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Stressed out or feeling down? Grab some butter, flour and eggs!

Thomas D Mørkeberg CC
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Science is proving that creative pursuits like baking can change your life

I grew up in a baking culture. Pies, breads, squares, oatcakes… you wouldn’t be caught dead without homemade baked goods in your kitchen lest you had nothing to offer with tea when a guest showed up, which was a frequent occurence. A boxed cake mix? Shame. A store-bought apple pie? Anathema. To this day I feel like a personal failure if I buy a ready-made pie crust. Baking was and is part of my cultural heritage but I’ve come to realize it’s actually a lot more.

In 2001, I was living and working in Washington DC and in the days immediately following 9-11, I found myself pulling out mixing bowls and measuring cups, flour and butter. I made muffins, biscuits, a pie, and a quiche; I dug out a family cake recipe and whipped up some cookies. I can’t remember who in the world ate it all because I lived alone and back then (as now) I pretty much stayed away from sugar and white flour. I probably brought it to my neighbors and colleagues, but one things for sure: I needed to bake, and bake I did. It was a balm, a way to deal with my fear, sadness, and sense of helplessness.

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USDA

Since then I’ve noticed that when life gets extra hard or I’m particularly stressed, the urge to bake rises up within me and I must throw on my apron and get busy. (These days, I use a lot of recipes with ingredients like honey, coconut palm sugar, almond flour, and einkhorn— yes, you really can make delicious things that aren’t that bad for you.) I understand now why I do this when I’m stressed out — it’s soothing. The very act of creating something from scratch, of filling the house with familiar and delightful smells and tastes, brings a sense of comfort and well-being. No doubt this is partly because baking harkens back to childhood and all the love that went into so many of our favorite comfort foods.

But it’s not just that. Baking also brings a sense of control and order. When the world around me feels like it’s going to hell in a hand-basket if I can still make a mean peach tart or a perfect cranberry scone, it feels like proof enough that things perhaps aren’t as bad as I fear. It’s not so much the edible goods in themselves — as tasty as they are — but the act of making them, bringing all those ingredients together and creating something that makes sense, that delivers a sense of normalcy and stability to life.

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Jeremy Cherfas CC

But if anyone were tempted to think this experience is just a weird, personal neurosis or a product of the imagination, they would do well to note some recent studies. The Journal of Positive Psychology recently published some research showing that people who involve themselves in small and frequent creative projects — including baking and cooking — are happier. In fact, for a while now, psychologists have noticed that the culinary arts are a therapeutic tool for conditions like anxiety and depression. Baking and cooking can improve your mood by helping you focus on small tasks in the moment, and taking your mind off whatever is troubling you. Getting our brains, hands, and senses involved in a creative pursuit just makes life better.

Of course, like many moms, I also bake when I don’t feel one bit like being creative. After all, I have children who request favorite muffin recipes a lot and there are plenty of birthdays and holidays to be celebrated. But I do try and make sure my pantry is always stocked with the basics so that whenever my world feels out of whack, I can turn on the oven, grab the butter and eggs, and bake my way into a more blissful state.

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