The standard story of why I started baking begins with me miserable in my day job as a digital copy editor for New York Magazine. I became full-time there at the end of 2009 after I’d been fired from my first office job out of college—publications assistant for an off-shore medical school—for being too depressed in the midst of my parents’ divorce. The hours at nymag.com were 8:40 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., without an actual lunch break. I started at a salary of $45,000, which was $13,000 more per year than the job that fired me, and eventually I was able to work almost exclusively from home, so I felt lucky. I went from a dingy office in Bay Shore to the hallowed halls of a great magazine, without any connections or internships, just the simple fact, I’d eventually learn, that this was a very hard job that not many people were good at. I was.
But I also needed to do something other than read so many TV recaps a day that within months I went from having perfect eyesight to needing glasses in order not to have a piercing headache by 4 p.m., and nearly a year into this job, I had a breakdown after I spent three weekends in a row visiting, alternately, my grandfather and brother in the hospital on top of seemingly endless work. It was clear I needed a hobby. Yoga, which I’d enjoyed occasionally during that first post-college job, seemed a good solution, and so I went back, got deeply into starting every day with a Vinyasa class, and then boom: I was baking, one hobby begetting another, and then boom, again: I was vegan. Clutter had been cleared away from my brain; indeed, the only description that fits is a cliché: a fog had lifted.
With more hindsight, I see that while the standard story I’ve told is correct, I also started to really understand, through undertaking traditional baking, the significance of ingredients, and this significance helped turn me vegan.
So many eggs, so much butter, which kind of cocoa powder or chocolate chips, the differences in flours, fair-trade sugar. When I saw how much of these went into just one batch of cookies or one cake, I was honestly a bit grossed out. I understood that if I was going to do this regularly, I would be using a lot of all of this, and it wasn’t necessarily the cost that was bothering me, but how much further it would all go if I just didn’t make the cookies or the cake. And through seeing how much reliance there was on eggs and butter and milk, combined with the fact that every day I said, “may all beings everywhere be happy and free,” I thought there must be a better way, a more expansive and adaptable way. And indeed, there is. Such a better way that I accidentally started a bakery.
Now I am vegetarian but I still bake vegan, and I try to evangelize for everyone baking vegan as much as possible. Some things are as easy as just using non-dairy milk in place of dairy, and other things are more complicated, like the coconut oil and coconut milk butter that I used to make massive batches of and store in a Cambro. Egg replacement is a delicate art, but it’s also often as easy as using mashed bananas to make a banana cake or pumpkin puree for a pumpkin cake. Arrowroot or cornstarch last for months on the shelf, whereas eggs do not. Aquafaba is a waste product that stiffens up royal icing just as well as an egg white.
Vegan baking, when you open your mind and heart to it, is sustainable not just because it’s vegan, but because the stuff that goes into it lasts longer. If you consume eggs and dairy butter, source them well and use them where you really taste them.
Learning the principles of vegan baking, even if one has no interest in always doing so, allows for such creativity—and dare I say clarity of flavor, especially when one’s pumpkin cake can let the squash and spices shine against the backdrop of flavorless refined coconut oil fat, sugar, and flour. With the principles of vegan baking, baking becomes resilient, able to withstand the unavailability or sourness of butter and dairy milk. Baking becomes, quite clearly, its parts, its ratios. It adapts to what is available, what is good.
Baking was brought into my life by increased mindfulness, and it is still when and how I do my best thinking. It is still when I am happiest. I spent all that baking time in my twenties listening to Nada Surf, and when I put them on now while making a cake, I am brought into that zone, that time when I was re-creating myself as an adult to be the person I actually wanted to be, not the confused, anxious, somewhat miserable person the world had tried to make me. I had somehow grasped a bit of freedom, and I used it to make myself anew. Without baking, I wouldn’t be typing this now—I don’t know who I’d be, what I’d be doing. I’m not sure I’d have any confidence at all.
And I believe understanding vegan baking has been an adaptation to and prayer for future abundance: There are no rules; there is only possibility, an ever-expanding means of discovery.
If there’s a point to what I’ve been writing about lately, it’s that a little bit of re-framing one’s thinking around which milk tastes “normal” or how a cake “should be made” can be useful, that’s all. I know it’s changed me, fully.
This Friday’s paid subscriber interview will feature Dr. Hanna Garth, a professor of anthropology at Princeton University, to discuss her book Food in Cuba: The Pursuit of a Decent Meal, the role of nutrition in food conversations, and how to marry pleasure and politics.
On Wednesday, paid subscribers will also receive the second From the Kitchen dispatch, in which I give a guide to preparing and seasoning carrots, eggplant, and okra for charring.
Literally nothing because I was on a trip and then there was no food in the house. The terrible photo above is a panna cotta with starfruit compote I developed for a magazine.