It’s no secret to Great British Bake Off fans that 2012’s winner, John Waites battles depression, speaking openly about how baking helps lift his mood.
And he’s not the only one. Author Marian Keyes’ book, Saved by Cake, is a beginners’ bible of recipes compiled while focusing her energies on baking after realising how, little by little, her depression lifted alongside her sponges and soufflés. The Depressed Cake Shop, led by baking extraordinaire, Miss Cakehead is a countrywide pop-up selling only grey coloured baked goods aimed at encouraging people to speak out about mental ill health, an issue which one in four will suffer from in their lifetime. The Better Health Bakery, a charitable artisan bakery in Haggerston, offers three-month trainee programmes for people recovering from mental health issues while the Real Bread Campaign strives to help those facing social exclusion for reasons that include living with mental ill health.
I can say from personal experience that enrolling on a patisserie course during a particularly miserable period of my life – and after years of suffering from anxiety – was my turning point. Those few hours per week of intense focus were what took me out of my head and offered a much-needed rest-bite. So beneficial was rediscovering my childhood passion for baking that – as longterm readers will know – I decided to quit my job and embarked on a full-time Professional Patisserie Diploma at Westminster Kingsway.
A year post-graduating I’m now cultivating my own fledging patisserie business, Flour of London, which has appeared at Alma Street Fair and other markets in north London; and, despite the inevitable uncertainties, I’ve never felt happier. What the experience has shown me is the significance of a career that not only am I passionate about but one that is good for me too. And baking it turns out, is just that.
So why does it offer comfort for so many? Although for me it’s developed into a commercial enterprise, you don’t to have to go-pro to experience the benefits.
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Getting the most out of baking: my tips
1. Be mindful
Evidence suggests that simple, repetitive tasks such as weighing out ingredients have a calming, meditative effect, and it’s easy to forget daily irritations when you’re manically whisking away. So rather than just thinking of the job as another to get done, read the recipe thoroughly, concentrate on the processes and try to execute each task carefully.
2. Stimulate the senses
Get stuck in: rub the flour and butter together with your fingers, whisk eggs by hand and utilise kneading dough to expend some energy – all these activities stimulate cognition and allow a connection with a feeling of nurturing and protection. The delectable whiff of a chocolate cake in the oven also has aromatherapeutic benefits, triggering surges of feel-good endorphins. There’s also a wealth of research connecting creative expression to overall well-being so once the cake has cooled, find your inner artist and decorate away.
3. Treat yourself
In today’s society while the majority spend eight hours a day in front of a computer screen with nothing tangible to show for their efforts, there’s a tendency to view career changes such as mine as self-indulgent, the actions of a middle-class romanticist. Yet baking is an antithesis to our fast-paced lifestyles where every spare second is filled with a social-media fix. If the baking process wasn’t rewarding enough, indulging in the finished product can further heighten your sense of accomplishment and subtly change brain chemistry – leaving you with that warm, contented feeling.
4. Share the feeling
Perhaps the best bit and certainly my favourite part of baking is sharing the results. Beyond the satisfaction of creating something pleasing from what was a disparate pile of ingredients is the feeling of elation seeing people enjoy what you’ve made – not to mention the resulting enrichment of interpersonal relationships. This summer’s Alma Street Fair reminds me of this: for all the days of stress and hard work that went into creating the goods for just a few hours of selling, the feeling at the end of the day was more than worth it. A traditionally wholesome pursuit, baking is symbolic of goodness and nurturing so if you find yourself with batches of cookies needing a good home, resist the temptation and instead give them away. You’ll be amazed at the response.
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Find out more about Clare in our Q&A or read more of her Patisserie Diaries columns here. Follow her on @flouroflondon or head to her website.