“Baking club is not about tears.” I hear these words and immediately want to wail into my stand mixer. Though it’s only day 15 of pastry chef and Milk Bar founder Christina Tosi’s quarantine-inspired Instagram baking club, it’s now day 22 of my family’s quarantine and our reserves of positivity are quickly running out. I didn’t sleep well last night, so when Tosi starts to tear up as she talks about fulfilling cake orders while standing in her Brooklyn-based industrial kitchen (all 11,000 square feet of it), I feel that familiar quiver in my lip. And then, my son says the refrain that has kept me going for the past two weeks: “Mom, what are we making today?!”
Since the stay-at-home order started for us, the same day we moved from Los Angeles to Austin, there have been few things upon which my eight-year-old son and I can agree. From how much screen time he should get, whether or not he still needs to practice his handwriting, and even the importance of not riding his bike in the middle of the street (“Mom, the cars can’t hit me because of social distancing”), it’s safe to say in the age of quarantine, we haven’t exactly seen eye to eye. But then, #bakingclub came along.
I’ve baked with Cooper before, and despite some disagreements about frosting to cake ratios and whether his little brother should be allowed to participate, it’s typically an activity that brings us both joy. At one point when he was a toddler, I even dreamt of opening my own bakery; I now chalk that idea up to postpartum hormones. When I saw that Tosi, whom I came to love after watching her episode of Chef’s Table, was starting her quarantine baking club on Instagram, something sparked for me. Could we do this, he and I? Would it ease the daily tension? I figured at the very least I’d be able to say we did math and science for the day, and maybe get a cookie or two out of it. Little did I know that Tosi and her #bakingclub would become the glue holding our lives together.
My son knows Tosi not as a James Beard award-winning pastry chef, but rather as one of the judges on MasterChef Junior, a show perfectly suited for her warmth and positivity. So when I introduced the idea of doing #bakingclub with him, he was on board. She was familiar, knowledgeable, and because of her, we were going to have dessert for the first time in a week.
And so we began. For those who’re unfamiliar with #bakingclub, here’s how it works: Each afternoon Tosi posts a set of ingredients for the next day. Flour, salt, eggs, sugar, and butter are predictable mainstays. There are also wild cards thrown into the mix. Cereal, potato chips, ramen noodles, and grape jelly have made appearances, always leaving us rife with anticipation for what the next #bakingclub creation will be. And then, like clockwork, at 2 pm EST the following day, there she is.
She greets us with a dance, to the beat of the day’s playlist, which she also puts on Spotify. Madonna, Dolly Parton, Survivor, The Beach Boys… each day a different mix as we gather our ingredients and wash our hands while singing happy birthday to some of her followers. In the hands of someone else, the novelty may have worn off after the first couple of days. But with Tosi, that’s not the case. In fact, as the days go on, #bakingclub has become our not-so-secret ingredient for what she calls the secret to life: “always having something to look forward to.” And judging by the numbers, I’d say we’re not alone.
On day four of baking club I noted her Instagram following was hovering at 393,000 followers. Just 11 days later, she had 408,000 (and counting). It’s not only the recipes, which have proven to be delightfully simple and always delicious (save for a savory day when making tortillas fell a bit, well, flat, in my household). It’s not just the consistency of her process: ingredients, music, recipe, baked goods. It’s not just her over-the-top adorable dog, Butter, who typically makes daily appearances — though she certainly helps.
She shows up everyday, enthusiastic to make the most of our time together, as if there’s nowhere else she’d rather be. She reminds us that it’s okay if we don’t have all the ingredients; there are always swaps to be made, it doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s the way she bebops around her kitchen, looking as precious as a grown woman possibly can in overalls while being decidedly not precious about her baking.
It’s been a long time since a public figure has brought me this kind of comfort. I was a senior at NYU in 2001 and lived just blocks away from where the Twin Towers fell. I remember how my roommate and I would wearily navigate each day as best we could. Some days we’d go to class, some days we wouldn’t. Some days we’d cry, some days we wouldn’t. But every night, we’d watch the Late Show with David Letterman, finding comfort and security in the way he navigated the fear and uncertainty of the time with a careful mix of humor, compassion, and his own raw emotion. While the COVID-19 pandemic and 9/11 aren’t exactly comparable, I’m finding similar relief in watching and baking along with Tosi. She’s giving us something reliable when the world is anything but.
I imagine that, as the days drag on, my son and I won’t magically start agreeing on how best to spend them. But I do have hope that he’ll eventually look back on this quarantine and think about our time together in the kitchen, dancing and baking our way through the 2 o’clock hour with Tosi and the rest of the #bakingclub.
I know I will.