Pandemic projects feed the soul

Photo: Anne Khazzam (left) and Nikki Shapiro (right).

We were barely in the first throes of the COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020 when suddenly yeast was impossible to find. Everyone was making bread.

Then it was hobby items, from jigsaw puzzles to garden seeds and everything in between. We might have had to stay home to stay safe, but we certainly still stayed busy.

For Nikki Shapiro, her pandemic project went beyond cultivating the perfect sourdough starter — she’s launched a website and social media following for ‘Table Full of Love,’ a recipe and cooking help program.

“When I have a crowd of people, my family always says that brings me the most joy — when I have a full table,” said Shapiro about the name.

“When the pandemic came, I was looking for something more to do … and I cook every day anyway! So I decided to turn my Instagram into food-related stuff and it started to take off. My daughter and I thought it would be fun to rename it, so we started brainstorming names and came up with this.”

Shapiro’s always loved to entertain, so once her Instagram started gaining traction she decided she needed a logo and a website too.

“Prior to this I already loved to cook and share recipes. This is just formalizing it. I’ve taught well over 100 people how to make challah … then I started teaching people to make chicken soup, knishes …” said Shapiro. When Shapiro’s daughter was leaving home to go to university, Shapiro prepped her daughter for how to make a handful of dishes really well — but then she started asking questions from afar.

“She wanted to take the pandemic time to learn to cook more Jewishly,” said Shapiro. “This year gave her more opportunity to learn more, and now she’s ready to entertain a large group."

Shapiro has also run a few Zoom cooking classes, as well as a program for Ottawa Community Jewish School (OJCS) and Kehilat Beth Israel (KBI). As the pandemic ends, she plans to continue with Table Full of Love — in some way.

“In the queue next is developing a proper marketing and social media strategy, and I’ve reached out to someone who does that as their specialty. I’m a little nervous about it — it would make it really real, not just a hobby!”

Anne Khazzam’s already taken her pandemic project to the next level. The S'mores Box is a full-fledged business, shipping gourmet s'mores kits, made with homemade marshmallows and Belgian chocolate, across Canada.

“Ever since I was a kid I dreamed of opening my own business. I always had crazy business ideas, but I always imagined doing them in my 30s. Last summer, when everyone was busy making sourdough, I thought I’d make homemade marshmallows … and they were so good! I roasted them on the fire and I felt like I’d really discovered something. I made a s’more and had this moment of realization — I think I can make this into a legitimate business,” said Khazzam about her brainwave moment.

She didn’t launch last summer though, choosing instead to focus on her first year of university (she’s taking business, of course, at McGill), but quickly launched into the s’mores life about a month ago — and she’s nearly sold out every week.

When not away for school, Khazzam lives at home, which means she has to share a kitchen with the rest of the family.

“My family is spread out this summer, but when they’re here we’ve had to work together as I take over the kitchen and need to share space,” said Khazzam. “My family is super supportive of me though — plus when I finish a tester batch I hand over the spatula or the whisk — that is their perk for putting up with me.”

Khazzam focused on making sure there are no barriers to trying her s’mores — the instructions page on her website walks you through how to make them in a microwave if that’s your only option.

Don’t wait to get in on the S’mores Box though — unlike Shapiro’s Table Full of Love which will continue past pandemic times, the S’mores Box is only a summer endeavour for Khazzam.