EAT THE DAMN MUFFIN

April 14th, 2020

Words & Illustrations by Rachel Hyman · Collage by Frasie Molina

Lick the batter off the spoon

My Instagram feed is littered with sourdough, nascent starters and perfect- seeming crackly crusts of round bois. Everyone, it seems, has taken up this hobby amidst statewide stay-at-home orders. God knows where they’re finding flour, as the baking shelves at local grocery stores have been mobbed and Amazon is out of stock of even the most artisan-grade stuff. I, too, am under a stay-at-home directive, which means my usual coworker audience for baked goods has been snatched from me by Chicago’s stalwart mayor. 

It wasn’t always like this: there was a time before what I’ve termed my strange baking obsession; there was a time before quarantine drove us all out of restaurants and into our own kitchens. I barely baked in college, but my roommate was a self-proclaimed “stress baker.” Every ten weeks, when finals came around, she would whip up muffins, brownies, and cookies for us while declining to take any herself. Always the type to look for healthy substitutions, she once gave us brownies fortified with black beans. I can trace my long-standing trust issues back to this moment. I follow her on Instagram, where she doesn’t follow me back but seems to have graduated to more extensive baking projects like madeleines and other fancy French pastries I can’t pronounce. 

I took up the mantle post-college, working for tech company after tech company, where you didn’t need a reason to bring in something you’d made. Monday? Beat away the blues with a mini muffin. Make it over hump day with a chocolate chip cookie sprinkled with sea salt. Celebrate the end of the week with Rachel’s rendition of a doughnut--baked, not fried, because I couldn’t resist the cute purple and pink molds (silicone trays into which you plop batter and a doughnut magically turns up given requisite time in the oven). My college roommate would sometimes intentionally bake things with laughably low yields, just because she only allowed herself a little treat every now and then. I never understood that. What’s the point of only making two or three cookies? What are you going to do, split the one egg that is called for into a quarter? 

My culinary-school-trained boyfriend says that people tend to take to either cooking or baking, never both, and my own experience has borne this out. People say cooking is more forgiving, that you can be more inventive with it. Friends of mine are using the quarantine as time to embark on big cooking projects like cassoulets and roasts, while I am finding solace in following recipes to the letter, especially now that I got my hands on a kitchen scale so I don’t have to rely on variable measures by volume (using a cup for flour, for instance, can lead to swings of up to 20% in how much flour you actually get). 

My first #QuarantineBake is an unfussy dozen of lemon poppyseed muffins. The recipe comes from my old standby NYT Cooking app. Think half the size of a muffin you’d buy at Starbucks, more moist and less dense like a bomb. Here’s a tip: I almost always skip the glaze called for in muffin recipes. It makes the result more fitting for breakfast, which is when I most need the excuse of a special treat to get out of bed. 

I open my pantry and discover my jar of poppy seeds expired in 2014. Not the most auspicious start, but luckily there hasn’t been a run on them the way there has been on flour, sugar, and even vanilla extract. My muffin cups have been displaced in my recent move, but luckily I have a baking spray with flour that’ll work just fine. Guys. This stuff smells so good. I briefly consider axing the whole muffin plan and just spraying the thing directly into my mouth, but decide to stay the course. 

The recipe is your typical two-bowl deal, where you mix wet ingredients and dry ingredients separately then combine. I’m always careful not to mix them together too overzealously, as that activates the gluten in the flour (good for bread, not for muffins) and makes for a chewy result. Over the years, I’ve gotten better about not instantly eating things straight out of the oven, as they often need time to firm up. One of my gifts to myself when I got more serious about baking was cooling racks, which allow for air circulation on all sides. I justify the purchase by telling myself things will cool faster and I can eat them sooner. 

My boyfriend asks if he can bring the muffins in to his work the next day, and I hesitate. An ugly part of me wonders what the point is of currying goodwill with people unknown to me? I start to understand my college roommate’s propensity to sidestep this whole issue by not making enough baked goods to share in the first place. This is such a trivial dilemma but even now I find myself wrestling with my competing urges to share the wealth and to hunker down. 

