Winter Term has always been one of the opportunities at Oberlin that most excited me. Ever since my exuberant tour guide told me all about it on my first visit, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. A whole month to do whatever I want? A whole month to actually complete one of the many random project ideas that go through my head? After I got accepted to Oberlin, Winter Term stayed in the back of my mind, and I was always looking for interesting projects that I could do.
As my first semester progressed, I began to realize that I wanted to spend my Winter Term at home in Nashville. I was homesick pretty often, and I thought that a month at home might be good for me. I went through a couple of different project ideas, and it soon became clear what I wanted to do: I wanted to spend the whole month baking.
Baking and cooking have always been extremely therapeutic activities for me. When I was in high school, I would often throw on a Beatles record and make some cookies or muffins after a particularly tough week, always finding that I felt a million times better afterward. I thought that baking for a month would be an excellent project for me after a somewhat difficult semester.
Here were the guidelines I set for myself:
I would try to cook or bake something every day. This didn’t always happen, but I would say I made something 6 days a week on average.
I would keep track of everything I did in a journal. This included recipe notes - things I liked, things I wanted to try differently - as well as a daily summary of all the things I did.
I would take photos of the finished products once I was sure I liked the recipe. This was the part I was probably least-prepared for - I don’t even own a real camera - but I just used my phone camera and figured it out as I went along.
I would post my final photos and recipes on Instagram.* Originally, I had wanted to make my own website, but that didn’t really pan out. Using Instagram was nice because it required very little setup and allowed me to focus more on the cooking rather than the technology.
I found several things to be difficult. The most challenging aspect was the somewhat unstructured nature of my project. Since I was completing it all at home, I didn’t have to get up at a certain time, and there was no one to keep me on track but myself. I’m someone who really benefits from deadlines and external motivation, so I had to figure out how to stay energized and get things done. Also, when I cook things, my priority is usually on taste rather than making my food look pretty. This is something that I had to work on, as I knew I would be photographing the things I made. I still have little patience for making things look absolutely perfect, but I did gain an appreciation for arranging things nicely. I have a lot to work on photography-wise, like learning how to edit and use an actual camera, but I think I did actually improve over the course of the month.
My favorite part of this project (other than the eating) was the experimenting. One of my goals for the month was to find my perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe, one that would yield cookies that stayed soft and chewy for multiple days and had a complex flavor, barely crisp edges, and lots of chocolate chips. To compare recipes that I thought looked promising, I made a spreadsheet that included about 20 recipes and looked at the differences in ingredients and bake times. Initially, I tried six or seven recipes to figure out what I liked. Then I experimented with amounts of ingredients, combining different aspects of my favorite recipes. Unfortunately, after all of that, I have yet to find my absolutely perfect recipe, but I did get really good at cranking out a batch of cookies, and it was really fun to try different variations and just see what happened.
Another thing that I loved about my project is that it allowed me to spend a lot of time with the family and friends that I had really been missing. I made several dinners with my mom, and a friend and I made spring rolls together. I sent a faraway friend some of my favorite cookies. And, of course, everyone was more than willing to help sample the things I made and provide their opinions!
This project also helped me connect to my ancestors, in a way. Over the summer my grandmother had given me a box of handwritten recipe cards from her mother and grandmother, and I was able to try out some of those recipes this month. This was especially fun because I didn’t really know what the food was supposed to look like and the directions weren’t always very specific (or easy to read), so I had to kind of guess at what I thought I was supposed to do. I made caramel dumplings, a surprisingly yummy dessert consisting of a sticky dough simmered in caramel sauce. I also made “Puffy Hotcakes For Two,” which were like pancakes but a little more savory, quite tall, and easier and quicker to make than any pancake recipe I’ve tried.
What made this project even more exciting for me is that it actually related to my first-year seminar from last semester, Foodways and Foodscapes. We kept a daily journal in that class, and so journaling about food was something already very familiar to me. Remembering our discussions about food as a way to transmit memories across generations made cooking my great-great-grandmother’s recipes more meaningful to me. Because of this class, I was also more mindful of food’s power to create connections among people, and I was able to really appreciate the act of sharing my homemade food with others.
Overall, this Winter Term was a really great opportunity for me to reconnect with my home and do something that I love, something that I don’t really get to do in Oberlin. I loved being able to spend time with my friends and family and make and eat good food with them. It was a good reminder that not everything you do (especially as a Winter Term project) has to be overly profound or meaningful - sometimes you just have to do what feels good for you. I am looking forward to my future Winter Terms and finding a project just as satisfying and enjoyable!
*If you feel so inclined, you can see my posts on Instagram @azaleakitchen_ : )