Midpeninsula Post

Riley Carolan, loaf novice, starts popular Castilleja bread baking club


Where’d all the bread flour go? Since the beginning of quarantine, a surge in at-home bread baking has taken place, causing an unprecedented demand for bread flour.

Castilleja junior Riley Carolan has been a zealous participant in what she dubbed “the quarantine activity.”

“I’ve always admired people who can just make a loaf of sourdough … so magical,” Carolan said. “I felt like it would be a very useful skill.”

Carolan and her friend Hadley Nunn wanted to learn, so they started a bread baking interest club at their high school despite having no bread baking experience. 

The Castilleja juniors were inspired to start a club which took advantage of the “new avenues” distance learning opened up such as access to a kitchen. This sparked the idea for a social club centered around baking.

“I think when you’re just going from class to class on Zoom in your bedroom it can be isolating,” Carolan said. “I, for one, felt a little bit disconnected.”

To Carolan and Nunn, bread baking expertise did not seem like a prerequisite to leading the club because they expected to only see four sign-ups — those Carolan had “coerced into joining,” she said — but when the sign-ups started rolling in, the pair realized that they would need a more solid plan for orchestrating the club.

“We had a roster of 40 people who joined the club and we were both so surprised,” Carolan said. “We were like, ‘Now we actually have to lead this well.’”

Carolan found a club mentor in her math teacher from sophomore year, Dr. Emily Landes, who happened to be an experienced at-home bread baker. Through making loads of loaves with her husband, Landes has been able to equip the beginners with “those tips you can’t necessarily find in a recipe but that a person who bakes bread a lot will know,” Carolan said. 

Landes also shares her own baking failures, which Carolan said helps with staying positive through the inevitable struggles.

The club took on banana bread as its debut bake to embolden its members. This first meeting’s turnout was more diverse in skill and grade than Carolan expected.

“We had a range of grades and a lot of these people I hadn’t even talked to,” Carolan said. “Some of them are completely new to the school.”

The club has fostered opportunities for “inter-grade bonding” and more casual interactions, Carolan said, which are missing from the school experience off-campus. She and other upperclassmen in the club have been able to give advice to freshman and sophomores going through the same classes and projects they once did.

Chemistry is often a topic of conversation in the club, as many sophomore members are taking the subject. Heated discussions about yeast and thermodynamics are spurred on by the club’s collective chemistry knowledge. Carolan said that the group jokes about bread baking being “food chemistry.” 

“The elements are your ingredients,” Carolan said.

Because of the complicated science at work, Carolan has learned that it can take a long time to get a loaf right. Looking at a photo of the Challah bread she has now mastered, it’s hard to believe that Carolan described her final product the first time she attempted this recipe as “dry chunks, with an oily exterior.”

“I forgot to add the oil and so as I was mixing the dough, it was super chunky and dry,” she said. “I was showing everyone on the Zoom meeting my dough and I was like, ‘Is this how it’s supposed to look?’ and they were like, ‘Um, yeah, it’s not really supposed to look like that.’ … It was at the point where it was beyond saving.”

To improve as an at-home baker, Carolan advised trying out different breads, asserting that even if the breads are different, over time, a baker gets a feel for the qualities of a good bread dough. Asking more experienced bakers for help has also allowed Carolan to build her skills.

She shared this simple revelation: “Baking bread is hard, but if you keep at it, you will succeed.”

With patience, Carolan has been able to achieve some impressive bakes. She spoke fondly of her first time baking focaccia; the smell of the dough, watching it rise, the herb and spice mix seasoning the top of the soft golden loaf that came out of the oven were all sensual delights of the process.

Carolan said she savors these many delightful steps of bread making, but her favorite part is the moment she gets to share the fresh loaf with her family and brothers after the hard work. Club members who couldn’t make it to the meeting or whose bread did not turn out sometimes also get a successful loaf Carolan delivers so that they are able to experience the final product. Carolan loves to see others enjoy her bread.

In addition to bonding with other students, the bread club has allowed Carolan to interact with new adults in her school community such as a librarian who joined in for pita day.

“I never got the opportunity to talk in depth with the people who work in the kitchen at our school, and so [I appreciate] having that opportunity to talk with them on a more personal level while they’re in our club and instructing us,” she said. “I’m really grateful that they wanted to take time out of their day to teach us.”

Carolan said she hopes the bread baking interest club and the unexpected connections it encourages will continue even after school returns in person, now that Zoom is an established tool. A sophomore who frequents the club has already offered to “continue the tradition” once Carolan and Nunn graduate, she said.

“My favorite part about the club, even though bread baking is great, is just seeing the people and interacting with them and joking around,” Carolan said. “It’s a place where I feel really comfortable and I hope that the members of our bread club can feel comfortable. … Destress from our days and bake bread together.”

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