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Isolation Baking: A Guide for Stress Bakers

Angry, stressed woman making a cake at the messy table full with pastries items and ingredients

I am an anxiety baker. Needless to say, isolation in a tiny house with two cats and an unremitting to-do list is an endless well of anxiety. Over the last month, my kitchen has produced banana bread, dumplings, scones, biscuits, cinnamon rolls, calzones, quiche, multiple pies and an endless parade of cookies (links for the recipes of some of my favorites are below).

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One component of isolation is minimizing grocery store excursions. Unfortunately, even when I do venture out to forage for basic supplies (tea, milk, and sugar), the barren shelves offer sparse pickings. But anxiety does not back down in the face of dwindling baking supplies, so I have had to get creative with many of my recipes, using items I have on hand in lieu of the more tried-and-true alternatives.

For those who, like me, try to convert stress into something edible or are trying out cooking as a new way to kill time (welcome!), I have compiled a compendium of my successful ingredient replacements. Though many of these replacements are quirks of my own impulse-driven pantry, hopefully they inspire new experimental endeavors of your own in the face of grocery sparsity.

Ingredient: Egg

Replacement: Applesauce

Successful recipes: Pancakes, cornbread

Review: Add a volume of applesauce equivalent to about 1 to 1½ volumes per egg that is being replaced. It requires a slightly longer bake time (one to 10 minutes, depending on how thick the baked good is) but the recipe will come out even more moist than the original. I have successfully replaced eggs with other produce purees, such as broccoli, pumpkin and zucchini, but note that lower-liquid produce alternatives tend to better preserve the texture of the original recipe. Note: This substitute only works for bread-like baked goods rather than pudding- or custard-like creations.

Ingredient: Milk

Replacement: Yogurt + water

Successful recipes: Soda bread, biscuits

Review: For each cup of milk that needs to be replaced, add one to two tablespoons of yogurt, depending on the thickness of the yogurt, and the remaining volume of water. The final product is indistinguishable from the original if you keep plain yogurt on hand, but flavored yogurt can be used to add a twist to the recipe. Yogurt has the benefit of a longer refrigerator life than milk, so it’s a staple in my house. Yogurt can similarly be used to replace buttermilk in recipes, but dilute three to four tablespoons of yogurt into water and stir thoroughly before adding to the dry ingredients.

Ingredient: Sugar

Replacement: Bananas

Successful recipes: Pancakes, cookies, scones

Review: In my experience, one medium ripe banana can substitute for the sweetness of roughly a half-cup of white sugar (and at a fraction of the guilt!) However, I do not recommend adding more than one large or two small bananas or else the batter may become too liquidy. For recipes that include added liquid, reduce the volume of added liquid by 1/3 the volume of the fruit. For recipes without added liquid, reduce the volume of added lipids (e.g., oil or butter) by one tablespoon and increase bake time two to five minutes. Other sugar substitutes that I have successfully used (roughly 1:1 volume replacement) include honey and coconut jam.

Ingredient: Non-stick spray

Replacement: Margarine, parchment paper

Successful recipes: Cookies and cornbread and biscuits, oh my!

Review: There are many alternatives to non-stick spray, and you should never go without lining your baking surfaces. For baked goods on a tray, parchment paper is the easiest alternative. But if you want a bit more flavor or are baking in a dish, you can use a paper towel and a dollop of your favorite lipid and spread it in a thin layer across the entire baking surface. Note: Do not use olive oil, since it has a low flash point and may burn in the oven. Other non-stick spray substitutes that I have successfully used include butter, vegetable oil and, my favorite for savory cooking, leftover bacon grease.

Ingredient: Bisquick

Replacement: Flour + baking powder + butter + salt

Successful recipe: Soup drop dumplings, biscuits

Review: The convenience of Bisquick or other baking mixes is hard to beat, but it’s easy to replace if you’re running low or just can’t stomach the up-charge of convenience. For every cup of baking mix you need, replace it with one cup of all-purpose flour, 1½ teaspoons of baking powder, ¼ teaspoon of salt, and one teaspoon of butter or shortening. It takes a little more time and energy, but it costs pennies on the dollar compared to a box of mix and is indistinguishable.


A final note: Don’t forego a recipe just because it calls for a spice mix you don’t have. The flavors of pumpkin spice, apple spice, gingerbread spice and all the other sweets mixes can be faithfully reproduced with varying combinations of cinnamon, ginger and either nutmeg or cloves. So rather than investing in a plethora of baking spice mixes, pick up just three spices and mix them to your own taste.

Some recipes will always be complicated (see the amazing banana cream pie and peanut butter pie recipes linked below), but for bakers who just need to get their hands busy, a dearth of ingredients should not be a barrier to stress relief. Substitute sweet potatoes into a carrot cake; hide fruit (fresh, frozen or dried) at the bottom of cupcakes; mix peanut butter and chocolate syrup to frost cookies; jazz up breakfast biscuits with a spoonful of tea leaves; turn your favorite oatmeal cookies into jam thumbprint cookies. The possibilities are limited only by the creativity you apply to the haphazard remnants of your refrigerator and pantry. Happy baking!


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