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About a week ago, author Emily Nunn (@emilyreesnunn) posted a very simple frozen treat on her Instagram feed that she called “peach soft serve” – just frozen peaches and buttermilk whirled up in a blender. I swooned a little. Not only do I love peaches and buttermilk, together and separately, I loved the simplicity of it all. While I had no frozen peaches, I did have a big bag I’d just picked up at the farmers market that smelled so good it made me a bit dizzy. I had buttermilk hiding in the back of my fridge (that stuff lasts forever.) I had a blender. More pressing, I had an ice cream canister hogging up all kinds of space in my freezer and a need for that space. I was inspired.

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At the start of the pandemic, I was baking up a storm. Big loaves of bread, foccacia, cinnamon rolls; the whole thing. I had no problem cranking the oven up to 500°F for a crusty sourdough or a blistered pizza. Then April moved into June and July and the heat came. There was no way I was going to turn the oven that high for that long. Not happening. So I struck upon a nice alternative: pita cooked on the stove top.

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Let’s be frank. Things suck right now in the US. It’s really bad. A pandemic with no end in sight, a dumpster fire political situation, this energy sucking heat … its turned me upside down. On top of all that I’m eating crap. From a cooking perspective, I make plans and buy the ingredients, only to decide the next day to hit a drive thru and nap on my couch instead. To say my motivation and optimism right now is low, is a gross understatement. But sometimes you get lucky and a persistent bright light shines through. Recently, it was my friend Heather who, in addition to being a complete delight, has a magical backyard with a pool. As Chicago temperatures surged toward 90 degrees with 5000% humidity, she told me to come on over and socially distant float. It was just what I needed, mentally and physically.

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Even before this pandemic began, I was a bean hoarder. You see, I’ve got a real thing for Rancho Gordo, those utterly delicious heirloom beans. They are fantastic and live up to all the hype. I’ve bought them in stores, I’ve ordered them online, I’ve received them as gifts. I even went to the home base in Napa, CA … and bought more beans. Back in October, I received an email that their Bean Club was open to new subscribers. This rarely happens. There’s a 5,000 person waiting list and somehow, I had the golden ticket. I’d passed on it once, years ago, and wasn’t going to let it happen again. On a whim, I quickly joined and a month later, a box with 6lbs of beautiful beans arrived in the mail. It was glorious. A few months later in the midst of a nationwide lockdown when everyone was clamoring for beans, and these beans in particular, my little whim seemed pretty damn smart.

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This one came about in a very self-serving way. Over the holiday weekend, I got together with a few friends for a socially distanced bbq/gathering type of thing. It was hot as blazes so we opted to drink vodka lemonades in tall glasses with lots of ice. To make it simple, our host had bought premixed lemonade in jugs and here lies the problem. Premixed lemonade is fine as is but as soon as you add anything too it, the flavor weakens resulting in a vaguely lemon flavored drink. I greatly enjoy a sparkling lemonade cocktail kind of thing and adding vodka and club soda to a premixed lemonade just throws the whole thing off. Much discussion ensued and we came to the conclusion that you’re just better off in that case having a vodka soda with a twist, which is an entirely different thing. These are the trivial matters that consumed our conversation that afternoon. This can be better, we all agreed. I can make this better, we all agreed.

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It’s a strange time. Isolation, fear, uneasiness and anger. We are in the midst of a change, a much-needed change. Oftentimes, I’m not too sure what to do or say, fearful of doing or saying the wrong thing but I am so over that right now. I’m listening. I’m reading, learning as much as I can to better understand my privilege and implicit biases. I’m asking questions. I’m thinking. And I do what I do when I have a lot of thoughts rattling around in my head that need sorting: I’m baking.

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It seems I am incapable of cooking for one person. I try, I do, but this fact has become abundantly clear during this quarantine and I am overrun with leftovers. Browning bananas, pieces of half used vegetables, staling loaves of bread, and plastic deli containers of semi-identifiable ingredients are taking over my kitchen. I don’t like leftovers so I’ve taken on the challenge of turning them into something new. Last night’s pasta, beans and greens became today’s lunchtime soup. Dinner leftovers were chopped up, encased in pie dough and reinvented as lovely turnovers. Last week’s excess cinnamon rolls became the weekend’s bread pudding. It’s been working out pretty well. Necessity is the mother of invention after all. The other day I found a plastic wrapped chunk of cornbread, hidden behind an enormous bowl of oranges. Wonderful. Forgot about that. It was fine, but stale. I thought about making stuffing to go alongside a roast chicken but bread pudding has been on my mind. What if I turned this stale hunk into a strada, a savory pudding with whatever I could wrangle up in the fridge? I could use those little bits of whatnot tucked in plastic wrap and Ziploc baggies and make something delicious. This was how a cornbread pudding was born.

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You saw this one coming, didn’t you? That last cinnamon roll post – for a small batch to minimize extras – took me two attempts to get right so let’s just say I’ve got quite a few cinnamon rolls lying about. I took one for the team, my friends. Oh the irony. I’m not a big fan of leftovers so I’ve been trying to keep on top of things but one of the biggest offenders in my house lately is bread. Like many, I’ve embarked on several bread adventures during this quarantine and there’s one great truth in all this: I can only so much bread. Loaves and bagels and buns, oh my and those cinnamon rolls certainly didn’t help. Now, probably more so than any other time, we’re all acutely aware of what we eat and how much we waste. Due to shortages, we’re careful how much flour or rice or pasta we cook and certainly don’t want to throw anything away if avoidable. We repurpose leftovers into lunchtime salads, little casseroles, stir fries and soups with varying degrees of success. For the first time in many of our lives, we’re aware. And right now, many of us are aware of an excess of bread hanging about, keto diets be damned.

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I am baking like crazy these days, fortunate that I’m well stocked with flour, sugar and yeast. I’ve been filling my days with complicated baking projects, enjoying the feel of a rising dough between my fingers, delighting in a beautiful sourdough loaf as it emerges from the oven, making small persnickety little turnovers and pasta things that take time and concentration. It’s keeping me busy, my mind active, provides a great sense of accomplishment and delivers a steady stream of delicious, comforting things. The only problem is … it’s just so much. I’ve given some away but that gets tricky in these days of social distancing and my freezer is beyond capacity. So I’ve turned to another method – small batch baking.

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It seems we’re all giving sourdough a whirl during these strange times, myself included. The first thing you have to do is get a starter going. It’s relatively simple, just flour and water, flour and water, flour and water for several days until the wild yeasts take over and really get going. Inevitably you will run into a puzzling situation … what to do with the discard. Once you have a lively starter, you pour off half before you feed it – either to bake with or to do something else. This bit is known as the discard or cast off. If you bake every day it isn’t a really a problem but I suspect the majority of us don’t. Here’s where the challenge comes in as dealing with the discard can be a whole project unto itself.

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