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'We have this regained intimacy': Austinites on how pandemic cooking changed their lives

Addie Broyles
Austin 360
Mike and Christine Cramer stand for a portrait in their home March 17 in West Austin. The couple, who have been together for 35 years, used the past year of the pandemic to cook together at home more than they ever had. They started a spreadsheet to track dishes they've made.

Mike and Christine Cramer have been a couple for 35 years, married for 25, but in all their years together, they’d never spent as much time together as they have in the past 12 months. 

“We met as freshmen at UT,” Christine Cramer says. “He’s been working in startups for 15 years, and the work schedule is brutal. We probably saw each other for two or three hours a day. Sometimes I wouldn’t see him at all.” 

When the pandemic started last March, they weren’t accustomed to cooking much at home. They were OK cooks, but their schedules meant that 80 percent of the time, they were eating out or picking up food on the way home. 

More:More than a dozen Austin cooks take us into their kitchens through #Austin360Cooks

Once the shutdown started, that number flipped. As they started to cook more, making dinner stopped feeling like a necessity and started feeling like bonus time together. 

They decided to start a spreadsheet to keep track of what they cooked, with columns for who made it, a link to the recipe and a difficulty rating. 

The dishes are all dated, and scrolling through the document a year later, it feels like looking at a cooking diary. Ninety percent of them are coded green, which means they were new dishes for either Christine or Mike. Although one of them usually took the lead on the cooking, spending that time in the kitchen every day became an unexpected benefit of the pandemic. 

Christine Cramer and her husband, Mike, have started cooking together more during the coronavirus pandemic. Christine says that after 35 years together, it has reconnected them in a new way.

“We have this regained intimacy,” she says. “After being married for 25 years, I can’t describe how wonderful it has been.

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“We have been having the creative culinary time of our lives. We had the gift of something that’s very necessary for cooking, which is time.”

They could start a dish in the middle of the afternoon and then go back to work, which they couldn’t do when working at offices. 

Having the ongoing spreadsheet was often the little nudge they needed to “try that new recipe, to cook something instead of ordering takeout.”

Mike wasn’t as comfortable in the kitchen as Christine was, but she says this year has built up his confidence, and now he’s making sandwich bread and pork tonkatsu. 

Taiwanese beef noodle soup was one of more than 90 new recipes that Christine and Mike Cramer tried during the past year of quarantine. They kept track of all of their homemade dishes using a spreadsheet that now as a culinary diary of a difficult year.

Christine says they weren’t able to travel to Houston to visit her mother because of COVID-19, so Mike decided to learn some of his mother-in-law’s best dishes, including Taiwanese beef noodle soup. “Hers is better, but his was close,” she says. 

Some of their favorite dishes include Peruvian chicken, pork and fennel pappardelle (“better than at a restaurant, but one of the hardest dishes we made,” she says) and braised lamb shanks and shepherd's pie made with the leftovers. Scallion pancakes is one of her favorite restaurant dishes, so Mike learned how to make those at home.

Another unexpected hit was a Japanese-style chicken curry that they made using the same brand of boxed curry roux that her mother buys. (They bought theirs online: search for “S&B mild curry roux” or pick it up at an Asian grocery store.) 

Christine Cramer says she never baked before the pandemic started, but now she bakes cookies and confections that she shares with neighbors and friends.

Christine never considered herself a baker, but that has changed over the past 12 months. “Mike bought me this professional-grade Kitchen Aid stand mixer like a decade ago. It decorated our counter for 10 years before I ever turned it on,” she says.  

Because of her renewed energy for cooking, Christine says she now tackles even more complex baking recipes, such as millionaire’s shortbread. “I’ve really embraced it,” she says. “I don’t know what I was afraid of all of these years.”

The pandemic has changed their shopping habits, too. Christine has come to embrace ordering groceries online, and they now buy meat in bulk, keeping a consistent stock in the freezer. She says she even found a shopper she likes through a grocery delivery service and now they coordinate so that the same employee does all of their grocery shopping.

