New Year, New You

Of course, this time of year, it’s almost a cliche, but I did start out 2019 with a commitment to improving mine and my family’s health. I won’t bore you with particulars, nor will I try to convince you of one type of eating plan over another. I’m not here to give nutritional advice or provide #fitspo. I can barely make it through 30 minutes of mild exercise before I’m swearing like a sailor and cursing my genes. Here in my late 30’s, I have become accustomed to the idea that I will never have a healthy BMI or be the proud owner of a before/after photo where I hold up a pair of pants. I am round, soft, and short. But I would like to be healthy, if only that I can chase my daughter around the backyard without having to stop because my knees are killing me. It’s a work-in-progress.

Being a baker and trying to eat a more healthy diet seem like ideas in conflict. How can healthy eating be encouraged when I have between 5-10 pounds of butter in my freezer and I buy white sugar at Costco? How can my daughter learn healthy habits when I have buttercream frosting in the house at least once a week? Even bringing up healthy eating on a website where I am trying to entice you to buy a sugary treat from me is an exercise in self-sabotage, I suppose.

When I start to get bogged down in calorie counting and nutritional value, I come back to a Kondo-esque question: “Does this bring me joy?” And the truth is, baking as an activity does give me joy. Feeding people gives me joy. Providing a moment of sweetness in dark times gives me joy. And eating a chocolate cupcake once in a while gives me joy. One of the reasons my business is named OH Jenny Bakes is because of that little expression of surprise and joy that you can experience when taking a bite of something baked to perfect deliciousness.: “Oh!” So go ahead, eat that slice of pie. Have a cookie or two. Make tea and sourdough toast for an evening snack. Enjoy it!

And be kind to yourself. You are loved. You are seen. You are striving. It’s a new year, but you don’t need to be a better you. You are joy unto itself.

Seasonal Baking

Baking, like cooking in general, is very much dependent on availability and quality of ingredients. And baking seasonally will not only guarantee the highest quality bakes, but also ensure that your creations are warmly received by their intended audience. There are a rare few that enjoy pumpkin pie at any other time than November. Gingerbread cut-outs just don’t make sense in May. And who eats strawberry shortcake in February? Well, I would. It’s one of my all-time favorites. Especially with a baking-powder biscuit and vanilla freshly-whipped cream. Only fresh strawberries, of course, but if you must use frozen, try adding a little mint or basil to the frozen berries as they thaw…sorry, I digress.

Autumn is the kick-off to a long season of great baking opportunities. The weather cools, so you can turn on the oven without sweating out the whole house. People like eating soups and stews, so you can get bread and rolls going into overtime. Fall is one of the few times of year I like raisins, especially when mixed into Barmbrack, an Irish tea loaf for Halloween that is positively filled with them. And the apples! And the pumpkins & squash! Thanksgiving pie! But really, Fall is just a warm-up to the high season of baking: Winter. Winter holidays are centered around baking, from Christmas gingerbread, bûche de noël, and fruitcake to Hanukkah’s sufganiyot donuts, challah, and even kugel. Flavors deepen and get spicier, textures become rich and heavy, and there never seems to be enough room in my stomach.

I love baking in the fall and winter, especially as families gather to share in the warmth of fireplaces and afghan blankets. Curling up with a freshly-baked cookie, a hot mug of tea, and my three-year-old to watch Room on the Broom is the height of bliss. Cinnamon toast made from freshly-baked bread after a long afternoon outside prepping the garden for winter tastes divine. And tucking into a flaky apple pie after dinner while family members set up euchre games, while drinking cups of tea or drams of smoky Scottish whisky, could be the culmination of the perfect evening. Imagine that slice of apple pie with a boozy bourbon caramel sauce. Don’t you just feel cozy now?

Break out the plaid scarves and puffy vests, the pie pans and cookie cutters. It’s time for Fall baking!

Baking Therapy

I am not a therapist. I have never been trained in psychology, psychiatry, social work, or counseling. I have never been on a meditation retreat, and have only done yoga once, when I used it for a physical education credit towards my college degree. I know very little about mindfulness. But I watch a lot of Sesame Street and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, so I understand the value of taking a beat to calm down.

“When you feel so mad, that you want to roar, take a deep breath. And count to four…”

The news in the last two years has been disheartening, to say the least. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, except if you’re on the extremes, the amount of tension, anger, and violent confrontation is saddening. Everyone talks to each other as if they are living in the comments section of Twitter at 3am. Listening is an activity for the weak; the strong shout over each other to compete for dominance. I find myself struggling to reconcile the progress we had made with the increased injustice currently occurring. Backlash is always inevitable; the intensity and length of the backlash varies. And I think this backlash is giving us all mental, emotional, and even physical whiplash.

One of the reasons I started baking more is that I needed a release. I tried coloring books, knitting, exercising, and crafting. I tried reading, binging tv, mindful moments of calm. Nothing got me out of my own head or could dull the stress of living in 2017 & 2018. Except for baking. The sensation of working with dough, and watching disparate ingredients come together to make something silky, smooth, warm, and nourishing, gave me hope and joy. Bringing finished treats to friends and family, seeing their smiles and giving them a moment of sweetness, that helped me cope with anxiety. Even now, when I feel low, I know that flour, butter, and sugar await. If I can just find my way to my apron and kitchen counter, I can relax for a bit.

Does my baking make the world a better place? Probably not. Should I be spending time elsewhere, fighting on the front lines for the causes I believe in? Sure, you could argue that. Baking manchets on a Thursday morning doesn’t change the fact that people seem to hate each other more openly and horrifyingly than ever in my lifetime. Oatmeal Banana Peanut Butter cookie bites won’t suddenly end discrimination or injustice. But if baking makes me feel warm and toasty inside, maybe I can bring that warmth to others. And maybe that warmth and genuine hospitality will spread to neighbors and friends, even if for a moment. And maybe breaking bread together can pause the animosity for a meal. We need to meet this historical moment with forgiveness, love, warmth, and compassion. Warm, slightly sweet yeast rolls will help, right?