Students find solace and smiles in baking

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Periodic Baking president Jillian Kuo (junior) said the Samuelson Alumni Center kitchen was “a whirlwind.” A line of students formed at the sink, rolling up their sleeves in preparation to make churros and spicy chocolate, dulce de leche and strawberry sauces. Over 35 people had signed up for the Feb. 16 bake event, Kuo said. In one corner, students began whizzing strawberries together in a small blender to form a sauce. The whir of the blender harmonized with Harry Styles’ “Adore You” blaring in the background. At the stovetop, “team churro” — as Kuo described them — scanned the churro recipe taped to the overhead microwave and began to prep ingredients.

Isabel Perez (first year) began chopping butter. At home, she said, she is an avid baker. Her dad is Puerto Rican, and she said she likes to bake Puerto Rican pastries like quesitos de guayabas, which are puff pastries filled with guava and sweetened cream cheese. She said she misses baking, and the first thing she did when she got home for winter break was bake brownies.

Selah Wilson (junior) poses with a bag of churro dough ready to pipe. Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020. Kathy Ou/The Occidental

Jordan Fang (first year) watched the hustle and bustle in the Samuelson Alumni kitchen, waiting for his turn to start on the next batch of churros. Many people are drawn to baking because it is therapeutic, he said.

“To me, baking speaks a lot to the home and the comfort of being in your own environment,” Jordan said.

Outside of the kitchen, Kenya Sterns (first year) prepared the dipping sauces. She said she finds the technical aspects of baking soothing.

“There’s a place for everything, and everything has a place,” Sterns said.

Sterns was referring to the French term mise en place, or “everything in its place.” It means to prep ingredients and tools before cooking. Gahan Lahiri (first year) gripped the piping bag and concentrated on squeezing out smooth finger-length strips of churro dough onto a baking sheet. It was Lahiri’s first time making churros.

Jillian Kuo (junior) took out plates of churros after twenty minutes of baking to check their color and readiness. Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020. Kathy Ou/The Occidental

Across campus in the Wylie Hall kitchen Feb. 20, students gathered around Challah for Hunger president Hannah Rice (junior) as she demonstrated how to shape challah dough into a braided ring. First, divide the dough into two snakes, she said, then twist the strands together and connect the ends to form a circle. It is not as simple as it sounds, as it took some students a few tries to perfect their technique.

In the back, Aliya Fang (sophomore) weighed out 6.5 ounce balls of dough, one after another after another. Rice estimated they made around 85 individual challah loaves.

Rice said she has been involved with Challah for Hunger since her first year at Occidental. She said she started coming to their events to meet new people and find others who enjoy baking as much as she does. Rice is Jewish and said challah bread reminds her of her late grandmother — they used to bake challah bread together before she passed away. Rice uses a different recipe for the challah she bakes on campus than she did with her grandmother. Challah is an enriched dough traditionally made with eggs, but since Rice became vegan, she now uses a vegan recipe.

Some examples of the fresh Challah prepared at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. Evan Legrand/The Occidental

Adelaide Willis (junior) said she became interested in baking after watching “The Great British Baking Show.” The show premiered on Netflix in 2018 and has since garnered a dedicated fanbase. Willis is a self-described “chocoholic,” and she tries to bake occasionally on campus. The biggest obstacle, she said, was buying all of the supplies, from ingredients to basic tools like baking sheets. Now that she lives on the third floor of Stearns, she said it is a struggle to carry all of her supplies down to the kitchen on the first floor, but it is worth it.

Willis flattened one strand of dough and stuffed it with chocolate chips before braiding it into a circle to make a chocolate chip challah.

“It’s nice coming here and kneading things and twisting things around,” Willis said. “I don’t have to think about anything else.”

Jordan said he started baking for nutritional reasons. He is interested in fitness and said he has been trying to perfect his recipe for healthy protein bread. He relies on YouTube tutorials and trial and error to find the right balance of moisture, protein and fat in his bread. Sometimes, he said, it does not go as planned.

“If you forget baking powder, it’s a brick,” Jordan said. “I still eat it because it’s protein, but it’s unpleasant. Very unpleasant.”

Jordan avoids using flour, butter and sugar in his recipes, and he said this has made him a more versatile baker. He said his protein bread recipe is quite robust and can handle experimentation.

After the churros were pulled from the oven, the bakers began to feast. Perez dipped a churro into the spicy chocolate sauce and took a bite as it dripped onto her fingers. Her review: slightly undercooked, but she reached for another one.

“They are buttery vessels of deliciousness,” Perez said.

While Rice grabbed sheets of baked challah from the oven, Aliya finished braiding the last pieces of challah dough. Aliya spends her summers selling homemade crepe cakes. She began baking crepe cakes in high school after seeing slices of crepe cake at Lady M Cake Boutique in Beverly Hills.

“I was like, ‘This is ridiculously expensive, I can make this at home,’” Aliya said

She donates the proceeds to Erika’s Lighthouse, a nonprofit that advocates for adolescent mental health awareness. Her favorite thing about baking is how it brings people joy.

“Honestly, [baking] makes people smile,” Aliya said. “We need a lot more of that, especially right now.”