Christine says they will definitely keep up with the cooking in the year to come. Her biggest lesson about making it easier on yourself to do this kind of cooking? “Keep plenty of ingredients on hand. That way, it doesn’t feel as much like a chore as just part of your day.”

She says one benefit of keeping groceries around was that during the winter storm and power outage, they had enough food to get them through the crisis. “If it wasn’t for the pandemic, we wouldn’t have had any food in the house,” she says. “It’s been terrible, but here have been a few bright spots.”

The Cramers, of course, aren’t the only Austinites who have rekindled their connection with cooking over the past year. 

When I asked on Instagram earlier this month, I heard from more than a dozen people who shared stories about memorable meals they made or new rituals around food that they’ve created. 

Julia Subervi always liked to cook “but was never interested in baking cakes, breads and the like,” she wrote. “Now I bake all the time, I call it ‘La Terapia de Hoy.’ It has been a saver to my mental sanity.”

This Peruvian soup was one of many new dishes that Austinite Erin Feemster cooked for the first time during the pandemic.

Erin Feemster says that she and her husband created a Passport Supper series “to fill our wanderlust void.”

“Sunday supper was always a thing in my family growing up — a day dedicated to cooking one big family meal — so we put our spin on that idea," she says. "Every few weeks, we pick a country to travel to, and I cook recipes to transport us there.” 

Peruvian ceviche was on the menu during Erin Feemster's pandemic-inspired Passport Supper series, which encouraged her to cook international dishes during the quarantine, when travel was limited.

Highlights from the past year have included “trips” to Peru, Hungary, Morocco and Lebanon. She says that they plan to continue these travel-inspired cooking days. She made Peruvian ceviche with leche de tigre, a Hungarian cold plate and a Lebanese fattoush with baba ghanoush, za’atar manakeesh and the Lebanese garlic sauce, toum.

Feemster says that cooking during the pandemic also left her with “an immense amount of gratitude” for the frontline food workers, whose always essential work became more apparent during the crisis. 

Laura Villagran Johnson is another cook who always had a fear of baking, but now she’ll always remember the year she gained her “quarantine baking confidence.” 

“I finally faced my fears,” she writes. “This year I made my first batch of corn tortillas, naan and homemade soft pretzels.” She also learned how to smoke brisket, carnitas and ribs.

Baking rose to an all-time high during the coronavirus pandemic, with many Americans baking bread for the first time. Austinite Laura Villagran Johnson baked soft pretzels, which she shared with her neighbors.

“The quarantine allowed options that I didn’t have previously, especially now working from home,” Johnson says. “We could prep during the day, opening us up to dishes that before could only have been a weekend option. This especially came into play with smoking meats, like a brisket or pork butt, and making bread, like naan, which needs time to rise.”

Laura Villagran Johnson's first experience smoking meat came during the coronavirus pandemic. She made these ribs, as well as brisket, during the yearlong quarantine.

Because of the disruption to the food supply chain early on in the quarantine, Johnson says she started looking for food options beyond the traditional grocery store. Now, she buys meat directly from sources like Longhorn Meat Market. “At first this started as just a little treat, but now it’s part of my food shopping routine.”

Because she was often making (or baking) more food than she and her family could eat, Johnson says she was often delivering food to neighbors, who might give them a bottle of wine in trade. 

Former Austinite Jessica Fradono, who is now living as an expat, found herself in Turkey during the quarantine. “I came to Turkey almost a year ago to help a friend move and kind of got ‘stuck,'” she says. “Now I'm doing so many things, from making preserved lemons and handmade soap and body butter to kombucha brewing and sourdough baking.” 

Even with all the losses that have come with the pandemic, “I love this feeling of creating with my hands and truly feel like it's been a gift.” 

