Many of you reading this have large quantities of flour sitting in your cupboard. I began to suspect this was the case when I last went grocery shopping, after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio hinted that the city might become subject to a shelter-in-place order under the coronavirus pandemic. I needed to stock up, not only for sustenance, but for entertainment. To my surprise, I found no flour on the shelves at any of my local grocery stores.
The thing is, I know all of you don’t bake, because usually flour is widely available and in fact seems to have been sitting on the shelf for ages, and also because most people I know are more impressed than I deserve when I bake something myself. This means that many of you have bags of flour right now that you don’t know what to do with. Presumably, you bought it with the intention of using this period of national self-isolation to learn to bake, or at least to pull it off once or twice. For those brave souls, I would be happy to recommend some recipes.
You’re probably working with some limitations. I’m assuming you don’t have a KitchenAid stand mixer, because they’re $300 and difficult to fit in your average city apartment. That rules out most cookies and cakes, because creaming butter by hand is exhausting. I’ve also avoided anything leavened by yeast, which takes planning ahead and can be mysterious and discouraging to the novice. Bread also tends to require kneading, which could be a great idea if you’re also looking for a home workout regimen, but let’s not complicate things at this stage. You need basic kitchen equipment for these recipes — separate liquid and dry measuring cups, please — but not much else. The one technique you’ll want to learn is called the biscuit method, which means cutting or rubbing fat into flour to create a mealy or pebbly texture. Some people use a fork or a cheese grater. I do it with my hands.
I’ve linked to good examples of recipes for each of these baked goods, but you may find equally good ones from other sources that are probably just as user-friendly — if you trust the source, go for it! This is by no means a comprehensive list by any metric; it’s one strictly limited by the above parameters and my own experience. I have in mind someone who has literally never baked anything successfully before, and has decided to scale that height under quarantine. If you follow the recipe, you’ll be fine. Good luck and stay safe out there.
Blondies (Serious Eats)
For such a staple, brownies are surprisingly complex and controversial (fudgy or chewy? butter or oil? chocolate or cocoa? nuts??). Their paler sister, blondies, are blessedly simple in comparison. Browning the butter, as suggested in this Serious Eats recipe, is a great idea, but if it makes you nervous you can just melt it in the microwave. Otherwise, it couldn’t be simpler: you just mix everything together! If you have someone to share them with, they will be very impressed, because they taste great. Only you will know how little effort you put in. If you want, you could add half a cup of pecans, or chocolate chips. But I think if you make this with good ingredients and eat them fresh you won’t need them.
Irish soda bread (Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread)
Using yeast is intimidating, but you don’t have to know how to use it to make a good loaf of bread. Irish soda bread was probably first created by indigenous cultures in America, but became a cornerstone of Irish cuisine. Originally, it would have been made with milk that had gone bad and potassium salt extracted from burnt wood. Today we make it with buttermilk and baking soda, which react together like a science fair volcano. This recipe, provided by the aptly named Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread, also consists of dumping all the ingredients in a bowl without grace or precision. The result will be a damn fine loaf of bread. Spread salted butter on it in large volumes. (Note: I couldn’t resist linking to the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread, but there is a detailed step-by-step guide at Serious Eats that uses more or less the same recipe and adds advice on technique.)
Biscuits (The Kitchn)
I’m going to say something scandalous here: it’s not that hard to make biscuits. I know, everyone from the South has their story about how their great-grandmother had this magic touch and no one can make biscuits like her. Let’s just stipulate that they’re right and move on. You too can make biscuits. The key is to handle everything gently, like the dough is a baby animal, and to keep everything cold. In fact, at any point in this process, described above by Kitchn, you can just put the bowl in the freezer for a second if you need a break. Down south, they use White Lily flour for this recipe, which is harder to find up North. It’s a softer flour, allowing for a lighter texture, so much so that if you do use it you will have to change the recipe a bit. The closest thing widely available up North is Gold Medal, which has a lower protein content than other all-purpose flours. It’ll work for all of these recipes. Go ahead and cut this batch in half, but you can always freeze any extras and they will bake beautifully at a later date.
Scones (Tea Time Magazine)
These are basically biscuits except you swap the buttermilk for heavy cream, remove the baking soda (it was only there for the chemical reaction with the buttermilk), and add a bit of sugar. Scones are also actually a bit easier to handle because you don’t have to do all the folding. Be gentle though! I wouldn’t really “knead” at all, just pat. You can add currants if you’re weird. If you can find clotted cream to spread on them (it comes in a jar) you’re about to have one hell of a tea party.
