Flour, Sugar, and the Flow
y favorite life moments are when I completely lose track of me. I’m chopping toasted walnuts, simmering Jonathan apples with vanilla bean, and working butter, salt, and flour to a consistency only my fingertips can recognize.
Playing with the dough like a kid, I layer the filling over the bottom crust and mess with the upper, my open artist’s canvas. When the kitchen is perfumed and the finished product emerges from the oven tasting like a party and looking like a wrapped gift, a certain kind of bliss envelopes me. When I bake, my noisy brain shuts up for a little while.
According to Kathy Hawkins of Denver’s Kathy Hawkins Counseling, I am engaged in one of the best wellness-enhancing rituals. In her counseling practice, Hawkins often recommends mindful meditation. “There are many kinds of mindful meditation besides sitting. Walking and doing art can be meditations and baking can be also,” she says. Hawkins knows food psychology firsthand, having owned and managed restaurants in addition to being a waitress and sommelier.
“Baking is a serious way to show people you love them, and there is a lot of reward for both the baker and the recipient,” Hawkins says. You can have your cake and heal with it too.”
This is Your Brain on Baking
Research has shown that mindful meditation can be good for heart health, and reduces blood pressure and anxiety.
“Baking creates a flow state where you are enveloped in the moment. You are not worrying about the past or the future. People who are healthier mentally and emotionally tend to live in the flow state more of the time,” Hawkins says.
Baking can also change brain chemistry. “When you create something tasty, the immediate payoff is a hit of the brain chemicals dopamine and serotonin which improves your mood,” Hawkins says.
Besides butterfat satisfaction, there is the lure of the sweet. “When you eat the baked goods, you get a dose of sugar, which lights up the same area of the brain as cocaine,” she says.
“Baking creates a flow state where you are enveloped in the moment. You are not worrying about the past or the future. People who are healthier mentally and emotionally tend to live in the flow state more of the time.”
— Kathy Hawkins, Counselor
That may partially explain why we celebrate the major occasions of our lives with cakes, pies, and cookies, not salads and nachos. Big festive desserts are designed to be shared—no matter how many guests are on hand at birthdays, quinceañeras, weddings, and funerals in almost every culture.
The Power of Positive Cooking
According to local bakers and pastry chefs, the biggest payoff of baking is feeding the soul. “They say that you cook for yourself but you always bake for others,” says Jennifer Bush, cofounder of Lucky’s Bakehouse and Creamery in Boulder.
After toiling in basements as a restaurant pastry chef, Bush designed her bakery with an open kitchen. “When people come in, I get to see those eyes light up as they taste something. With cakes, I’m a part of so many people’s lives—their joy, their grief. It never gets old,” Bush says.
It’s almost like a super power, says John Hinman, producer of artisan bread, bun, pastries, and pies at Denver’s Hinman’s Bakery. “When I’m working our booth at the farmers market and I see a sad kid walking by, I always have to give them a chocolate chip cookie. To see that grin makes me know I’ve changed the course of their day,” he says.
It’s all about the power of memory. “A muffin or pie or cake can take you back to a happier place and time,” Hinman says.
Desserts—especially those involving chocolate—have a strong association with love. “It can be a real pick-me-up and make the world seem like a good place,” says Genny McGregor, “Cocoa Coordinator” of Piece, Love & Chocolate. The Boulder-based chocolatier offers artisan truffles, candies, pastries, and drinking chocolate.
Sometimes visitors to the shop become visibly, physically moved by tasting a particular confection. “This look comes over people’s faces. They close their eyes. It almost looks like they are…well, they look happy,” McGregor says with a smile.
Salted Caramel on the Right Side of the Brain
Bakers are different from other culinary creatives. “There is a balance between science and creativity. I like all the numbers involved, the exact measuring and setting out the ingredients and tools for an amazing dish before you start,” says Jennifer Akina, a celebrated cake artist at Piece, Love & Chocolate. Akina studied chemistry and biology in college, a common background among bakers (not to mention brewers and distillers).
Akina is preparing to open Melted at The Source with restaurateur Bryan Drayton (of Acorn, Oak, and Corrida), featuring artisan cookies and Thai ice cream sandwiches on freshly baked French rolls. “I’m doing recipe testing now so I get to play with the millions of flavors in my head,” she says.
Part of what she calls her “therapy” is following defined steps of pouring, proofing yeast, sifting, stirring, and plating. “Working with my hands gets the stress out for me. I have to focus and forget about everything else,” Akina says.
“Working with my hands gets the stress out for me….I am the worst with words. But I can show someone I care without saying anything by baking something for them. They know what I’m feeling.”
—Jennifer Akina, Cake Artist
Pastry creation is fundamentally tactile, not unlike massage therapy. “When I am training somebody, I have to show how to do techniques with my hands. I can’t tell them,” she says. “I am the worst with words. But I can show someone I care without saying anything by baking something for them. They know what I’m feeling.”
Become a Mindful Baker
Escaping into baking can help you learn to relax and gain confidence, and it’s a safe way to try something new, according to Hawkins of Kathy Hawkins Counseling. “It also is such a thoughtful expression of affection because you took the time. You didn’t just pick something up at a store,” she says.
Many home cooks are intimidated by baking to the point of being “pastry-phobic” because they don’t bake often enough to feel good at it. The answer is to begin a mindful baking practice and intentionally create treats for others on a regular basis. First, relax, breathe, and forget about being “gourmet” or making elaborate edible sculptures, Hawkins says. “I think back to my mother. Every weekend she would make Pillsbury Cinnamon Rolls with icing from the can. It was her way of showing me that she loved me.”
Don’t bite off more than you can bake. “Make sure you have a solid, simple recipe. Start with granola or cookies, not apple pie. See how happy it makes you feel and then get more complicated,” says Bush of Lucky’s Bakehouse and Creamery.
Try making a dessert you don’t particularly love because you know how happy it will make someone else. “You get outside yourself, think about what others need and enjoy the feeling of altruism.” Hawkins says.
If you are a perfectionist, baking could be a source of anxiety. Serious bakers will regale you with self-deprecating tales of burned crusts, sunk- en souffles, and banana bread baked with salt mistaken for sugar. “You can’t be afraid. It’s not life or death. It’s just cake. We say: ‘No blame, no shame.’ You learn and move on,” says McGregor of Piece, Love & Chocolate.
Consider embracing the Japanese concept of wabi sabi, seeing the beauty in imperfection. Besides, you can always add more frosting. Encourage family and friends to join you by scheduling a holiday cookie exchange this season. Honor an elder by asking them to teach you how to make a comforting family favorite.
All You Knead is Love
Bakers serve as pastry therapists for the rest of us, but those who create sweets need love, too. Hinman and others in the Denver hospitality industry have formed an organization called Chow, which offers support services to deal with addiction, suicide, and mental illness among cooks, bakers, bartenders, and waiters. The idea is to promote work/life balance in kitchens where the prevailing culture has often been quite brutal.
Hinman says he rarely has leftover pies at his bakery, but on a recent Saturday found himself with a dozen or so. “I decided to bring them to Azucar Bakery because I knew they were working really hard,” he says.
You would think that the last thing a baker wants to eat would be additional baked goods. “When John [Hinman] brought us pies at the bakery, the whole staff lit up. Who brings a baker a pie? It was so wonderful,” Akina says.
Ultimately, making the attempt and investing the thought and time is the sweetest part for folks when we show up at the front door with home-baked goodies.