When I was in grad school, I used to bake bread during finals week. It was a way of handling my stress. These days when I’m stressed, I’ll find myself exploring cookbooks and Pinterest looking for new recipes to find and ways to let off steam culinarily. In all honesty, that is a large part of the origin of the Harry Potter birthday cakes and my current “Baking with the Saints” project.
I was thinking about this as I made Draco Malfoy’s birthday cake. Now, I’m not a big fan of Draco; he isn’t The Worst Person Ever, but he’s not exactly my kinda guy. Regardless, I make the man a birthday cake every year. Now, I’ll admit that part of it is because I like making “my father will be hearing about this” jokes. But that’s not all of it. I don’t just make this cake because I want to make jokes about Draco and Lucius.
Far more of it comes from the peace of mind that I draw from putting the cake together. For me, there’s something calming about mixing butter and eggs and sugar (and the other ingredients) in a bowl and watching it all come together. I love see the ingredients come together and change into something new. It’s almost magical.
At the end of the school year, there are countless little unpredictable factors in my day. But when I come home at the end of the day, I know that if I mix a cup of butter (or dairy-free butter) and a cup of sugar in my KitchenAid, it will cream. And then if I add more ingredients to that, it will form a stable cake batter. Because I’ve been baking for a while, I know that my oven and dairy-free butter mean that I’ll need to adjust baking times on certain recipes. Those are predictable things. I know what I’m going to get as an end result.
I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but I know that I find that uncertainty is one of my biggest sources of stress. I don’t like when I don’t know what is coming next. I think that I’m pretty normal in that I like to know what’s coming next. I’m not a huge fan of surprises or uncertainty. I like predictability. I like knowing that if you firmly mix up two cups of butter they’ll soften and loosen into a crucial part of a beautiful brioche.
Baking also allows me to play and explore. Over the past two years, my Great British Bake-Off obsession has led me to try numerous new experiments in the kitchen. I never would have tried to make a brioche filled with mushrooms and spinach or one filled with basil if I hadn’t been inspired by GBBO. It’s safe exploration, but it’s exploration nonetheless. I rarely make anything that I’m not sure won’t work out at least reasonably well. (The batch of chili that I put a fruity beer into about five years ago is an outlier. That was awful.) But even when I’m not sure exactly how things will turn out, my previous experiences in the kitchen give me some assurance that things will work out for me.
There is a level of predictability in the kitchen that I don’t often find in stressful season of my life. For a long time, I didn’t know if or when my car would ever get fixed. I don’t know if or when I’ll ever get married. My job is great, but I’m tired and run-down at this point in the year. All of those areas contain a level of unpredictability. But I know that warm (but not HOT) water will activate yeast and butter can slacken and I can bake beautiful things. And some days…those are a few of the only truths that keep me from totally losing my mind.