Baking, blogging, and writing. Using the pan in pandemic to keep up with both sides of a professional literary life.

It’s the last Tuesday of 2020 and I don’t think 2021 could arrive any sooner for everyone at this point. Although, there is no need to state the obvious, it’s been an overall rough year for everyone. Everything most of us took for granted like having the choice between getting a cup of coffee or a burger to go, or to stay, for a stretch of time this year, wasn’t even an option. Then there was the change of working from home that required far more adjustment than anyone ever thought it would. Kids, pets, and life at home made it hard for many to stay in work mode. As it turns out, working can be stressful in the office and at home, which was a shock to some people, not me. However, the effects of Covid-19 on an industry like publishing, where socializing in person is just as, if not more important, than emails and posts, it’s been an adjustment.

I’ve been working from home for some time. I have a very small literary agency with a handful of clients. Being a part of the publishing industry, I spend time reviewing the latest signings and deals happening with the Big-Four publishers (it was five, but Random just bought the venerable Simon and Schuster), independent, and boutique publishers. I read Publisher’s Weekly, The New York Times Book Review, to keep up with the industry. I live on Long Island and I spend time in Bethel, Connecticut with my sister’s family where I am Auntie Mimi. In New York I am a part of the otherhood (mothers with adult children, in my case sons)

I’m also a writer and author myself. I’ve been in the publishing industry for close to twenty years. I understand the publishing industry from both sides of the table. Editors, senior and assistant, along with editorial directors and acquisitions editors spend a great deal of time in meetings that aren’t in a conference room. They meet literary agents and authors for coffee, lunch, and cocktails. There are industry dinners where they have an opportunity to talk with other publishing professionals about projects and trends. Agents like having the opportunity to pitch clients in person and to find out what types of projects editors are seeking. We think using the #mswl, is terrific, but have you seen most people’s let alone agent’s Twitter or Facebooks threads, it’s easily lost in a plethora of other tweets, posts, or updates. We were just getting the hang of the new digital submission, when Covid-19 took the social scene away. Now we had to Zoom, and for some editors living in an NYC apartment with children, zooming from their closets was a close to an office situation as they could get.

Combining this with the number of changes that have occurred since the first of my ten books (1 nonfiction, 9 novels) was published in 1998 through the last book in 2015, it’s night and day. The Internet was in its toddler stage in the late nineties and still somewhat of a novelty. Publishers still accepted hard-copy submissions through the mail. You could call and editor or the art department direct without hitting a menu-option. Now it’s all email and pressing phone options if you call. Neither guarantees you’ll get through. In the nineties through the early 2000s, being traditionally published by the aforementioned publishers, was the only way to go. Any other means of publication like hybrid and self-publishing were looked down on as an inferior way to be published or as vanity-publishing adjacent. Now, there’s a self-publishing section in PW. Some of the major traditional publishers, have a waded into self-publishing offering services for people looking to publish their books. A blogger with a large social media following is more likely to get a publishing deal than a previously published author with proven sales and readership. Getting on social media to develop a platform is a little easier for boomers and gen-xers who were always techies or gamers. For some like me, changing from the analog to the digital has been a bit tougher. I believe conversation is an art, and there are things that simply cannot be conveyed through a text or post, unless you’re scream (all-caps) tweeting or texting. Still, I don’t have much choice but to try to figure my way through the maze. There are plenty of bloggers who have developed a lucrative platform and are willing to help you. Some want a lot of money, others don’t want as much, but the problem is how do you know if what they’re going to teach will actually work for you. It’s a lot to process.

To deal with the new world, I head to the kitchen. It’s my personal ashram where I find a way to quiet my thoughts so that I’m able to think without the white noise of our online lives. It allows me to work through professional and personal issues. Writer’s block is a condition no writers wants for any extended period. Novelists, songwriters, television and screenwriters, anyone who depends on words for their livelihood/career.

It was the kitchen that made this past year a little easier to cope with and from the number of banana bread posts I saw at the beginning of the lockdown in March, others have discovered what a tasty oasis the kitchen is. Covid-19 also stands for the average number of pounds gained (if it was more, I won’t tell). Being in the kitchen helped me figure out different ways to pitch my clients’ work to publishers. As an added benefit, it helped me tighten up three fiction manuscripts of mine. I was able to compile the recipes for two cookbooks, one of which celebrates my family’s traditions in the kitchen.

