Regardless of where you are, who you have chosen to isolate with, or the limits of your skills, chances are you have taken up a new hobby during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some seek solace in learning a new song on their ukulele, while others have kept themselves busy tie-dyeing old shirts, making Tik Toks, learning to rollerblade or binging Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix. For a large chunk of the population, especially among Vassar’s student body, one activity above all others has gained popularity—this go-to activity guarantees tangible progress, instant gratification and delicious results.
Baking, a hobby that simultaneously involves every one of our senses, also fulfills the basic desire to do something productive during what has surely felt like an extraordinarily unproductive few months. Maybe you have been baking for your entire life and feel more at home in a kitchen with a whisk than you do at a desk holding a pen. Or maybe you have decided long ago that your talents lie somewhere far, far away from anything flammable. Whatever the case may be, it is never too late to pick up baking. Composed of Pinterest finds and cookbook classics, this is a selection of tried, tested and approved recipes by a group of incoming students ranging in experience and palate. From nut-free macarons to a vegan cheesecake, this catalog of confections that will satisfy even the pickiest of eaters.
Julia Segal ’24 has taken this lockdown as an opportunity to fine tune her favorite recipes and further explore all that Pinterest has to offer. Having used baking as a creative outlet and source of relaxation for years, she says her love of it stems from the peace and happiness it brings to both herself and others. “Especially in a time of such uncertainty, baking is a source of comfort and a reminder that sweetness can come from even the most trying circumstances,” commented Segal. She was inspired to bake her latest confection, cinnamon rolls, after remembering the bright smile that always washes over her mother’s face when a batch of fresh cinnamon buns comes out of the oven. Whether you opt to eat them straight from the dish or choose to coat them in a thick cream cheese frosting first, this simple dessert is a guaranteed crowd pleaser. If this spice-filled sweet piques your interest, Segal recommends that you eat these cinnamon rolls with a cup of coffee for breakfast or even as a midday snack.
Segal’s personal tips: Leave out the heavy cream if you’re looking to avoid gooey cinnamon rolls, since it will add more moisture to the dough.
While working her way through her new favorite cookbook, Tahini and Turmeric: 101 Middle Eastern Classics—Made Irresistibly Vegan by Ruth Fox & Vicky Cohen, Chloe Mengden ’24 stumbled upon a hidden gem: a delectable cashew-based tahini cheesecake, complete with a pistachio crust and pomegranate garnish. “While there’s not much technical skill involved, it requires some intuition for the right consistency,” she notes. Even though Mengden initially took to the kitchen as a time filler, baking, to her surprise, has given her a renewed sense of creativity and confidence, both in and out of the kitchen. She’s shared this confectionary endeavor with only her mother, but plans to make it again and again. She adds, “It’s really good with cherries! The cake is dense, so the fresh fruit was amazing with it.” In addition to baking up a storm, Mengden has become quite the coffee connoisseur, devoting time each day to come up with new coffee-filled beverages to savor in the afternoon. She cites her most successful coffee concoction as an addicting cinnamon vanilla latte. To make this cozy cup of joy, all you need to do is add a mixture of cinnamon syrup, vanilla syrup and steamed milk to a cup of either espresso or a strong coffee. Proportions are entirely up to you and your preference, so it takes a bit of experimenting. In fact, after some exploration of her own, Chloe discovered that by replacing cinnamon syrup with cinnamon extract, the drink is left in a state of perfect harmony between sweet and spicy.
Mengden’s personal tips: Add some orange or lemon zest to the chocolate for an extra kick, and if you are looking to avoid a crumbly crust, do not forget to add a little more tahini than the recipe calls for.
As anyone with Instagram, or any social media account for that matter, will tell you, it is easy to spend hours mindlessly scrolling, liking and saving posts—almost as easy as breathing. But for Julia Maisel-Berick ’24, what might have been another day of scroll-swipe-repeat turned into a one of productivity and delectation. One swipe and there it was: Tieghan Gerard’s extra soft raspberry lemon rolls. Drawn in by the mesmerizing ruby red raspberry swirls and thick whipped frosting, Maisel-Berick eagerly embarked on this journey to produce her very own batch of fruit-filled summer rolls. This recipe already holds a special place in the cook’s heart—lemon desserts, her grandfather’s favorite, always bring back sweet memories of their summers spent together. Maisel-Berick said, “I think baking has been helpful during this time because the process is very therapeutic. When mishaps occur, it allows you to problem solve when there are so many issues that don’t have immediate resolutions.” She added, “It also allows me to feel productive”—a sensation we’re all chasing these days.