Diamond Cookies (French butter cookies)

This butter cookie from the 2-Michelin star French chef Édouard Loubet was one of Christine Cramer’s proudest quarantine cooking moments. She says a stand mixer works best, but also you can use a regular hand mixer. The beaters will start slowing down as more flour is incorporated, she says, so be sure to use low speed and go slowly until all the flour is incorporated. You can scrape the dough off the beaters with a flat spatula and incorporate by hand at the end. During the holidays, you can sugar them with colored sugar. 

— Addie Broyles

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened 

1/2 cup sugar 

1 large egg, room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 1/3 cups sifted flour 

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt 

Coarse sugar (like turbinado/sugar in the raw) for topping cookies

In a bowl of a stand mixer using the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on high speed until light and fluffy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the egg, vanilla and salt, mixing thoroughly. 

Gradually add the flour. Mix on low speed until just combined. Divide the dough in half, then roll the dough into 2 logs about 2-inches in diameter; use wax or parchment paper to shape. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 2 hours to overnight. 

When ready to bake, heat to 350 degrees; line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Remove cookie dough logs from the fridge. With a sharp knife, cut dough into 1/4-inch thick slices.

Pour the coarse sugar onto a small plate. Dip the cookie dough slices into the coarse sugar to lightly coat one side

Place the slices on the prepared cookie sheet 1 inch apart, sugar side up. Bake for about 10 to 15 minutes, or until lightly golden brown on edges. Transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool.

— Adapted from a recipe by Édouard Loubet

Japanese Chicken Curry

This Japanese curry from Just One Cookbook blogger Namiko Chen became another homemade favorite during the year in quarantine. Christine Cramer likes to use the S&B brand of mild curry roux. 

— Addie Broyles

1 1/2 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs (or beef, pork, seafood, tofu, mushrooms or more vegetables; you can increase up to 2 pounds)

Kosher/sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 carrots

2 onions

1 to 2 russet potatoes or 2 to 3 yukon gold potatoes

1/2-inch piece ginger root (about 1/2 tablespoon grated)

2 cloves garlic

1 1/2 tablespoon neutral-flavored oil, such as vegetable, rice bran or canola

4 cups chicken stock/broth

1 apple, such as fuji (use as much as you like to add sweetness)

1 tablespoon honey

1/2 teaspoon kosher/sea salt

1 (7- or 8-ounce) package Japanese curry roux (or homemade)

1 1/2 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon ketchup

Toppings:

Soft/hard-boiled egg

Furkujinzuke (red pickled daikon)

Cut any extra fat off the chicken and then cut it into bite size pieces. Season with a little salt and pepper.

Peel and cut the carrot in rolling wedges, a Japanese technique called rangiri, and cut the onions in wedges. Cut the potatoes into 1 1/2 inch pieces and soak in water for 15 minutes to remove excess starch. Grate the ginger and crush the garlic.

To cook the curry: Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat and sauté the onions until they become translucent and tender. Add the ginger and garlic. Add the chicken and cook until it's no longer pink.

Add the carrot and mix well to coat with oil. Add the chicken broth and bring it to a boil. You can use half stock and half water if you would like a reduced sodium dish. You can always add salt at the end of cooking.

Once boiling, using a fine-mesh strainer, skim the scrum and fat from the surface of the broth.

Peel the apple and shred using a grater. Add the apple, honey and salt and simmer uncovered for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. (Adjust the amount of apple to your taste.) 

Add the potatoes and cook until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.

Turn off the heat. If you use the store-bought curry roux, put 1 to 2 blocks of roux in a ladle and slowly let it dissolve with a spoon or chopsticks. Continue with the rest of the blocks.

If you're using homemade curry roux, scoop a ladleful or two of cooking liquid from the curry broth and add it into the curry paste in a saucepan. Add more cooking liquid if necessary and mix well until it’s smooth.

Add the roux mixture back into the soup and stir to combine. Add soy sauce and ketchup. Simmer uncovered on low heat, stirring occasionally, until the curry becomes thick.

Serve the curry with Japanese rice on the side. If you like, garnish with soft boiled egg and fukujinzuke. Serves 8.

— Adapted from a recipe by Namiko Chen in Just One Cookbook