Pandemic baking is a near-cliché—and for good reason. At times like these, we could all use a little more sugar, butter, flour, and chocolate in our lives.
So, even though coronavirus keeps everyone physically out of one another’s kitchens, math faculty member Victoria Mizzi figured there was no better time to start a Rivers baking club. “I knew kids who baked, and they knew I baked, so I thought this would be a way to bond and make the best of being at home,” she explains. When the call went out to faculty to see who might be able to keep existing clubs going or start new ones online, she decided to give baking club a try.
Maggie Barrow ’20 says that initially, all the clubs had a hard time gaining traction. “I think at first, people were just honestly bummed out and didn’t seem interested in these clubs,” she says. “But once word went around that people were in clubs and enjoying it, more people joined. It just needed some time to catch on. Now, a lot of people are involved, and it’s a great way to keep connected with people.”
And a great excuse to bake. The club meets once a week (online, of course) and is loosely structured around a particular baking theme or challenge each week. Attendance varies, but about 10 students (and a couple of teachers) are regulars.
The initial thought was to create a weekly competition, à la The Great British Baking Show, which has many fans among the club members. But it soon became clear that, given the challenge of acquiring ingredients, the range of skills among the members (from experienced bakers to rank beginners), and the inability to see and sample one another’s creations, the club would work best as a sort of support group rather than an actual competition. “The challenge,” says Mizzi, “is to bake something you’ve never baked before and to experiment, to use ingredients you’ve never used, and to complete the task.”
The theme of the first week was cake. “But it had to be a unique flavor—not chocolate or vanilla,” says Mizzi. Barrow took the opportunity to create a chocolate chip tahini cake, which she said was “really good—kind of dense, like something you could have for breakfast. It was interesting to make a cake out of something I’d never really heard of.” Kitchen veteran Calvin Smith ’21, who says he’s been baking since he was 5 or 6, took the occasion to whip up an orange almond cake.
Other themes have included breakfast pastries, fruit desserts, and “tray bakes” (a Briticism that basically translates to “bar cookies”). But the definitions are loose, and, as with so much else during this challenging season, necessity has been the mother of sweet invention. Ezgi Bas ’21, who didn’t have much prior baking experience beyond pancakes, took on blondies as her first solo project. “I didn’t have enough brown sugar, but it turned out fine. I was nervous, because it seemed like an essential ingredient, but I figured it out,” she says. Another student attempting to re-create the famous Kraft Dining Hall raspberry oatmeal bars subbed in cherry jam when raspberry wasn’t available at home. Baking club members swap tips, photos, and encouragement in a Google chat room between meetings.
Enjoyable as it is to bake and to eat the results, club members say they especially cherish the connections the club has fostered. Bas says that she really didn’t know most of the club members previously, but “everyone is so friendly—I never feel like an outsider.” And she says she enjoys seeing a different side of her teachers: “It’s great to see them in a nonacademic setting. We’re close to our teachers at Rivers, but this is just another level of knowing them, to see them in their homes baking.”
Many hope that the enthusiasm and momentum will carry the baking club past the end of the school year and on into the next, when participants may actually have the opportunity to see and taste everyone’s recipes. “Hopefully, we can continue into next year, and hopefully we can bring our baked goods in,” says Smith—if for no other reason than to enjoy more variety. “It would be a lot more fun if we could try everyone else’s desserts, instead of me just eating a whole cake myself.”