An afternoon spent whipping up cakes, biscuits and pies doesn’t just make your kitchen smell amazing, it can also help alleviate stress, anger and even depression. Baking enthusiast Alix Walker reveals why it’s making us very happy
Photography: Patrice De Villiers Baking: Pamela Giles
Supermodel Karlie Kloss may have appeared on 20 magazine covers this year alone, but she still finds time to send the editors at US Vogue her homemade toffee at Christmas. She also spends the night before important shoots baking her Perfect 10 Kookies (milkbarstore.com) to calm her nerves.
I may be a good foot shorter (and wider) than Karlie, but we do have something in common. Two weeks before my wedding I decided it would be a brilliant idea to bake my own four-tiered wedding cake. It wasn’t like I was already about to internally combust with stress or anything…
When we launched Stylist I worked until 2am for three months but I still spent my first weekend off making a giant gingerbread house. When I’m feeling stressed and overwhelmed, like my brain can’t quite focus and my heart is a bit racy, I bake.
John Whaite, the winner of The Great British Bake Off 2012, has spoken about how baking helped with his depression. He says, “You can turn the destructive into the creative just by stirring some sugar and eggs. Working through the steps of a recipe in a methodical way means you don’t have time to concentrate on everything else that is whirring through your mind.”
Spending an afternoon in icing sugar is certainly becoming an increasingly popular pastime. The fourth series of The Great British Bake Off started on BBC Two last Tuesday night, hoping to draw in even more viewers than the 7.2 million who watched last year’s series finale. Sales of baking paraphernalia have shot up at John Lewis; cult baking clubs like Band Of Bakers and Clandestine Cake Club are popping up around the country; and owning a KitchenAid is suddenly as prestigious as possessing an Alexander Wang bag. And this is not a hobby just for the retired: 287 Stylist readers lovingly crafted everything from a Ryan Gosling cake to the perfect afternoon tea in our competition to bake this week’s cover (click here to read an interview with Pamela Giles, who baked the winning cover), showing the passion for baking among professional 30-somethings. We’ve fallen back in love with this age-old hobby for a simple reason: it makes us happy.
In an increasingly fast-paced and unpredictable world, baking has become the modern woman’s stress buster. Today, we spend eight hours a day in front of a computer screen and rarely have something tangible to show at the end of it. Modern technology means we don’t switch off until we actually sleep. Baking is the antithesis to this. It’s physical. Methodical. It can’t be rushed. Follow a recipe step by step and you’re almost (almost) guaranteed a certain result. There is calm in its predictability; reassurance in its simplicity.
Unconvinced? Type ‘stress bake’ into Google and nearly seven million entries flash up. In addition, the Depressed Cake Shop, a series of baking pop-ups, appeared throughout the UK this month to recognise the power of baking to soothe (not cure) depression. And author Marian Keyes wrote her first cookbook Saved By Cake after a newfound passion for baking pulled her out of depression: “To be perfectly blunt, my choice sometimes is: I can kill myself or I can make a dozen cupcakes. Baking makes me focus. It is sort of magic – you start off with all this disparate stuff and what you end up with is so totally different.”
Sweet and scientific
It makes sense, really. For a start, the techniques used in baking – stirring, mixing, kneading – are very similar to other proven stress relievers such as knitting or squeezing a stress ball. Chartered psychologist Dr Jill Owen explains: “Repetitive behaviour and rituals can be very effective in increasing focus and reducing stress.”
Countless studies have also found a strong connection between being creative and wellbeing. Focusing on a new icing technique means you don’t focus on individual pieces of information, which is why you may find the answer to the problem you’ve been stewing on all day the minute you bring your hot cross buns out of the oven. You also receive an extra shot of happiness when you see the positive reaction your baking has on other people.
Then, of course, there’s the eating. Tucking into a thick slab of apricot and ginger cake, a flaky millefeuille or a raspberry clafoutis subtly change our brain chemistry, making us altogether happier. The sweet sticky carbohydrates trigger the release of insulin into the blood, which clears out all the amino acids in the bloodstream apart from tryptophan, which is then converted into serotonin in your brain, that warm, fuzzy hormone that makes us want to hug people and smile a satisfied grin. That, in my opinion, is worth all the calories.
