Beat. Blend. Roll. Repeat
Rebecca Warren tries baking her way through the ache of unemployment
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"The only people who make their own croissants are people who have no jobs or no friends."
At least one of those points was true for me when the host of my favourite baking show said this, but her words still cut through my false cheer to the shaky core underneath. The truth was, I did have an awful lot of free time.
I asked a good friend how she handled a harrowing departure from a job and her answer made me feel better: "I spent a few months staring out the window." And that's just about what I did. But after a while, those empty hours were not so welcome. So I began to fill them with baking.
It started with a simple thought: I wonder how you make crackers? I found a recipe online and realized I was only missing one thing: a fluted pastry wheel for the cracker edges. I planned out the route to the kitchen store on public transit since I had lots of time and no vehicle. I rode the bus along with the kind of people who ride the bus in the middle of the day – moms with young children, seniors, university students and others who I assumed were also unemployed. It was a cold day, but the sun was bright and I enjoyed the small challenge of climbing over the windrows on the edge of the street to get to the shops. Inside the store, I found my pastry wheel quickly, but spent some time browsing the aisle looking at other baking supplies. I could do this. I could bake. I headed back home on the bus.
The crackers were just the beginning. I got a recipe book based on The Great British Baking Show and just like that, I was hooked. The show featured amateur bakers meeting under a large tent set in the middle of a grassy field (picturesquely dotted with sheep) to compete in weekly baking tasks. It looked so appealing inside that cozy tent with the pastel-coloured stand mixers, the bakers at their individual stations and the rain outside slowly dripping down the tent's clear plastic windows. I could easily imagine myself there with them, discovering new challenges, laughing at my mistakes and pulling warm baked goods out of the oven for the judges.
Over the next several months, my baking experiments continued. I made a Victoria sponge, a chocolate-cherry loaf, a lemon tart, Eccles cakes, pretzel challah bread and scones. Then, I got more adventurous and tried choux pastry, crème pâtissèrie, macarons and croissants. I realized that most of baking was a matter of following directions and having enough time.
The croissants ended up taking a total of 18 hours, if you count the time they had to rest in the fridge. It wouldn't be my first choice for a spot to rest, but you never know with French pastry. The best part of croissant-making was the instruction to flatten the butter by "bashing vigorously with a rolling pin." Best activity ever for someone out of work. The poor butter never saw it coming. But after the numerous "turns" laminating the dough, which basically means rolling and folding it into a neat little package, after the bashing and resting and baking – I was left with eight beautiful, perfect, flaky warm croissants. With four people in my family, that's two each. All eight were gone in less than 15 minutes. Eighteen hours for 15 minutes of pure bliss? I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Besides the cathartic butter-bashing, other recipe instructions began to read like life advice for unemployment: Let it rest. Leave space at the top. Allow the steam to escape. Give yourself time, the recipes seemed to be saying, to let it out, to come back to a set point. Once I was ready, I could emulate the example of self-raising flour, which had a very "pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps" sound to it. You can do this! Rise up!
But it wasn't just inspirational advice. Some of the instructions, such as the butter-bashing, allowed for the expression of pent-up frustration and helplessness: Punch down after the first rise. Allow a skin to develop. There were also descriptions that read like excerpts from a creative-writing exercise: Should be plump but not bloated. May look water-logged and pruney at this stage. The dough will be rough and shaggy. (Much like my unemployed heart, I thought.)
An unexpected joy came after posting photos of my baking projects on social media. I heard from friends from so many different time periods of my life, all of them saying some version of "Yum!" and "When can I come over?" These comments and notes lessened the ache of isolation and loneliness that was the most challenging part of being out of work. It reminded me not of what I lost, but what I still had: a pantry full of ingredients, time to participate in the slow act of creation and friends ready to share the results.
There are no end of ways that losing your job and seeking employment can demean and degrade you. But there is one I refuse to tolerate. The next time someone says, "You made your own croissants?" with that certain judgmental, disbelieving tone in their voice, I will throw my shoulders back, look them straight in the eye, and say, "Damn right I did."
Rebecca Warren lives in Edmonton, Alta.