• Joseph F. Berenato

Baking on the rise during pandemic


Mackenzie Fitchett’s latest favorite scones have a secret ingredient: cream cheese. (Courtesy Photo)

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has created a number of lifestyle changes for people across the country, not the least of which is a more housebound lifestyle. For many, like Mackenzie Fitchett, the extra time at home has afforded the opportunity to hone a new skill: baking.


“It’s always been something that I’ve liked to do, but I never really had the time to do it, between work or school or relaxing. Being home during the pandemic gave me the opportunity to tap into something that I didn’t honestly know I was good at until I got to do it every day. I started with muffins and went on from there. My mom ordered me yeast about a week or two into the pandemic, and now I just bake bread all the time,” Fitchett said.


Yeast, however, was a hot commodity during the early days of the pandemic.


“It took a long time for my mom to find the yeast. At the beginning of quarantine, we started looking for it, and it took us about two weeks to find it, then another week for us to actually get it in the mail. I still have the original yeast from the beginning of quarantine; I keep it in an airtight bag in the fridge and I still use it to this day. My mom said, ‘Well, if we’re going to get you a bag, we might as well get you enough to get you through quarantine,’” Fitchett said.


One of the aspects of baking that Fitchett finds appealing is the precision involved.


“I like being able to follow the recipes exactly, instead of cooking like, ‘Oh, put this in a pan and throw some seasonings on it.’ I can’t cook, but apparently I can bake because I like following the directions. I love baking bread, and taking the temperatures of everything. My mom ordered me a kitchen scale, so I weigh out all my measurements exactly. It’s so satisfying to be able to do that,” she said.


One of Fitchett’s recent success was a birthday cake for her mother, Hammonton tax collector Debbie Fitchett, made “completely from scratch; it was a fluffy banana cake with a banana cream pudding layered in the middle with a whipped chocolate frosting.”


“It took me all day. I got up and started at 10 a.m. and finished it around 4 or 5 p.m. because of all the elements that it had in it. There was nothing I would have liked more spending my day doing than making that cake because it was so much fun. I got to use a bunch of different skills that I hadn’t really used before, and for it to turn out to be edible was my biggest accomplishment. It was awesome, and the whole cake went; my family ate the entire cake. Usually, we throw out half the cake after our birthday because it’s just four of us,” Fitchett said.


Fitchett said that she takes a great deal of inspiration from “The Great British Baking Show.”


“I’ve started coming up with scones and all these different things that I want to make. I really want to make macaroons, but just haven’t gotten to it ... I’ve been wanting to make more scones; I probably just made my favorite scones that I’ve ever made, and I put cream cheese in the batter instead of butter. It was the most moist, delicious scone I’ve ever had, so I’ve been dying to get to the store to make more cream cheese scones,” Fitchett said.


Fitchett noted that she was surprised by how much she enjoys baking.


“It’s a lot of fun. It’s something that I’ve found that I am naturally good at, which I’ve never really known before. I hadn’t gotten the time to do it to actually figure out that I’m not that bad at it,” Fitchett said.


Fitchett is by no means the only one in the area who has been using baking as a way to pass the time at home.


Eric Schmehl enjoyed his cinnamon currant swirl bread. (Courtesy Photo)

Eric Schmehl—who noted that his baking has “definitely escalated as we’ve had more time in the last year”—said that one of his favorite activities since the beginning of the pandemic has been experimenting with sourdough starter kits.


“I’ve been making regular sourdough loaves of bread, but since we’ve had more time to mess around, I’ve been trying out different additions. You can fold any kind of mix into the dough to incorporate it, so we’ve done fruit and nut, and different seeds and things like that, and played around with different flours. You can use an all-purpose flour—bread flour works fine—but we’ve been messing around with whole wheat and other more complex flours and playing around with ratios to see what it does with flavors, and it makes a world of difference. You wouldn’t believe ... We’ve been messing around with stuff like that, like spelts and whole wheat and other ancient grains. It adds a little bit of extra flavor,” Schmehl said.


Schmehl said that he’s also been utilizing the versatility of the kits with other projects.


“You can make a loaf of bread with a sourdough starter, but it’s really just a great way to have yeast on demand for any kind of a baked good, so we’ve been using it. You can also use it for unleavened projects; we’ve done a sourdough naan, biscuits, pancakes, waffles—anything that has a batter,” Schmehl said.


Besides the sourdough kits, Schmehl said that he’s been experimenting with other baking projects as well.


“We had a surplus of dried currants, and we were trying to figure out ways to use them. We figured it was close enough to a raisin, so we found a recipe for cinnamon raisin roll-up bread with the swirls in the middle. I whipped that up the other day as an experiment, and it turned out pretty well,” Schmehl said.


