When classrooms closed in mid-March, Mike LoPresti, an English teacher at Hopkins North Junior High, began to search for ways to fill his increasing amount of downtime.
Like many in shelter-in-place mode, he sought solace and purpose in baking.
Boy, did he ever.
When spring break’s arrival placed distance-learning exercises on hold, LoPresti assigned himself a challenge: He would bake every day of seven consecutive days.
“Then it was another week, and another,” he said. “I kept wanting to do more. I wanted to give myself the time and the space to experiment, and I wanted to try things that I’ve not done before and that I would normally only buy.”
That meant tackling pretzels, naan, tortillas and other staples.
Along the way, the teacher created his own hands-on learning exercise. Stepping out of his comfort zone led to plenty of discoveries.
“Bagels are surprisingly easy, and making doughnuts from scratch is pretty cool,” said LoPresti. “I’m feeling productive, and fulfilled. Now I’ve built a skill set where I no longer have to buy things; I can make them.”
A few non-baking rituals quickly emerged. After each day’s triumph would emerge from the oven (LoPresti admits to a few flops), he would snap an image and post it on Instagram (@siopold), and then publish the recipe on his blog (westernspaghetti.wordpress.com).
Once he got going, he found that he didn’t want to stop. That’s when he placed a self-imposed deadline of 100 consecutive days of baking.
Curiosity and flexibility
As the days passed, themes began to emerge. There was an all-chocolate week, and, in a salute to his family’s heritage, an Italian week.
Another seven-day period was devoted to test-driving official, state-sanctioned baked goods: Key lime pie from Florida, Smith Island cake from Maryland, Boston cream pie from Massachusetts, Natchitoches meat pies from Louisiana, pepperoni rolls from West Virginia, blueberry muffins from Minnesota.
LoPresti’s approach emphasized curiosity and flexibility. When all-purpose flour was a supermarket scarcity, he experimented with what was available, namely whole wheat and self-rising flours. An interest in replicating supermarket standards found him turning out homemade facsimiles of Oreos, Pecan Sandies, Fig Newtons, Nutter Butters, Hostess Cupcakes and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
What happened to all that flour- and sugar-driven output?
“I’ve padded on a few extra quarantine pounds,” said LoPresti, adding that the majority of his handiwork was channeled to a very fortunate group of friends and colleagues.
“I’m a super-social person,” he said. “During this time, when we’re all isolated from our friends, this was an opportunity to show people what I was doing, and engage with them.”
Baking has been a lifelong avocation of this Connecticut transplant. When he was growing up, LoPresti — with tutelage from his mother, Mary — was a frequent competitor in his town’s annual junior baking contest, even once ascending to the statewide competition, where he came in third.
“That was my crowning achievement as a kid,” he said with a laugh.
Baking for others
As pizzas, brownies, pupusas, cream puffs, tarts, pies, hamantaschen, popovers, hamburger buns, arepas and focaccia materialized in his kitchen, LoPresti began to strategize ways to “tie a bow” around the project.
“What is my end game with this?” he said. “I’ve got this streak going, but how do I stop?”
Eureka: On Day 99, he would stage a bake sale.
On a sweltering Sunday in early July, LoPresti set up a table in his backyard. His efforts paid off.
A steady stream of friends and neighbors dropped by and purchased Cheddar-onion scones, Jamaican beef patties, chocolate biscotti and other goodies, as well as a $5 booklet that featured a dozen of LoPresti’s favorite recipes amassed during his 100-day baking adventure. There was a raffle, too; the prize was a cake of the winner’s choosing.
Sales topped $400 (“I set super-modest expectations, so I’m super-excited,” said LoPresti), and proceeds were funneled into a charity bike ride.
“The thing that makes Mike special is that he is like every other Minnesotan: thinking of other people first, especially in times of tragedy,” said colleague Kyle Stark.
On Day 100, LoPresti concluded his baking marathon by repeating his all-time favorite recipe, Flaky Folded Biscuits, from Day 23. Then he stepped away from the oven and departed on a weeklong outstate Minnesota road trip, touring state parks and visiting breweries and distilleries.
“My decompression period.” he said with a laugh.
Along with an expanded sweet and savory baking repertoire, LoPresti’s adventure has also led to a growing kitchen tool arsenal. He’s acquired a bench scraper (“Now I use it every day,” he said), spring-form pans (“They open the doors to cheesecakes and tarts”), a digital cooking thermometer (“I never thought I’d poke a thermometer into a baked good for an internal temperature, and now I do it all the time”) and a pizza stone (“Absolutely essential”).
Now that he’s baked for 100 consecutive days, LoPresti can’t imagine slowing down to his former once-a-week baking routine.
“After this experience, baking comes a lot more easily to me,” he said. “I’m so much more confident now.”