By Mons Sta. Cruz
It is 2 a.m., three days before Father’s Day, and I am scrolling through seven tabs of pandan cake recipes, all the while taking hearty bites on a glazed doughnut I just fried that afternoon. Last week, this was YouTube video after YouTube video of pasteis de nata—egg tarts as they’re locally known. Last month, it was ube cake for Mother’s Day. A week before that, cinnamon rolls. And then a birthday cake for my mom another week prior.
It is 2020, and the world is on lockdown.
It is the middle of June, so that’s three months and a lifetime since I left Manila to wait out the community quarantine at my parents’ house. Save for the semimonthly visit, I haven’t really lived here since I left for college. That’s exactly eleven years since I was thrown as a teenager to explore the big city on my own—and that I did; the life I know now is a product of all the lives I’ve lived since. And now here I am, cooped up since March in this house that feels like home but never completely.
When I was much younger, March only meant good things. It signaled the end of the school year, for one. Especially before college, the longest break from all the homework and school projects and exams I could look forward to came at the end of March—when the winds started to turn and Amihan packed up her cool winds to welcome summer. In this tropical country of ours, that usually meant road trips to the beach. This year, summer has come and gone with barely any of us even so much as stepping out of our houses—unless to do groceries, and even that has been done sparingly.
Still, a lot of this quarantine has felt reminiscent of those summer vacations, with the same long days of heat and humidity spent in the same old house. As it is, I couldn’t help but think this a reclamation of sorts of that lost youth. Even counting back then, this is the most time I’ve ever spent with my parents now that my dad has also been given the privilege of working from home. I have also never had the chance to enjoy as much of my mom’s dishes (my favorites, practically speaking) in such a short span of time until now; the scarcity of open restaurants has made eating or ordering out unlikely. And then there’s my choice of activities when I’m not working—playing video games, rewatching my favorite films, and learning how to bake.
So while I still feel unsettled from the sudden uprootedness, I am, surprisingly, enjoying my time—crisis notwithstanding, of course. (I mean the coronavirus [COVID-19] pandemic, but there’s also the endless crisis being thrown at us by, well, you name it: our government, racism, climate change, the patriarchy, homophobia. What have you.) Perhaps a better way to say it is despite the constant anxiety—or precisely because of it—I, along with what seems like the entire social media populace with a working oven, have taken to quarantine baking like a child seeking solace from a thunderstorm.
It’s practically a given that we would turn to food. Scientifically speaking, human brains have evolved to reward us whenever we’d provide sustenance to our bodies by releasing the same feel-good chemicals people get from drinking—a surefire way to ensure we’d seek the nutrition we needed to survive. A pandemic seems to be just the event to trigger that instinct.
And so my Facebook feed has been filled with mothers complaining in jest about their kids raiding the pantry nonstop in the first quarantine weeks. There’s also everyone else (even in the Asian fitness group I’m part of!) lamenting all the added inches to their waistline. My favorite is seeing friends post quick videos left and right of their best dishes; there’s just something oddly cathartic about watching them perfectly chop those onions.
I, personally, am too praning for cooking. So I turned to its less frantic sister: baking.
Truth be told, I wasn’t sure at first I’d get the chance to. Prior to now, the only experience I’ve had were the five informal times or so that I got to bake at a friend’s place. The only equipment I had coming home were my hand mixer and the yet unused oven my parents gifted me for Christmas. But when a particularly bad case of cabin fever hit, I sent a quick text to my cousin and dashed over to borrow whatever tools she had available—and finally baked again after almost two years.
I started with cookies. Pretty basic stuff, but it still took me probably ten rewatches of the recipe video I planned to follow. Food, for me, is always a combination of four things—taste, texture, smell, and presentation—and so a big part of the fun is planning when and where and how I’d produce the best results for the first three. As they say, baking is a science, and that’s probably 90 percent of the appeal for my type-A personality. The other 10 percent goes to the creative process involved in making the baked goods presentable—from making sure they don’t burn to figuring out how to serve them on a plate (or wire rack), and then of course snapping the best photo #forthegram, because did it really happen if you didn’t post it on social media?
Since then, I’ve experimented with three different cakes (I’ve had four occasions to grab as opportunity to bake for my parents: Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and their birthdays just a week apart), three types of bread (from a crusty Italian ciabatta to our good ol’ pandesal), and some rough sort of puff pastry. I find that the childhood reclamation theme pops out even in my choice of recipes—I’ve made two batches of the ensaymadas this Bulakenya writer grew up with, a version of the ube roll my mom would always bring home for meryenda, and our favorite egg tarts we’d always enjoy whenever she and I would visit Hong Kong, one of my favorite places.
It’s not all smooth, and I’ve had my fair share of flops and failures. One time, when I found out the nearby department store stayed open for the quarantine, I excitedly rushed over to luckily find the jelly roll pan I needed to make swiss rolls. What wasn’t lucky was finding out on the exact day I had to use it, cake batter poured in and all, that it was a tad too long for my oven. Doing as any perfectly sane adult would, I risked the fire hazard and continued baking with the oven door a half inch ajar. Fortunately it didn’t start a fire, and my chiffon turned out perfect, but I still wouldn’t advise the technique to anyone. Aside from that, there’s the overly flavored cream frosting, or the sheet of too sour lemon bars, or the burnt batch of thankfully still edible cookies.
Fiascos considered, there is nothing like baking to take my anxious mind off of things. In any case, I can always charge those to experience, and it’s still a net positive overall. Julie Powell in Julie and Julia (2009) says it best: “I love that after a day when nothing is sure—and when I say ‘nothing,’ I mean nothing!—you can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. It’s such a comfort.”
The world is ending—or so my brain always seems now to subconsciously think. So I bake. WWW
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
While a literature and film major, Mons Sta. Cruz is first and foremost an editor, and she believes that has made writing an arduous task for her. But she tries.