Jen Rajkowski and Kaelie Swenson were hard at work making Jaffa cakes. (Courtesy Photo)

Jen Rajkowski said that she, too, has been experimenting more in the kitchen.


“I have been project cooking nearly every weekend; a lot of ‘theme’ nights and ethnic cuisine and cooking from cookbooks ... I’ve always been an adventurous cook—and luckily have an adventurous kid—but after grilling season ended and it became more necessary to spend time indoors, I grew antsy and needed some concrete projects to stave off depression,” Rajkowski said.


Rajkowski said that she has been using cooking as a way to teach her daughter, Kaelie Swenson.


“Around Christmas, I tackled Christmas food traditions in Mexico, Sweden, Poland and England; Poland and Sweden because of our ancestors, Mexico because it has rich and interesting food and holiday traditions, and England because I thought it was fun to have some programming parallels in terms of movies/shows/books,” Rajkowski said.


One such English delicacy that Rajkowski made with her daughter are Jaffa cakes, which she described as a “traditional British ‘biscuit’ made with a sponge base, orange marmalade jelly middle and covered in tempered chocolate.”


Rajkowski said that Swenson’s inspiration for that particular pastry was the same as Fitchett’s.


“‘The Great British Baking Show’ prompted Kae to want to make them,” she said.


After Christmas, Rajkowski said, she began to cook a meal each weekend from one of her “vast collection of books.”


“Most recently I cooked from The Rise—which is a celebration of Black American cooks and members of the food community—for MLK weekend. It also provides a good conversation and teaching point for Kae about race, culture, different countries, traditions—and I’ll often do a parallel teaching moment with her as well,” Rajkowski said.


For Lisa Varesio, the time afforded by the pandemic has provided an opportunity to begin a healthier lifestyle.


“At the beginning I was being very strict with my diet because I didn’t want to gain weight like everyone else. Then, I found out my branch was closing and I wasn’t being retained as an employee, so I decided to take the summer off once my office closed. I had fun during the summer, but, after I started working again, I researched plant-based diets,” Varesio said.


Varesio said that now her diet incorporates plant-based meals, because they help eliminate inflammation.


“I’m finding the balance now and I can feel the difference when I eat strictly plant-base. I honestly started with just eliminating dairy and it morphed. I’m still trying to figure out what works for me, but I have found some awesome recipes that satisfy me,” Varesio said.


Among those recipes, Varesio said, are “lots of soups.”


“I like soup when it gets cold, and it’s easy for lunch and dinner,” Varesio said.


Among some of her recent favorite soups are lemon orzo with spinach, butternut squash and white bean chili, and stew with jackfruit.


“It substitutes meat. You wouldn’t even know it wasn’t meat,” Varesio said.


Mary Young has also been using her time creatively.


“Just out of boredom and experimenting, I had some root beer barrels left from when I closed the store [Chatter’s Baskets]; wasn’t sure what to do with them, started looking and ended up making root beer moonshine,” Young said, noting that she and her husband, Jeff, have also made limoncello, chocolate cello and blueberry vodka.


Jeff Young shows off some of the liqueurs he and his wife Mary made. (Courtesy Photo)

The making of homemade liqueurs is a time-honored tradition in Hammonton, and is not the only one to which Young has looked during the pandemic.


“My mom was prepping when we were first put in quarantine and we were having trouble finding things. She mentioned how, when they were younger, her mom always had to find ways of making food stretch for cooking with whatever ingredients were around the house. She comes from a family of 11, so they had to make it work. So I thought, why not look at the old cookbooks?” Young said.


Young said that many of the older cookbooks had recipes with ingredients she either already had in her home or that could be easily substituted.


“Their cookbooks were better to follow; since commodities were scarce back then, they were forced to use other things, just like we were during quarantine since we were unable to get a lot of things in the beginning,” Young said.


Young said that, thanks to the older recipes, she has been making “a lot of casserole recipes, trying to do different things with chicken and pork instead of the standard.”


Additionally, Young recently made a bread pudding pie using a recipe from 1940.


“It was made using leftover bread; it was really good,” Young said.


John Mangano has also been enjoying the use of an old-fashioned recipe during the pandemic: fried bread.


“I don’t have the room to make it from scratch; however, if you get the frozen bag of pizza dough from ShopRite, you can let it sit overnight, and in the morning you put it in the pan and fry it. It’s really pretty good,” Mangano said.


Mangano said that sometimes he enhances the flavor with extra ingredients.


“Whatever I have, I put in there ... You can add other ingredients, like cinnamon or sugar, but it’s also good the way it is,” he said.