the banana last. Don’t over mash it! Do it lightly with a fork and you don’t really need milk.” 

“Thanks, Mama,” I replied with a sense of relief, ready to go back to my cooking battle. “I will do as you say and let you know how it goes.”

Sandra Ndengue and her banana mufins — finally a success!

I headed back to the kitchen. I started afresh following my mom’s advice. Fifteen to twenty minutes later, I removed banana bread muffins from the oven and they were perfect; well cooked, risen and moist. And oh so yummy. 

I rang my mother again. “Mama it worked, you are really the best, thank you, they came out perfect,” I said happily, trying to fit in all the words into one sentence.

The next day, I baked again. I wanted to make the bread healthier so I substituted the all-purpose flour with blended rolled oats rather flour. Another success! Since then I haven’t stopped baking. 

During this period of uncertainty, one thing remains clear to me: Mama’s recipes are the best. 

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