• Ideas
  • COVID-19

Cake Isn’t Just Cake During a Pandemic. Here’s What I Learned Decades Ago About Baking in Anxious Times

4 minute read
Nguyen is the author of the novels Short Girls and Pioneer Girl and the memoir Stealing Buddha's Dinner

When quarantine times began, everyone around me started making sourdough. I baked cakes. Nothing against bread; I just crave the precision of a layer cake, the fiddly work, as it’s called on The Great British Baking Show, a comfort series that I rewatched while making comfort cakes, tarts and galettes. Bread is a staple, but cake brings joy.

For me, it’s always been that way. My family arrived in the U.S. as refugees from Vietnam at the end of the war in 1975. We were resettled in Michigan, in a conservative town where I grew up not knowing what to do with all the racism we experienced. I was a shy child who had nightmares and fears. My whole family was anxious, but no one talked about trauma. We didn’t know the concept of self-care. But surely that’s why we loved to gather around the TV set with ice cream and potato chips. We loved little treats: candy, packs of gum, the rare Sara Lee pound cake and Entenmann’s coffee cake.

When I was 10, my mom enrolled me in a senior citizens’ cake-decorating class as an after-school activity. There, in a community-center kitchen, I learned how to shape buttercream into roses and leaves on little squares of wax paper. We did this over and over, flower after flower, lines of leaves until the frosting ran out. It was satisfying, doable magic. I would listen to the ladies gossiping and laughing and feel included in their warmth, gaining secret knowledge about the world.

And so I became the baker in my family. Though my childhood was filled with the tension of not understanding identity and of feeling like an outsider, I knew two things for sure: everyone feels a little better when presented with cake, and everything feels a little better when there’s cake.

Now, all these years later, I’ve returned to the Midwest—Wisconsin, the other side of Lake Michigan—and I’m teaching my own kids how to bake. I thought their childhoods would be so much safer and more stable than mine, but I didn’t know we would be in a pandemic, living in a state that currently has one of the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases in the country. Like so many people in America, we are stressed out. We haven’t gone to restaurants, haven’t gone anywhere.

But at least we can bake. Through these long months since March, I’ve been trying new recipes. Genoise and joconde and Victoria sponges, choux pastry, rough puff pastry, short crust pastry, churros and apple fritters, pies and hand pies, carrot cakes, chocolate cakes, strawberry cakes, pound cakes, Bundt cakes, almond cakes. On our 100th day of sheltering in place, I made a Boston cream pie. I started leaving cookies, cakes and fritters on my neighbors’ porches and finding treats on my porch too. Late at night, after work and school and kids’ bedtimes, I make caramel and crème pâtissière. Not every item has turned out, but every effort has made me feel more capable.

Recently, I taught my kids how to make those buttercream flowers. I hadn’t done this in more than 20 years, but it all returned to me: the little squares of wax paper, the yellow counters in that community-center kitchen. My kids are 9 and 11. As I watched them try to form the petals of a rose—you have to move quickly, confidently, keep practicing—I wondered if I had looked that way at their age, determined to make a sugar flower bloom. I am a person who still carries fear all the time. But my children think I am fearless because I can cook and bake. I deep-fry doughnuts without hesitation. I deal with boiling water, broilers, gas flames. I remembered how to make a buttercream rose in a matter of seconds. To my kids, I know how to do so much.

In times of waiting and worry, it feels useful to gather ingredients and turn them into something that might bring sweetness to someone’s day. Baking is so much more than following directions; it’s about understanding process. It’s about trust. Whether I’m baking with my kids or baking alone, I feel a sense of peace I rarely have any other time. Whatever the result, I know I’ll be a little more ready for whatever comes next.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.