Shortbread (New York Times)
This is perhaps the most basic cookie still in circulation. It’s possible they had some kind of cookie in ancient Greece that they cut with a compass and protractor into a perfectly circular shape, made of millet or something, but for the modern palate, cookies begin here. Shortbread is said to have been invented by Mary, Queen of Scots, in the 16th century. And it’s still pretty good! You can use any recipe, to be frank — it’s just a ratio of its three ingredients. This one at the New York Times suggests mixing with a food processor, but you can use the biscuit method.
Pie crust (Fine Cooking)
The difficulty of making pie crust from scratch is also overstated. It too is done with the biscuit method, and you want to leave it extra chunky. Sheets of fat layered into the dough release bubbles when heated, giving it that flaky texture. The hard part is rolling out the sheet of dough. I’ve included this recipe in spite of that step because it’s weirdly common to have a rolling pin. People who don’t bake at all still have a rolling pin for some reason. Be patient and don’t assume you’ve messed up if you hit a snag. The recipe above, at Fine Cooking, is fairly basic, and there is also a page with illustrations. I do want to add though that the ⅜ tsp measurement of salt is outrageously fussy and you can just use ½ tsp.
What are you going to put in your pie? Whatever you want! A mostly non-perishable option (which doesn’t require blind baking) is pecan pie. There’s a recipe for it on the back of the Karo corn syrup bottle (I prefer the dark one). It’s almost perfect, but if I were you I would double the butter, use brown sugar instead of white, and swap out the vanilla extract for a couple tablespoons of brown liquor. You stocked up on that too, right?
Cornbread (Food Network)
Admittedly, this one is controversial, in kind of a big way; it is done to dramatically different qualifications in the North and the South, and even then there are strong regional and ethnic preferences. But let’s set this matter aside for the sake of aspiring bakers. The recipe linked here at Food Network, from the mean judge on Chopped, is nearly identical to the one on the back of the Indian Head cornmeal bag. It doubles the butter and eggs, swaps milk for buttermilk, and adds the appropriate amount of baking soda. If you want, you can just memorize the preceding sentence and read the recipe off the bag. Feeling lucky? You can also brown the butter.
Olive oil cake (Food52)
As mentioned above, we’ve mostly avoided cakes here because of the need to cream butter, which in many cases needs to be properly aerated to create a fluffy crumb rather than a dense rubber wheel. The alternative is a chiffon cake, made with oil and originally targeted at American housewives by Betty Crocker in the mid-20th century. I’m not a great fan of baking with “vegetable oil.” It contributes neither flavor nor nutritive value, and you have to use a lot of it. But a worthy alternative hails from the Liguria region of Italy, infusing a cake with the nutty, fruity notes of olive oil. This recipe at Food52 is served at East Village espresso stand Abraço. If you have the good stuff, use it, but Goya olive oil is cheap and more flavorful than other supermarket brands.
Key lime pie (Saveur)
This impressively simple recipe was invented as an advertisement for canned sweetened condensed milk, and still appears on the back of the can. If you come across key limes at the grocery store — they’re in season during the summer but stray bags are known to appear at random — make sure to also grab a can of condensed milk and a box of graham crackers (or, if you’re feeling lazy, a premade graham cracker pie crust) and you will be able to get a key lime pie in the oven minutes after you get home. Saveur reprints the original recipe, which shouldn’t be as good as it is for how easy it is to make. (Note: if you don’t have an electric mixer you might get frustrated about whipping the cream, but I assure you it doesn’t actually take that long with a whisk.)
No-knead bread (Mark Bittman)
This one violates my own rule of not requiring a dough to rise. But this recipe, first developed by Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery and published by Mark Bittman in the New York Times, is so hands-off that it would seem like an omission not to include it (although you’ll need either a Dutch oven or a cast iron skillet with a lid). Basically, the night before you want bread, you mix together the ingredients — flour, yeast, salt, and water — to make a shaggy dough. Then you just leave it there. The next day, when you feel like baking it, you simply do that. The dough is particularly wet, which makes it easy to feel out of control when transferring it to a hot pan, so brace yourself for that step. Otherwise you barely do anything. (Here’s a cinnamon-raisin variation.)