In Isolation with Nadia Bailey

Location: Melbourne, Australia

There’s a particular kind of lemon cake I bake when I’m lonely, so simple it comes out the same every time: bright and comforting. The kind of cake that can be relied on, even when everything else seems unmanageable. The last time I made it was a few months before news of the pandemic began to filter into the newspapers. A normal autumn day in Kraków.

I gathered flour, butter, sugar, and lemons, and fetched two cartons of eggs—one containing the final egg of last week’s half-dozen, the other, full, purchased at the corner store that morning. I combined the dry ingredients, then took the last egg from its carton and cracked it open. I upended the broken shells over the ceramic bowl and stared. In the shallow well I’d made in the flour, there was no yolk. The egg contained only albumen, clear as water.

Troubled by this strange occurrence, I took an egg from the new carton and rapped it against the rim of the bowl. I pushed my thumb through the shell and cleaved it open. The interior slid out into the bowl, into the flour, and that uncanny, yolkless egg. Again I stared. The second egg had—improbably, so improbably—two yolks. Two yolks, yellow as supermoons.

Since then, I’ve thought about these two eggs often: one yolkless, the other double-yolked, that I happened to break into a bowl one after the other. The experience left me somewhat disturbed. It had, unmistakably, the contours of an omen. More preordained sign than random coincidence. I felt, in the space of two broken eggs, the destabilising notion that the universe was not the wholly rational place I took it for.

I’ve felt in a corner booth what I imagine the credulous feel in their houses of worship: communion, awe, the possibility of miracles.

But cooking well has always felt like magic to me. I learned the basics when I was young but failed to ascend beyond that; when I cooked, my aim was to make something that would stop me from being hungry rather than with an eye for artistry or genuine nourishment. For a long time I’ve only had the need to cook for myself, and cooking for one is depressing if you let it be. It’s easier to pay someone to cook for you than learn how to care for yourself. It’s easier to eat distracted than confront the loneliness of dining alone.

Restaurants, then, are sites of wonder. It’s perhaps no coincidence that what priests and waiters do are both called service. Both in their own way are acts of devotion. I’ve felt in a corner booth what I imagine the credulous feel in their houses of worship: communion, awe, the possibility of miracles. For the duration of a meal—whether over a white drift of tablecloth or hastily wiped Laminex—you’re made to feel welcome. And it’s from going to restaurants I learned how to eat—what it is to cook with care and eat with pleasure. Without the training of restaurants, without the extraordinary skill of chefs and line cooks and waitstaff, how timid my palate would be. How narrow.  

Right now, I have no real measure of days except for in the proofing of dough, no measure of hours but the stretching and folding of a loaf in progress. Restaurants are shuttered, so I work within the confines of my own limited ability. I’ve been practicing. Taking interest in the process, improving though repetition. Isolation has given me time to learn how to properly poach an egg so that the white pillows around the yolk like a friendly little cloud. Time to spend hours fermenting beetroot into kvass and then kvass into barszcz, until you end up with a broth the colour of Snow White’s lips. Time to mix flour and water together until it bubbles up, tender and alive, and raises a loaf like a tiny messiah. These clumsy attempts please me, and make me aware of how much I don’t yet know.

I think about what it will be like when restaurants re-open; how badly I want to go to a city bar in the early evening, when it’s still empty and the staff are bored and helpful, and order a gin martini, very cold and dry—expertly mixed—with an olive. To eat a handful of hot misir wot wrapped in sour injera. To lean elbow to elbow with a stranger in a crowded pub, then pick my way back through a maze of tables, trying not to spill a generous pour of red wine. To walk through Chinatown on a winter night then eat a plate of hand-pulled noodles swimming in chilli oil. How badly I want to order something I’ve never tasted before and feel the thrill of the new.

For now, while I wait, I go back to making cakes, like I did in Kraków when I was lonely and missing home. I consult recipe books, bookmark the things I hope one day I’ll have the skill to make. I bake another imperfectly proofed loaf and eat a crust, still hot, with a curl of butter. That I can do this is its own kind of magic; the sweetness in the bitter.

By Nadia Bailey