A spoonful of sugar
Got the blues? Immerse yourself in baking and reduce stress, sadness and anger with these delicious delights
Lily Vanilli’s Biscuit Brownies
Not only do baker Lily’s chewy biscuit brownies (biscuits and brownies, united at last!) taste fantastic, Swiss experts have found that chocolate – specifically dark chocolate – reduces the stress hormones cortisol and catecholamine in your body, meaning you could begin to feel calmer within minutes of eating them.
- 160g plain flour, sifted
- 1/3 tsp baking powder
- Pinch of sea salt
- 30g unsalted butter; room temperature, cubed
- 300g dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa solids) broken into pieces
- 4 eggs
- 175g caster sugar
- 30g flaked almonds
Step 1: In a bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder and salt and set aside.
Step 2: Melt the butter and chocolate in a double boiler or bowl over a pan of boiling water. Remove from the heat once melted and stir. Set aside and allow to cool a little.
Step 3: Beat the eggs and sugar together for 2-3 minutes, until pale and slightly thickened. Fold in the chocolate mix, then stir in the flour mix. Refrigerate for 40 minutes. Preheat the oven to 180˚C/gas 4
Step 4: Remove bowl from the fridge. Scoop up dessert-sized chunks of dough, round them with your hands and press them onto a lined baking tray, leaving a 5cm gap between each of them. Press almond flakes on top of each and bake for 10-12 minutes, until the tops are shiny and cracked.
Peggy Porschen’s Lemon and Raspberry cupcakes
Not only are these cupcakes yummy, the smell of fresh lemon has been found to directly affect neurotransmitters in the brain, boosting levels of serotonin, the feel-good hormone. Eat up.
Makes: 24 cupcakes
For the icing:
- 200g full-fat cream cheese
- 200g unsalted butter, softened
- 500g icing sugar
- Zest of 2 lemons
For the sponge:
- 200g unsalted butter, softened
- 200g caster sugar
- Pinch of salt
- Zest of 2 lemons
- 4 medium eggs, beaten
- 200g self-raising flour
- Punnet of raspberries
For the sugar syrup:
- 150ml fresh lemon juice
- 150g caster sugar
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 175˚C/gas 4. Start with the icing, beat the cream cheese in a bowl until smooth. In a separate bowl, cream butter, icing sugar and lemon zest. Add cream cheese to butter mixture and mix. Chill until set.
Step 2: For the cupcakes, cream butter, sugar, salt and lemon zest in a bowl. Whisk in beaten eggs, sift in flour and stir. Pour batter into muffin cases in a muffin tray. Drop 3 raspberries into each cupcake. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until golden brown.
Step 3: For the sugar syrup, boil lemon juice with caster sugar in a pan, then set aside to cool.
Step 4: Once the baked cupcakes have cooled for 10 minutes, brush the tops with sugar syrup while they are still slightly warm.
Step 5: Pipe a swirl of icing onto each cupcake. Top with a raspberry.
John Whaite’s Cranberry, Orange and Macadamia Nut Buns
The energy expended in kneading the dough can reduce cortisol and adrenaline levels and quell anger.
For the bread:
- 500g strong white flour
- 10g salt
- 10g caster sugar
- 10g fast-action yeast
- 200ml tepid water
- 100ml milk
- 1 egg u 40g salted butter
- Flavourless oil
For the filling and glaze:
- 50g butter, softened
- 100g dark brown soft sugar
- 100g crushed macadamia nuts
- 100g dried cranberries
- Zest of 2 oranges
- 70g of icing sugar
- 35ml water
- 35ml orange liqueur
Step 1: Place flour in a bowl and stir in salt, sugar and yeast.
Step 2: Beat water, milk and egg. Add to flour along with butter. Mix well with a fork. Using your hands squeeze dough for a minute.
Step 3: Turn dough onto worktop and knead for 10 minutes.
Step 4: Drizzle oil into a bowl, roll dough in it, cover with cling film, let it rise in a warm place for an hour.
Step 5: Tip dough onto floured worktop. Roll into a rectangle. Spread on butter, sprinkle with sugar, nuts, cranberries and zest.
Step 6: Roll dough tightly. Trim and slice into 12 discs. Arrange in a deep tray. Cover with cling film and allow to rise for 45 minutes.
Step 7: Preheat oven to 220˚C/ gas 7. Meanwhile, for the glaze put the icing sugar, water and liquer in a pan, boil, then simmer for a minute.
Step 8: Uncover dough and bake for 20 minutes, brush with two-thirds of glaze.
Step 9: Cool, separate and brush with remaining glaze.