SOUTH BAY LA, CA
SOUTH BAY LA, CA
adventures in baking
Natalie Kaye has worked extensively in the nonprofit and entertainment sectors. She was publicly elected to office in Los Angeles, California, serving 55,000 constituents for a two-year term as Vice President of the Lake Balboa Neighborhood Council. She is the Editor in Chief of Thrive33, received her M.B.A. from the University of Southern California, her B.A. from UCLA, and studied abroad at the University of Oxford.
Cooking was never my thing. Growing up, my family teased me incessantly that I could burn water. I wish I could say this was an exaggeration, but it was an earned reputation because I did, in fact, burn water. Many times. (Mostly because I would put a pan of water on to boil and then head to my bedroom and forget about it…but I digress.)
I never had any interest in learning how to cook – I had things to accomplish, places to go, and work I knew I was called to do. I was not going to let that be derailed by being tied to a kitchen with societal expectations of being the chief cook of a household. My teenage self figured the best way to keep this from happening was to refuse to learn in the first place.
This strategy worked for awhile. I married, and I wasn’t the cook in the house. Neither was he really, but we made it work…until it didn’t for other reasons and we divorced. It was at that point that I began questioning if this decision not to cook served me anymore. I decided it didn’t – I liked eating healthy and wanted to eat well, and in order to do that I needed to invest time and effort in to finally learning my way around a skillet.
I started small with easy recipes, and gradually moved to more complicated concoctions. I took a few cooking classes, and came away with some recipes that went in to my regular rotation. I began moving on to desserts, and much to my surprise, I found I had a real talent for baking. It was a fun every-now-and-then thing I would do when I could fit it in to my busy life of work, friends, dinners, volunteering, and generally trying to make the world a better place.
Then the pandemic hit. Everything came to a grinding halt, and the world turned dark. Like many people, I was in shock trying to adjust to this sudden, harsh reality. I was horrified by the aisles of empty shelves at Los Angeles grocery stores – in the space of a week I found myself needing to shop for groceries at 6:30 a.m. in hopes of finding food when the store boxes were opened to restock shelves early in the day. I walked in a daze through empty aisles that looked strikingly similar to what I associate with a soviet-era lack of supplies. I decided I had to get creative to get what I needed – I knelt on the ground and looked at the far-back of bottom shelves, which is how I found the last two bags of flour in the store. I found the last bag of sugar that way as well. I climbed up to peer at the back of a top shelf, which is how I discovered one jar of yeast – the last one to be found in my area for many months. You can do a lot with flour and sugar and yeast, I thought.
As the unemployment numbers skyrocketed, I felt very lucky to have a job. Between work and worry and doomscrolling…I started baking. A lot. I began making things I had never made before – I decided I wanted to come out of quarantine with a killer chocolate chip cookie recipe, so I experimented with a number of different ones until I found a combination that is pure magic. I learned how to make artisan bread – the kind where it takes a day and a half, and you have to let the yeast rise and then knead the dough with fancy techniques, and then let it rise and knead it some more. It turned out beautifully, looking just like the picture in the book…and it was to-die-for delicious.
In the midst of the fear and the sorrow and the anger and the helplessness…baking brought me comfort. The science of it made sense to me – the preciseness that was needed, and adding ingredients in a particular way to achieve particular results. The consistency of it gave me much needed peace. I couldn’t control the world, but I could control how my chocolate soufflé cake came out. During the past six months of quarantine I’ve made French chouquettes, apricot yogurt cake, brownies, strawberry spoon cake, cupcakes, blackberry coffee cake, banana bread, and more. I attended a zoom baking class recently to learn how to make my very first frosted layer cake from scratch – a lemon layer cake with lemon buttercream frosting, fresh raspberries on top, and fresh raspberry filling. I used lemons from my tree, and the freshness of the just-picked lemons made the cake shine. I never dreamed I could make something that beautiful, or that luscious. My niece and nephew have benefitted from this baked goodness – I can’t get together with them, but I can bake for them and earn “cool aunt” points in the process.
It has been a surprise to me to discover during the pandemic how much joy I get from baking. I love the challenge of it, and the scrumptiousness of the results. Suddenly there is this small place I’ve carved out in the world to make something that surprises and delights and comforts, despite unending streams of continually worsening news. When I’m baking I have to focus fully on what I’m doing and pay attention to the weight of the flour, not the weight of the world. It’s freeing.
No one would be more shocked to learn of this culinary turn-around than my 15 year-old self. If I could, I would tell her that there is always grace to be found in darkness…and it sometimes can be found in a simple loaf of bread.
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