Editor’s note:Have you noticed lately that bits of the past are creeping into the present? We’re gardening more, going to drive-in movies, spending time with nature, putting jigsaw puzzles together. We are finding that these traditional pastimes are somewhat calming in this time of COVID-19. Weelunk’s series, “Bygone Comebacks,” will take a look at some of the ways we’ve been slowing down. Today’s post looks at how baking has spanned generations.
Baking is a science, one that must sometimes be painstakingly precise. Every ingredient must be in an exact measurement, at an exact temperature and heated for an exact time. Even then, the finished product can sometimes be a flop. It’s easy to see how prepackaged baked goods came to fill store shelves over the years, taking time and guesswork out of the equation as life for most started to move at a faster pace and allowed little time for experimentation in the kitchen.
But most people will tell you they prefer the taste of a fresh-from-the oven cookie to that of a store-bought one. That taste can reflect the history and tradition passed through the hands of the baker and create sensory memories that are held onto forever. With “normal life” still mostly at a stand-still for much of the world, many bakers, old and new, are heading into the kitchen to fill the hearts and bellies of those they love.
Barbra Bland has devoted a lifetime to baking for her loved ones. She remembers being an 8-year-old girl in her grandmother’s kitchen, assisting as she made one of her expertly crafted pies. Bland spent years working alongside her grandmother to perfect her own baking skills. She still carries that history with her today when she bakes for her own family.
“I still have the recipe cards that were written out by my grandmother,” Bland said. “The nostalgia of the memories I spent with her in the kitchen are special to me.”
Bland says she does most of her baking around the holidays, starting just after Thanksgiving each year in order to complete over a thousand cookies by Christmas. As her family has grown over the years, she has been able to share her baking with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who sometimes assist with her holiday cookie production.
Another Wheeling home baker and mother of five, Carole Wack, says her earliest memory of baking is watching her mother bake chocolate chip cookies while she would sneak bites of dough. Her love of baking grew as she tried to perfect that same recipe over the years. While her kids were in school, she often baked for school bake sales. Her go-to recipe was her famous zucchini bread.
Now that Wack’s kids are all grown, she spends a lot of time baking for her eight grandchildren, each of whom requests something different for his or her birthday. She bakes several times a week, even if there is no reason other than the pleasure and relaxation she gets from the hobby.
“Everything I bake evokes a memory,” Wack said. “I’m so very pleased that several of my offspring and theirs have developed a love of baking and are learning to perfect some of my recipes, as well as develop their own.”
Carole Wack’s “famous” zucchini bread.
Wack says she has been baking a lot more during quarantine. She’s been making things like cookies, bar cookies and brownies that can be easily individually packed. She has been baking and donating to Catholic Charities’ Hygiene Center, and she has supplied baked goods to Bob Bailey’s As You Like It Catering for lunch deliveries to children who are not able to access school lunches during the pandemic.
One baking challenge Wack says she has faced during quarantine is acquiring yeast to make her family’s favorite cinnamon rolls. Early in quarantine, many supermarket shelves were stripped bare of basic ingredients as people stocked their pantries in preparation of being homebound for an unknown period of time.
Bare shelves and ingredient shortages early this spring were eerily reminiscent of wartime rationing. Though shortages were not nearly as severe as in the past, the unavailability of certain items during quarantine was cause for some creativity in the kitchen and a resurgence in home baking. One item coming out of ovens, seemingly everywhere, is sourdough bread.
SOURDOUGH, SWEET REWARDS
Sourdough, the earliest form of leavened bread, can be traced back at least as early as 3700 B.C. in ancient Egypt. While most modern loaf bread recipes get their rise from commercial packaged yeast, sourdough relies on a fermented “starter” made only of flour and water. The mixture is left to sit loosely covered at room temperature while it absorbs environmental yeast from the air. For the next week or so, the starter must be “fed” at least once a day by discarding part of the mixture and adding in fresh water and flour. After that, the starter can be used or refrigerated and fed on a weekly basis.
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The longer a starter is kept, the more a tangy and fermented flavor will be imparted to the sourdough loaf. While there is no “world record” for oldest sourdough starter, anecdotal evidence across the Internet suggests that some bakers have made loaves in the last few years with starters over 120 years old. Lucille Clarke Dumbrill of Newcastle, Wyoming, says her starter spans multiple generations and has been alive and active through 23 presidencies.
So apart from not needing commercial yeast, why have we recently seen a rise in sourdough popularity? Since the start of quarantine and shelter-in-place orders in March, many people accustomed to working 40 or more hours a week found themselves with an abundance of time on their hands.
For Lisa Welch, having the time to properly care for her starter has made a difference in the results of her sourdough. A French and German teacher at The Linsly School, Welch says she started baking in grad school and has attempted sourdough before without great results.
“I decided [quarantine] was the perfect time to try sourdough again,” Welch said. “I had tried before, but I was never able to really get it right.”
“I’ve definitely had time to watch the starter,” she continued. “I’ve made five or six loaves with no failures (yet!). I’ve also made sourdough waffles, pancakes and biscuits.”
Homemade biscuits by Lisa Welch.
Sourdough loaf by Lisa Welch.
FROM HER HANDS TO FAMILY’S STOMACHS
Another local home baker, Beth Bedway, owns and operates East Wheeling Clayworks with her husband, Adam. The Bedways have had to adjust the way they operate the business during the pandemic, leaving Beth with some down time she hadn’t had in a while, and that’s fine with her.
“I love living a little slower,” Bedway said. “Almost all of my favorite hobbies involve slowing down and being able to focus and relax into the repetition of the task at hand, or letting the process take you naturally along the path.”
During the pandemic, Adam has taken over most of the responsibilities at the shop, allowing Beth to spend time at home with their 1-year-old daughter, Olivia. In addition to other hobbies like gardening, Beth used some of this time to rediscover her love of baking. She was inspired to try sourdough after seeing a friend’s Instagram post about a starter tutorial.
“Melissa Rebholz pointed me toward the @bakerhands day-by-day sourdough starter tutorial and answered all of my newbie questions,” Bedway said. “She was seriously my sourdough guru that got me through and gave me the ability to eventually help others with their starters.” Melissa is the chef at the café at the Public Market in Wheeling.
Bedway has baked several loaves of bread, along with crumpets, mini pizzas and even noodles with her sourdough. She says that seeing successful sourdough recipes come out of the oven gives her a sense of pride and accomplishment, along with peace of mind knowing all the ingredients have come from her kitchen.
“I also feel a bit of pride at being able to make something for my family that has been molded and passed down through cultures around the world,” she said.
“I find it really soothing to be able to get up in the morning and start a bake, help it along its journey throughout the day, and finish the evening with a warm loaf of bread that’s better than anything I could pick up at the store, and that feeds my family with ingredients that I know because I touched every one of them as they went into the bake.”
• Wheeling native Jennifer Materkoski is a graduate of West Liberty University and Kent State University, where she earned a master’s degree in journalism and mass communications. Before beginning her current role as director of communications and employee engagement for a global business process outsourcing firm, Jennifer worked in local media and non-profit communications. She is a current board member of Generation Wheeling, also chairing the organization’s Work Committee. She lives in Wheeling with her husband, Rich, and her three children: Mason, Mercer and Miller.