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When the Universe Hands Us Uncertainty, We Bake

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While the pandemic rages on, I’ve turned to baking to soothe my nerves. So has much of the country. Why?
I’ve experienced the relief of baking many times throughout my life, the most profound of which was probably when my mom passed away just before Thanksgiving in 2019. In those first early weeks of mourning, I spent my days in bed, avoiding other people and any activity that involved leaving the house.

When I finally did drag myself onto my feet, all I could bring myself to do was something that involved little thinking, no interaction with others, and was virtually silent. In other words, bake.

I shuffled to my kitchen, plugged in my mixer, pulled down a bag of flour, and began to make things.

I cranked out muffins, pies, and cookies faster than my husband and I could eat them. I made rich and buttery corn muffins studded with kernels, and banana and apple breads.

I shredded carrots and folded them into cakes, measured cocoa powder and vanilla into brownies. I sifted, mixed, and poured my way through those first months of grief, allowing myself to wallow in bag after bag of sugar.

The act of baking was mindless and yet orderly, productive and yet easy on my frayed nerves. It was the only company I could stand.

Or maybe it was more than that. According to Allison Young, MD, a New York–based psychiatrist, there’s also a lot of nostalgia associated with baking and food in general. “It is something that brings people together. Not only can we share time in the kitchen with those in our homes, we can also exchange and share recipes with those outside of our homes. All of this nostalgia and social connectedness makes us feel good.”

In my grief, was I unintentionally seeking a connection to my mom through these bouts of baking?

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Life Strikes Again
Gradually, I returned to my life and my job.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit not long after, and it was clear that we were going to be both at home and subject to relentless anxiety, I turned to my mixer once again for my newfound “baking therapy.”

This time, I had a focus. Bread. First I worked my way through a forgotten copy of Cook’s Illustrated’s All-Time Best Breads. Next, I turned to Authentic Ciabatta and Almost No-Knead Bread recipes.

Other people, it was clear, were catching on to baking therapy. As people rode out the early days of the pandemic, the internet was littered with stories of folks reclaiming their mental stability through baking.

Jessica Reed, also known as the @cake_historian on Instagram, baked off a Depression Cake and a Crazy Cake for the Los Angeles Times to soothe her frazzled nerves. Executive chefs of Michelin-starred restaurants like Jean-Georges and Le Bernardin were posting recipes for Easter bread and warm chocolate cake on their Instagram stories. Every Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok feed was stacked with videos of whirring KitchenAids and dough-kneading boomerangs.

By the end of March, when most of us were fully locked in our homes, sales of these products had skyrocketed. Ingredients like yeast, usually well stocked and the province only of those dedicated few who take the time to bake their own bread at home, were sold out as companies struggled to meet the demand of a 457 percent increase in sales. Aisles once stacked with flour (up 155 percent) and baking powder (up 178 percent) were now empty.

Clearly, I wasn’t the only one finding solace in a bag of flour. And for the first time, I wondered why? What were we getting from it?

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Baking = Mindfulness + Flour
I searched around and came upon an article published in a scientific journal. The subject of the article was mindfulness-based therapy. But what really caught my eye was the description of mindfulness, which was defined as “a process that leads to a mental state characterized by nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment experience, including one’s sensations, thoughts, bodily states, consciousness, and the environment, while encouraging openness, curiosity, and acceptance.”

The article speculated that mindfulness-based practices were effective for combatting depression and anxiety, and that the soothing nature of it helped people tolerate anxiety, rather than avoid it. The authors didn’t mention baking specifically, instead referring to more well-known practices such as meditation and breathing exercises.

But their definition of mindfulness sure sounded like baking to me. Dr. Young agrees. “One big reason baking is so therapeutic is because it requires some focus but is not overly complicated. We have to pay attention to follow the recipe and not make a huge mess when we bake, but it isn’t so taxing that it feels like work. The result is that we are in the present — like a form of mindfulness,” she says.

Following a precise set of ingredients and measurements forces the brain to focus on the task at hand, a form of mindfulness, of being present, that makes it less likely that your mind will wander. Also, it’s nearly impossible to check your email when you are elbow-deep in a bag of flour.

Baking also elicits creativity. And a kind of letting go and giving in to the process, even if things don’t go as planned. Sometimes the room is not warm enough and the rolls won’t rise, or the flour isn’t fresh and your crust won’t get delicate and flaky. It forces you to be resourceful, perhaps stretching the recipe beyond what is written and using your imagination to craft something new. It’s life training for uncertain times writ small, the size of a muffin tin.

Maybe, just maybe, this ease with unease, this confidence in the ability to ride out uncertainty, transfers over into real life.

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Baking, aka Mindfulness, Is Always Just a Cookie Sheet Away
In the months since the pandemic started, as in the early days, I have continued to bake, albeit not as often. Supplies are back in the store, so I guess others are on the same path. What does that mean? It could mean we’re all just bored with it. Or it could mean something a little more profound. Maybe we’ve benefited from the mindfulness we practiced and can now tolerate this unease of the times, at least enough to not bulk buy all the flour.

To be honest, I’ve never been particularly good at baking. For all my effort over the past year, I’m still not that good at it. But it doesn’t matter. I know it’s there for me, in uncertain times (and more certain ones). It’s simple. All I have to do is work up an idea for what I’d like to make next, and an appetite and roll up my sleeves and get to work. I know I’ll start to feel better before the batter hits the pan.

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