In January, I returned at long last to Providence. After spending the better part of a year back in my childhood home, I was faced with the knowledge that my time at Brown hadn’t been a distant fever dream after all. The week before my 10 hour drive up the coast was punctuated with nightmares about leaving, nightmares about staying, packing too much shit for one room, checking the oil in my car, then the tire pressure, then the oil again. My mom piled snacks into moving boxes as though I wasn’t moving to a city with a CVS on every block. It was a comfortingly frenzied period of time, a release from the stasis of the previous eight months.
Amidst the packing and cleaning, the rushing and waiting, I took an afternoon to claim the kitchen as my own and make a good old-fashioned mess. Early in quarantine, I’d made these cupcakes: Black-Bottom Cupcakes, with this gorgeous Dutch chocolate base and a cream cheese and mini chocolate chip filling. They were dopamine-sweet, but I’d fucked them up. I melted the butter instead of letting it sit at room temperature, so the batter got too hot and the cold filling sank to the bottom. Rather than having a perfect lake of cream cheese still visible from the top, the chocolate had enclosed the filling entirely.
I resolved to make them again. They’d been the least successful of my quarantine bakes, and I wanted desperately to redeem myself. For hours I barred my parents from entering the kitchen, played my January playlist over the Bluetooth speaker, and baked. I sifted and stirred, puddled wet ingredients into dry, poured the batter into pale pink cupcake tins, and at long last, popped them in the oven.
Prior to quarantine, I’d spent more time watching others bake than doing so myself. My childhood was splashed with sweet vignettes of watching my mother cook—me at the kitchen table, my mom standing over a bain marie at the stove, occasionally letting me taste a spoonful of custard. Countless times she’d given me a near-empty bowl smudged with frosting and a spoon to scrape it clean. Occasionally, she’d let me whisk eggs or pipe frosting, but I never took the initiative to learn how to bake on my own.
My senior year of high school, I discovered a new way to bake vicariously: The Great British Bake Off. For those who are unfamiliar, GBBO (known as The Great British Baking Show in America due to trademark issues) is a reality competition show that follows a group of home bakers as they compete for the title of “Best Amateur Baker in the UK.” Up to that point, I’d always avoided cooking shows, claiming there was no appeal in looking at gorgeous food you couldn’t eat. In truth, I’d only seen shows like Chopped, which always seemed to have an intense, hostile energy. Bake Off differed from these shows in both format and tone: Rather than having professional chefs compete for cash prizes in stand-alone episodes, GBBO followed the same contestants across a full season with weekly eliminations, the competition narrowing as the finale approached. This gives the viewers a chance to get to know the individual contestants as they get to know each other, often forming strong bonds over the course of a season. The show also lacks a monetary prize, which removes an element of hostility between the bakers—they compete only out of a love for baking.
The Great British Bake Off does more than just avoid the cutthroat atmosphere of many other shows; it cultivates a friendly, pleasant tone. The bakers encourage each other throughout the challenges, often helping fellow contestants finish their bakes. The original hosts of the show, comedians Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, set a precedent for comforting competitors when they’re upset and breaking the tension with well-timed innuendos. Subsequent hosts Noel Fielding, Sandi Toksvig, and Matt Lucas have followed suit, using their role as presenters to support rather than berate the bakers. Even the judges, Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry (replaced by Prue Leith in more recent seasons), refrain from being overly harsh in their critiques when they sense that a contestant is particularly emotional.
For two years, I watched every season of GBBO I could find. I re-watched episodes multiple times, no longer invested in the question of “Who will win?” but instead paying attention to the friendships that contestants formed against the baking show backdrop. And, of course, I appreciated the bakes—gorgeous, towering cakes and tiny French patisserie creations. I loved them aesthetically, but maintained the conviction that I could never create such elaborate baked goods myself. I baked rarely, and when I did, it was always simplistic. I was a middle-of-the-night stress baker, following the cookie recipe that comes on the back of the chocolate chip bag.
But then came the pandemic. The whirlwind of novel experiences and bright, newly forged routines of college life were replaced by a period of tense isolation. I was suddenly home, in the log cabin with the half-mile driveway. No neighbors walking past, no street noise out the window. Being quarantined in rural Virginia can trick you into thinking the outside world was never really real, just the most vivid of dreams. And there I was, attending classes that felt like figments, researching bilingual aphasia and reading literary analyses and feeling helplessly removed from life.
When I began baking, I was still in this dreamlike state. Suspended outside myself and craving a Thin Mint, I asked my mom to pick up peppermint extract on her weekly grocery run and decided to make them myself. My cookies ended up a touch too minty, and I’d forgotten to roll them out thinly enough, but it didn’t matter. The pressure to bake perfectly, to only tackle recipes that felt “easy enough,” had evaporated along with any sense of normalcy. All that was left was me and an oven preheated to 350°.
My first revelation was that baking was not merely functional. I’d thought that baking was just the necessary hour of effort that stood between me and a fresh chocolate chip cookie, but I realized that there was something magical about the act of creation. The sappy monologues I’d heard from countless Bake Off contestants had been true: Baking was about love. It was about putting care into something, creating something sweet and wondrous, all with your own two hands. The second revelation was that I wasn’t half bad at it. It turns out that after years of baking vicariously, first through my mother and then through GBBO, I’d actually osmosed quite a bit of knowledge.
I was enchanted. My bakes became increasingly ambitious, moving from simple cookies to yeasted rolls and then to crème brulee from scratch. I began by baking alone, but soon I started to bake with the people I love. My friends and I devised baking competitions of our own, simulating a GBBO segment called the Technical Challenge in which contestants are given a very simplified recipe and all attempt to make the same baked good, which is then judged blind. We made some terrible cakes, but redeemed ourselves with killer eclairs. I realized that baking could be both a soothing, solitary process, and a collaborative act of creation in turns.
My most ambitious bakes were undertaken with my girlfriend, who embarked on her own personal mission to learn how to cook over quarantine. We spent two rainy May days picking fresh strawberries and wild violets, skipping between rows of strawberry plants and driving along the foggy Blue Ridge Parkway. Then we baked a lemon cake with strawberry icing, decorated with crystallized violets. For days, we ate cake for breakfast. During the same visit, we made crème puff swans, which a contestant actually made on the first season of GBBO I ever watched. They were my first foray into choux—that mythical, impossible pastry I’d seen on TV—and mine ended up near-perfect. It turns out the second-most essential ingredient for a good bake is the audacity to try. (The first, of course, is love. Hopelessly romantic and endlessly true.)
Since returning to campus, I haven’t had access to a kitchen. I celebrated my birthday alone over Quiet Period, dreaming of strawberry cupcakes and an oven to bake them in. As the semester draws to a close, I get closer to being able to make them a reality. Perhaps the end of this particular semester comes as a relief to most, but I find it bittersweet. Baking chocolate melting on the tongue. The feeling of time passing always unnerves me, and there’s too much to say goodbye to. But I am excited to exchange to-do lists laden with problem sets for grocery lists of ingredients for whatever over-ambitious recipe I attempt next.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about my first bake once I get home. Maybe it’ll be with my friends, flour-dusted and choked with laughter, or maybe my girlfriend and I will get to make the ginger cookies we keep talking about. But I like to imagine my return to baking happening the way I first found it: alone in my parent’s kitchen, music pouring from the speaker, forgetting to roll my dough out thin enough. However it happens, I know it’ll be a labor of love—just as Great British Bake Off has taught me. Love and a bit of hubris.