My next #QuarantineBake project steps up the fanciness: miso banana blondies with maple brown butter frosting, from a recipe newsletter a Twitter pal sends out. I’ve browned butter maybe twice in my life before this, and the recipe says you could skip this step, but what time better than a mandatory quarantine to embark on such folly? I manage not to burn the butter, but I don’t quite get it to the toasty browned Platonic state. My friend was inspired by Depression-era recipes that used ingredients commonly found around the house, and I take this to heart, using a banana whose peel is inexplicably splattered with paint, and salted butter (guess what the store was out of?). 

It’s a running joke between my boyfriend and me that I only ever think the things I bake are “fine” or “pretty okay.” It’s not faux modesty. Can I get real for a second? I oftentimes don’t like myself, and that extends to the things I make and bake. I can’t say that these blondies sparked a greater self-love, but a small part of me hopes against hope that if people love the things I bake, I can yoke myself to that feeling. 

If the blondies turned out pretty good, my next project is an utter failure. I decide to make something that would be hard to bring into an office anyway: ice cream. Flipping through my Jeni’s Ice Creams cookbook, which is organized by seasons, I don’t find anything compelling in the spring (where we are) or winter (where, realistically, it feels like we are) sections. I choose to fly in the face of Jeni’s seasonality and make a summery sweet basil ice cream with honey pine nut praline. I’m starting to think I have a thing for using traditionally savory ingredients in sweet applications. 

This pandemic has a way of kicking up old ghosts as we speak to our families more or are confined inside with partners. It’s not all sourdough bread bakes and fun at-home yoga sessions. Anecdotally, many people seem to be texting their exes or at least thinking about it. I feel a heaviness settle over me as I realize that I haven’t used the ice cream maker, which was a birthday gift from an ex, since we split and he moved out. Suddenly it’s not just a silly ice cream I’m making. 

It turns out my long-running break from using this piece of machinery has tangible consequences too, beyond the lump in my throat. I let the machine spin for 10 minutes until I realize I forgot to put in the plastic centerpiece that is responsible for actually churning the ice cream. I try re-situating the piece roughly 50 times, taking the cover repeatedly on and off, and swapping out the frozen bases, but nothing will make it thicken into a texture recognizable as ice cream. I call it quits, comforting myself with the praline that did turn out okay. 

So here we both are, wondering how this ends. I wish I could say that with every whisk of flour, with every beaten egg, I was healing my own fucked-up shame around food, or building a reserve of inner strength to make it through this historical moment we’ve all been thrust into. Both and neither are true. I saw a sweater that said “Order The Onion Rings!!!” My version of that is: eat the damn muffin. Lick the batter off the spoon. And maybe even double the recipe, because you may not (and don’t have to!) always love what you make, but I promise you there are folks waiting in the wings who will. 

This mandatory quarantine has taught me to be more okay with my projects failing to meet my perhaps-too-high standards. After all, if you combine butter, sugar, and flour in large quantities, you’ll probably end up with something palatable if not delicious. Even more, it has reminded me that you may be baking for yourself--because you want a sweet treat, to work out stress, to try a new recipe--but you’re also baking, quite literally, for other people, even if it’s just one or two. In my more idealistic moments I think of it as a tiny act of service, a way of showing love. To bother with baking in quarantine is to honor that act of service, to make that love tangible. Failed ice cream or not, that’s a goal I can get behind.

Rachel Hyman is a writer and artist living in Chicago. She has performed her work at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and is the author of the poetry chapbook Dear S (Big Lucks). 

Frasie Molina is a French writer, artist and cat behaviorist living in Paris. She works with drawing, photography and vintage books to create multi-colored dreamy worlds. The themes are mainly female characters and flowers. You can find her work on Instagram @frasiemolina

COPYRIGHT © NEARNESS 2020. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.