I’ve also taken on the daunting task of trying to build an online presence. While I love all of these great articles interviewing people who had blogs, then got a publishing deal for cooking or a memoir or something else, I can’t dwell there. I am having a time figuring all of the ancillary things out. I don’t have time to ponder or mope over why I haven’t been discovered. I was never one for a diary, which is weird because I always loved writing, but I preferred writing stories centered around what did or is happening in my life and around me. I start with a pen and paper, before I type anything into Word. There is something about connecting to the paper that helps writing flow for me. More often than not, I don’t use much of what I wrote by hand, it’s just the runway and taxiing. When I begin typing, my mind takes flight, the words come. That is not to say that I don’t edit and change it extensively. Words have life. They breathe, contract, and change shape.

I find that baking helps the most when I’m writing fiction. There are no bounds to what I can write, but baking is science. It’s orderly. You can’t deviate and add just a pinch more yeast or baking powder. The measurements are precise, there is no free-styling. Somehow, all of it allows my creativity to flow freely. I’ve figured out more plot lines and characters just by sifting, measuring, stirring, and kneading. It’s what works for me in my literary life and has made it possible for me to blog and keep up with my website.

For others it might be painting, drawing, or another form of art that helps their creative juices get going. Physical activity like working out, running, walking, or yoga is helpful for some people. I enjoy doing yoga in the mornings to help center my thoughts and stretch my limbs. It helps with the every day pain of having MS, but it’s baking and writing that sets me free of the condition, even if it’s just for a little while.

Now that there are vaccines available, I believe the world will return to a new normal. I am quite sure that pre-pandemic life won’t return as we knew it. Time is going to be the key for the industries that were affected and that may not be enough to resurrect many businesses. I suppose hope springs eternal for writers, as much as I prefer to bake my own treats, I’m looking forward to having sitting in a bakery café, diner, or coffeehouse and watching as people from all walks of life interact with each other before they go about their day. Covid-19 has proven just how social we are. I will still be in the kitchen cooking and baking, but I won’t take seeing people in person for granted again. Apparently, we’re all people who need people.

I love to share recipes, particularly when it’s cake. Chocolate was a weakness for my Grandma Salley. She kept Hershey’s Kisses in the pocket of her aprons. She’d sneak and give us a couple when my mother wasn’t looking. Chocolate is something I love to bake with, but as I gathered recipes for the Cooking with My Nanas cookbook, I wanted to be sure to include every dietary need. Family is about everyone at the table enjoying a meal together. What’s the fun if some members only have a bowl of fruit for dessert. I know it’s healthier, but who wants that when everyone else has chocolate

I found this recipe for Gluten-free Chocolate Cake on What the Fork Blog, which was adapted from Ina Garten

For the Cake

  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose gluten free flour (all-purpose flour)
  • 3/4 teaspoon xanthan gum (omit if your gluten-free blend contains it) (omit if using regular all-purpose flour)
  • 2 cups granulated sugar (Swerve sweetener, Splenda granulated, coconut, turbinado, or golden sugar pulsed fine)
  • 3/4 cups cocoa powder*
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk (or 1 cup unsweetened coconut, rice, almond, or soy milk + 1 tablespoon white vinegar)
  • 1/2 cup avocado oil (or canola oil)
  • 2 large eggs, room temperature (1/4 cup Aquafaba, 1/2 cup silken-tofu pureed with 1/4 teaspoon baking soda, 2 flaxseed or chia seed eggs, or egg replacer)
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup hot coffee

For the Frosting

  • 1 cup salted butter, softened (vegan butter)
  • 3 cups powdered sugar (organic confectioner’s sugar,. Swerve confectioner’s sugar substitute)
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream (full-fat coconut milk)
  • 1 tablespoon golden syrup, light corn syrup, or brown rice syrup, optional

Instructions

To make the Cake:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and spray 2 8-inch cake pans with non-stick spray. Line the bottom of the pans with parchment paper and spray that parchment paper with non-stick spray.
  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, sift together the flour, xanthan gum, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Use the paddle attachment to mix the dry ingredients on low speed.
  3. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, oil and vanilla.
  4. With the mixer running on low speed, slowly pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Mix until completely combined.
  5. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and pour in the hot coffee. Mix on low until incorporated.
  6. Pour the batter (it will be very thin and pretty liquidy) evenly between the two pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 – 40 minutes. (Mine take about 37 minutes.)
  7. Cool the cakes on a wire rack (in the pan) for 20 minutes. Carefully remove the cakes from the pans and cool completely on a wire rack.
  8. When the cakes are cool, prepare the buttercream.

To make the chocolate buttercream:

  1. Add the butter to the bowl of a stand mixer and beat until completely smooth. Add the powdered sugar and cocoa powder and mix on low to combine. Mix in the vanilla extract and heavy cream.
  2. Turn the mixer to a medium-high speed and beat for 1-2 minutes or until the frosting is light and fluffy. Add golden syrup if using and blend until incorporated.
  3. Frost the cake as desired!