If you live in Maine or just happen to have a plethora of fresh blueberries on hand, Fran Elba ’24’s blueberry tart is the recipe for you. Elba, a cookie connoisseur ready to switch things up, boldly decided to try her hand at making a homemade tart and found her recipe of choice in a Taste of Home magazine. This juicy dessert can be made in just under an hour, a total plus if you are anything like me and can barely wait for cookies to cool before popping them into your mouth.
Elba’s personal tips: Butter is your best friend! Use a lot while making the crust and generously lather up the pan.
After spending much of the past few months exploring her neighborhood, Grace Skakel ’24 decided it was time to take her explorations indoors and finally bake some sourdough English muffins. “Quarantine was the perfect excuse for me to finally make a sourdough starter,” she said. Skakel credits her sudden strike of sourdough inspiration to a 2017 domestic fiction novel, noting, “I have been dreaming of making sourdough since reading the novel Sourdough by Robin Sloan. I highly recommend it!” Since making this recipe for the first time almost two months ago, Skakel has turned it into a weekly family tradition. With each batch, she grows closer to mastering the finicky world of sourdough starters, while simultaneously growing closer to her loved ones. “Baking is a way to spend time with my family, which I don’t do a lot because I work so much,” she said. While the rest of her family does not bake often, they all gladly pitch in to replenish the Skakel family’s English muffin reservoir.
As a seasoned sourdough expert, Skakel advises not to get too frustrated if the dough does not rise as much as you would like. She affirms, “In my opinion, it’s alright if they’re a bit undercooked in the middle because you can toast them and enjoy some nice crispness and softness at the same time.” While this recipe does take a few hours to make, she does not mind: “Getting involved in a recipe that takes a long time is comforting to me because it gives my day structure.” For those somewhat intimidated by the amount of time and skill required, Skakel emphasizes that other than taking special care with preparing your starter, the recipe is relatively straightforward. Folding the dough time and time again may seem superfluous, but the nooks and crannies this process creates will produce the perfect inner muffin texture to catch all the butter and jam. “Plus the dough is super fun to work with…it’s basically edible play dough,” she added. To wrap it up with a personal touch, Skakel packages up a handful of muffins from each batch to send to her friends, complete with handwritten notes.
Skakel’s personal tip: These English muffins are staples in all future breakfast sandwiches! Fry some eggs with generous helpings of curry powder and layer it with veggie sausage and cheese for a delectable breakfast treat.
As for my own baking endeavors, I have spent the last few months baking everything from chocolate chip cookies to cream puffs, retreating to the warm comfort of my kitchen whenever possible. Growing up in a household where my family regularly baked meant that most of my formative years were spent in the kitchen, licking the brownie batter off of a spatula or sprinkling chocolate chips into a bowl of fresh cookie dough. Baking, to me, has been a way to reconnect with my roots and gain a sense of purpose. As someone with a number of food allergies and dietary restrictions, but also an innate desire to be in control, baking in my own home not only guarantees me a safe treat, but full creative license of the latest dish I set out to conquer. This past week, this dish was the elusive nut-free macaron. Despite having been told my entire life that, no matter how fascinated I was with French culture and food, that I would never be able to have macarons because of its key, seemingly irreplaceable ingredient, almond flour, I decided that with all this newfound time on my hands, it was time to give it a go. Entering this task with a lot of hope but low expectations, I was met with some challenges, but also success, and I quickly gained momentum.
With each batch, I soared past another hurdle. After the first batch came out riddled with tiny holes, I learned to smooth out the bubbles in the shells with a toothpick before popping them in the oven. With the next batch, I noted that slamming the tray against the butcher’s block ensures a smooth matte finish on my macaron shells. By the third batch, I realized that letting the piped shells sit out at room temperature on the baking sheet for about an hour guaranteed uncrackable shells when it came time to pull them out of the oven. Perhaps the most tedious part of this recipe was making a sunflower flour to use in place of almond flour, but even with that extra step, this recipe was surely worth it. I chose to add some cocoa powder, not just for a natural tint, but because who doesn’t love chocolate? By the end of the night, I had just over 5 batches of macarons. After sandwiching the shells in between a 1:1 ratio of heavy cream and melted chocolate, better known as chocolate ganache, I set out to decorate them with a light dusting of cocoa powder or quick dip into the chocolate ganache pot. Gleaming with pride at my final product, I plated them and urged every one of my family members to close their eyes and take a bite. Not a single one could tell the difference between my sunflower seed substituted sweets and “authentic” French macarons. My spontaneous late night baking fest soon turned into an early morning photoshoot, with my imperfectly perfect little macarons as the stars of the show, some with cracked shells accompanied by semi-hollow insides and others risen to perfection with clean unbroken feet, but all delicious and safe for me to eat.