I blame Lin-Manuel Miranda. The Hamilton musical creator kicked up his Twitter presence in this, our unprecedented time of need—no complaints there—and on March 20 he retweeted photos of a golden-brown bread loaf his wife baked. She thanked Mark Bittman's No-Knead Bread recipe from the New York Times; I can't be the only one who right-clicked that into a new tab. Two weeks later, social media is a virtual boulangerie of bread pics. Since when are we all that Pioneer Woman from the Food Network?
The last time I made bread was around 1990, from a recipe in the The American Girls Cookbook (the chapter dedicated to Kirsten, aka the OG Pioneer Woman). My mother had to break out the electric knife to slice the concrete loaf that resulted; 30 years later, trapped alone in my apartment by the coronavirus quarantine, edible bread seemed a lofty goal. But Mark Bittman's recipe demanded just four ingredients—flour, yeast, salt, and water.
The baking aisle at Capitol Hill's Broadway QFC made it instantly clear I wasn't the only one with this idea. There was exactly one bag of flour left, a 10-pound block of unbleached white bread flour, ripped at the top so it was already dusted in its own flour guts. I grabbed it and swathed it in produce plastic bags, not before coating my leave-the-house leggings. Yeast? Ha. That shelf might as well have held tumbleweeds.
Instead, I scored instant yeast through the anti-black market, our neighborhood's Buy Nothing page. ("Asks" are allowed, payment isn't.) Armed with a donated packet that expired last September, a barfing block of flour, and an oven I mostly use for frozen pizza, I embarked on a challenge that felt refreshingly novel and absolutely unrelated to the chaos outside. Mixing the dough didn't require one of those Pinterest-y KitchenAid mixers; I used my hands to blend the four ingredients. New York Times reader comments suggested I needed a 70-degree spot to let the dough rise overnight, so I parked my gooey mess in front of the living room radiator, then immediately had visions of the dog eating it and ballooning into a vet emergency. I constructed a pillow fort around it and the pup never gave it a second look.
There may be no kneading, but the recipe is refreshingly tactile. After 12 hours ensconced in its fort, the dough smells faintly of beer, like a frat house couch, and spiderwebbed into stringy goop. I feel camaraderie with the parents across the nation who've already resorted to making slime for bored kids. There's no elbow-grease kneading, but the dough must be folded and moved from bowl to counter to pot with satisfying plops. Nothing could be less virtual.
All breadmaking demands is the only thing I suddenly have in surplus: time. Let the dough sit for 12 hours here, then 15 minutes there, then two hours somewhere else, and finally bake for an hour. (In a proper dish, something I didn't notice until halfway through; thanks, neighbor's cast-iron pot!) The breadmaking gives my day more structure than my job, social life, or meal patterns. I end up with a pleasantly plump brown loaf; when I tap its bottom like Paul Hollywood does on The Great British Baking Show, it sounds hollow. Inside it's holey and springy and slices (success!) with a simple bread knife.
Necessary? No. The QFC hasn't been out of bread once during this pandemic; the last thing I probably need right now, inactive and anxious, is more carbs. But the farmhouse-y loaf (which I immediately Instagram) is about something else. I'm an outdoorsy Seattleite that spent part of every single pre-COVID weekend of 2020 in the mountains, skiing and hiking and climbing; weekdays were passed in a social office, or at least one where we can overhear our coworkers guffaw at a good Slack joke. Stripped of so much of my identity, quarantine left me unsettled. Baking is an ideal temporary life raft. As long as I stock that life raft with Nutella.
Experienced bakers are probably amused by all these beginner loaves, our frantic requests for sourdough starter and lumpy masterpieces. Seattle Met's own resident kitchen expert, Stefan Milne, recommends this King Arthur recipe; friends have already offered to help me tackle sourdough next. But it'll take awhile before I need to move beyond my simple white loaf, its sliver of self-sufficiency. I'm comforted by a line from Bittman's recipe, one I'll adopt as my emotional motto for the duration. "It may look like a mess, but that is O.K."