On the violin Bridgid Bibbens really cooks … or did, until March. She was halfway through a nationwide tour with a rock band when COVID-19 shut the country down. Suddenly, she found herself stuck at home near Austin, Texas.
"I made that first dreadful trip to the grocery store when everything was out, and we couldn't get bread," she said. "Fortunately, I had about a half-a-bag of flour left in the freezer."
Bibbens went from cooking, to baking bread – something new for the transplanted New Yorker: "When I was a city girl, I kept shoes in my oven and never used it. I was such a Carrie Bradshaw! I had too many shoes, and I had lots of takeout options!"
With commercial yeast really hard to find, like hordes of bored and newly-cost-conscious Americans, Bibbens decided to make her own sourdough, which starts out as nothing more than flour and water set out to ferment and grow.
Just like Audrey, the voracious plant in "Little Shop of Horrors," sourdough starters demand to be fed more and more flour – and they have names.
Bibbens calls hers "Diane von Yeastenberg." "I love fashion. Diane von Furstenberg is timeless and classic, as is a good sourdough!"
Amanda Schlarbaum gets a lot of sourdough questions. She is one of 15 experts taking calls on King Arthur Flour's Baker's Hotline. "This time of year, things usually slow down. But right now, our calls have gone up quite a bit – we're receiving around 350 calls a day," she said. "Our emails have also doubled, if not tripled."
King Arthur says it's selling twice as many bags of flour as it did in December, a big holiday-baking month. And yeast sales are up more than 600% over a year ago.
Correspondent Martha Teichner asked baker Jim Lahey, of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City, "Why do you think that people suddenly want bread at a time like this?"
"It's comforting," he replied. "Bread is one of the most comforting and nurturing of foods. What aroma, Martha, causes us to, in a Pavlovian way, salivate immediately?"
Before coronavirus, Sullivan Street Bakery was supplying more than 300 restaurants. Now it's down to a half-dozen. "We were doing, I think, 25 oven loads of bread a day," Lahey said. "Now we're averaging two."
Lahey's no-knead bread recipe has become a home cook's classic.
During troubling times, creating edible art is a magic trick worth knowing. "I just like that it's so simple," said Dr. Craig Spencer. "I like that it's four ingredients – flour, water, salt, and yeast."
For Dr. Spencer, baking bread is everything the rest of his life is not. He is an emergency room doctor in New York City, who has written about treating COVID-19 patients during the pandemic's peak:.
"When I walked in about a month ago, it felt like the apocalypse," he told Teichner. "An emergency department where normally we have 30 patients, there were over double that. It was unlike anything that I'd seen, and I've worked in West Africa during ebola."
In 2014, Spencer survived ebola himself, and feels uniquely qualified to treat coronavirus.
But by the end of each shift, he's exhausted. "It's hard to take care of patients all day," Spencer said. "It's even harder to do so when you're afraid you're gonna get infected, and even harder to do so when you're doing it in goggles and in masks and in gloves. That is tough. What's even harder is the mental exhaustion that comes."
Which is why the bread Dr. Spencer bakes for his family to eat nourishes him more.
He said, "Bread is something that we can control. In the hospital, one thing that's been so frustrating for so many of us is that there is not a treatment, there's not a cure. And I think bread is this release from the stress that we feel every single day."
More bread recipes:
- (from King Arthur Flour)
- (From King Arthur Flour)
- (from Tupperware)
- (from Kriss Marion)
- (from Food & Wine)
- (from Ballymaloe Cookery School)
For more info:
- Sullivan Street Bakery, New York, N.Y.
- "My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method" by Jim Lahey with Rick Flaste (WW Norton), in Hardcover and eBook formats, available via Amazon
- King Arthur Flour Baker's Hotline: (855) 371-2253
- Dr. Craig Spencer, Director of Global Health in Emergency Medicine, New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center
- Bridgid Bibbens
Story produced by David Rothman. Editor: Carol A. Ross.