Penne for your thoughts: Baking birthday cake, quarantine style

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PHOTOS BY ETHAN BROWN / THE FLAT HAT

At some point in the distant future when our grandchildren pour through their textbooks of American history, March 2020 will be known for one thing and one thing only: the continued global spread of the novel coronavirus and its dramatic, sweeping seizure of the United States. COVID-19 has closed schools, forced businesses into bankruptcy and rendered thousands infirm or worse. These are clearly challenging times, and I, like many other college students, have struggled to develop coping mechanisms effective enough to equip me for simultaneously living through a pandemic and living at home.

Luckily, baking is a temporary emotional salve, and I finally had a good reason to don my apron last week — my mother, whom I live with while not in Williamsburg, celebrated her 51st birthday Wednesday, March 25. Since both of us are too anxious to leave the house for unnecessary groceries, I had to get crafty. My mother’s kitchen pantry is in a slightly worse situation than the reality cooking show “Chopped,” with limited offerings beyond years-old expired spices, white cheddar Cheez-Its and Oreo Cookies.

I eventually found a recipe that worked well, so I set off on my birthday cake expedition — quarantine style.

First, preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Then gather your dry ingredients in a large bowl: two cups sugar, 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, 3/4 cups cocoa powder, 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, two teaspoons baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Mix them together, making sure to incorporate the cocoa powder so you develop a relatively consistent brown color throughout the grainy mixture.

Mix your dry ingredients in a large bowl. Make sure to use as many bowls and pieces of silverware as possible, in order to maximize cleanup time and elapse more time in an otherwise repetitive day.

Next, grab a separate, smaller bowl for the wet ingredients. Add two eggs and whisk them. Then pour in one cup of milk, followed by 1/2 cup vegetable oil and one teaspoon vanilla extract. Place the bowl aside. Fill a mug with tap water, then pop it in the microwave for four minutes or until it’s barely boiling. Taking it out carefully, let it sit as you add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. If you have a professional KitchenAid mixer, use that. If you’re a destitute college student like me, just use elbow grease and existential dread to effectively beat together.

Gradually incorporate the wet mix into the dry mix.

Once you’ve developed a smooth consistency, slowly pour in one cup of the boiling water. I did 1/4 cup at a time and then beat the mix for 30 seconds to incorporate the water, which worked well. The batter will seem irritatingly thin and you’ll consider throwing it away, screaming into your pillow and giving up on both baking and existence entirely. Do not be concerned, however; a liquidy batter is your friend — which you should be grateful for, since friends are a relic of our pre-COVID past.

Once your mix seems impossibly liquidy and disappointing, know that you’ve made it to the right place.

Gently pour the batter into your greased baking tin and place your fledgling cake baby into the oven for 35 minutes. I ended up needing an additional two or three minutes beyond the recipe’s set time — so be cautious and make sure the cake is baked all the way through. I then let it cool for about 90 minutes, during which I watched one episode of “The Newsroom,” drank two cups of peppermint tea and screamed mercilessly into the void once.

Once the cake is cool to the touch, it’s time to ice. Fortunately, my mother had two frosting tubs on hand, allowing me to coat the top in a silky chocolate glaze before attempting and failing to demarcate “51” in vanilla frosting. She didn’t seem entirely enthused that I had reminded her of her age in such a glaring and undeniable format.

51: My mother’s age, but also the amount of days I likely have left stuck inside my home.

Voilà, mes amis – a quarantine birthday cake!