Creativity in Challenging Times: Baking Bread

The wartime edition of the Victory Binding of the American Woman’s Cook Book was dedicated to General Douglas MacArthur and the war effort. In it are recipes that made the best of scarce ingredients and provided tips for making a lot from a little. In that dedication to MacArthur the editors wrote:

“His heroic leadership and gallant fight against overwhelming odds should inspire every American woman  to make the most of daily opportunities to support the war effort in her home and in every sphere of worthwhile war activity. there must be thousands of little ways to do a job better–thousands of opportunities to help–to create, to conserve and to serve. If every woman, every day, in everything she does, will do her utmost of accomplish the aims of our Government, then that combined effort will soon become a gigantic and valuable aid toward winning this war.”

While a pandemic is not quite a war and our kitchens have become a lot more gender inclusive the message of creativity, conservation, and contribution of collective effort is very applicable to our current circumstances. With social distancing and stay at home orders being the new war effort many of us find ourselves looking for ways to make do and fill our time with new and useful skills. And bread baking is both a necessary skill and one that has become emblematic of current social efforts to use our time to make and create something useful and delightful.

Library Resources

The Malden Library has a number of resources to help people learning to bake, or for those wishing to improve their baking skills. We have an extensive cookbook collection both in print and online. But while the library is currently closed there are still cookbooks available to download. And here is a handy list of bread baking books to get you through the challenging times and spark a little baking creativity.

The library also has many cookbooks in Local History that might inspire some classic baking. Included here are a few select recipes using various ingredients to offer an historical perspective on a new hobby.

Selections from the Victory Binding of the American Woman’s Cook Book. ©1942 pages 104, 107, 116,121
Better Homes Recipe Book ©1933 pages 13, 14.  Page 13 here. 
New England Cook Book ©1936 page 32
99 Potato Recipes Tested by 33 Famous Cooking Experts ©1938 page 16
100 Standard Recipes Each One Tested ©1927 pages 12-13 
Aunt Jenny’s Favorite Recipes ©1938 page 39

And if that is not historical enough you can read a Smithsonian article about an ancient yeast starter created from 4,500 year old Egyptian pottery and ancient grains thanks to the work of amateur baker: Seamus Blackley. It is probably a level of bread most of us will only dream of baking.

Online Inspiration

For those looking for quick inspiration or in need of recipes that fit a narrowing list of available ingredients included are a few online suggestions for different types of bread.  A quick search with ingredients on hand may yield suggestions for suitable recipes. It is also a good idea to check for tips and tricks for typical ingredient substitutions in recipes. What’s Cooking America has a chart that offers the most common substitutions for flours, and eggs other ingredients; it is a useful resource for more than just baking.


Firstly, the most popular bread baking tool right now is a good sourdough starter. With the surge in consumer demand yeast is in short supply so many bakers are making breads with different types of leavening. And while the library has books to borrow on the topic, sourdough starters are trending on most news sites and social media. First, read Sudeep Agarwala’s Washington Post article about catching your own wild yeast and building a sourdough starter. It will give you the science and the know how to bake some very delicious bread. After that check out the hashtag #quarantinystarter on instagram and twitter and the work of Andrew Janjigian. He has a simple sourdough starter published at Cooks Illustrated. This is the sort of creative baking that is backed and encouraged by biology!

Soda Bread

The next bread that new bakers may want to try is baking soda bread. Made famous by Irish Soda Bread there are a number of soda based breads that use the effervescent qualities of a baking soda based chemical reaction to make bread rise. There are several baking soda and baking powder based recipes in the historic recipes above. But there are also a few updated versions. Irish soda bread is the iconic soda bread and Forbes has a selection of recipes from Irish chef, Darina Allen. Beer bread is another variation like this recipe from New York Times. Here is another soda base recipe from Bon Appetit magazine that includes whole wheat and seeds to make a hearty dense loaf.


Flatbreads are also a good alternative for those with limited ingredients and for those who are looking for quick and tasty option. And Saveur has a list of 16 recipes to try at home that will use a variety of ingredients and are easy to prepare. Fry bread is also a related and straightforward option this recipe is from the Smithsonian and includes a little historical context for the recipe and the people who created it.

Creative Distancing

As quarantine continues, and even when Massachusetts begins to open back up, it will still be important to limit contact between people for the foreseeable future. Shortages may still continue and we will have to creatively fill them. As citizens we are not being asked to buy government bonds or to enlist to help a war effort but we are making other sacrifices. We are being asked to close down, stay home, to wait to keep each other safe.  And that waiting can be anxious and overwhelming. Filling the time and space that this situation creates requires a new set of skills. We have guides, fortunately, there are historical examples of how previous generations have endured creatively. There are online outlets ready to teach and guide people in need of distraction and information. And there are library resources set up and ready to inspire.

So if you need to bake some bread while you are waiting to go back to normal. If you need to learn to sew a mask for your daily walks.  Or you want to start a digital paint night, poetry slam, or book discussion via video conference so you can express yourself. Or if you need to plant a Covid-19 victory garden in buckets on the the porch. Then do the things that help you endure and wait, let your creativity guide you through this challenging time.