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Remember when you couldn’t get your hands on flour, sugar or yeast no matter how hard you tried? That’s because everyone was making their own version of the same comfort-food recipes (and we saw all the foodstagram-worthy pics circling social media).

 

The Bread Craze
When panicked shoppers first raided the grocery-store shelves, there wasn’t a loaf of bread in sight for weeks, recalls Robert Bennett. That, says Classic Cake’s executive pastry chef, is the first reason so many people turned to their ovens.

“Bread is a staple of the human diet,” he says. “It goes back to the ancients who grew wheat for flour. It is, in every way, the original comfort food.”

It all starts with a good recipe. Baking bread isn’t technically difficult, he says, but it takes great attention to detail. Measurements should be precise, movements practiced. Bakers can’t knead the dough too much or too little, and they must have enough patience to let the dough sit – maybe overnight – while the yeast does its work.

“This is an art that you learn through practice,” Bennett says. “Not every loaf is going to be amazing, and that’s perfectly fine.”

It’s the time and effort, he says, that counts. “You’re putting together these ingredients, watching them grow and creating something to enjoy,” Bennett says. “There are very few more loving things you can do for someone than bake for them.”

 

Fresh Pasta
Some of Robert Cipollone’s best memories are of the hours he spent making pasta with his family, including his late brother, father and grandmother. The head chef at Tre Famiglia in Haddonfield has been rolling dough at the family restaurant since he was 10. He thinks it’s exciting to see so many others are discovering the joy of it.

“Italian food is so often a family experience – everyone sitting together for a big meal,” says Cipollone. “People wanted to recreate that when they couldn’t go to a restaurant in person.”

One of the best things about pasta, he says, is that everyone can start with the same ingredients – flour, water, eggs – and end up with something totally different, whether it’s a different shape of pasta or a new sauce. It’s simple, but it’s not easy.

His advice? If you’re using a rolling machine, slice the dough into small pieces and start at the thickest setting. Make sure the flour is on each side as you pull it through the machine. Repeat until you get to the desired thickness. If you want a firm pasta, stick it in the refrigerator for an hour or 2 before cooking.

“It’s going to take time, and that’s ok,” he says. “That’s part of what makes this such a comforting dish.”

 

Home-Grown Everything
When the pandemic hit, the Rutgers’ Master Gardener Program ran out of canning supplies for jams, sauces and all things pickled. Home stores sold out of seeds, and for a while it seemed there wasn’t a watering can to be found across the entire state of New Jersey.

“One of the unexpected blessings of the lockdown was that it started in the spring,” says Alexandra Grenci, associate professor in the Rutgers University family and community health sciences department.

Spring is otherwise known as prime planting season. For some, newfound time on their hands was enough of a reason to plant cherry tomato seeds and repot basil plants. For many, the impetus was sudden food shortages, Grenci says.

“People had a hard time getting their hands on leafy greens or fresh fruit, and it created a panic,” she says. “For many of us, this is the first time we haven’t had access to the foods we wanted, when we wanted it. They felt vulnerable.”

Gardening wasn’t a direct solution to the lack of salad mix in the produce aisle – it takes too long to grow for that – but it was a way for people to feel more in control of their nutrition, Grenci says.

“Planting something for the first time and seeing it mature to the point where you can pick your own produce is so rewarding,” she adds. “Especially now, so much is out of our control. But do you know what was in our control? Those tomatoes on the vine.

November 2020
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