There is something incredibly soothing about baking. If you love cooking and read this blog of mine, I’m sure that you probably feel the same. When times get tough, or you’re simply feeling down or uninspired or, maybe just because it’s raining or you can’t leave the house because you’re in a national lockdown, baking a cake (or perhaps bread) can be the perfect remedy. When Amelie came out and I watched it for the first time, that scene where broken-hearted Amelie runs home to bake a cake so resonated with me, I knew exactly how that felt and how baking smoothed those raw and especially blue emotions. And now, on almost our fourth week of lockdown in Italy, I am regularly turning to soothing, comforting cooking, if anything to pass the time doing something peaceful and calming, or to have the house perfumed with the beautiful, heartwarming smell of cake baking. A familiar, reassuring smell.
For me, it’s partly the ritual: cracking eggs, the motion of whisking by hand, watching the batter transform into a silky, smooth cream. Buttering and lining the pan and even the waiting for the cake to bake, with that buttery perfume filling the kitchen, reassuring me that soon there will cake. Then it’s partly the result too, obviously: there is nothing more comforting than sitting down to a slice of still-warm cake and a cup of hot, milky tea (when I need to slow down or relax, nothing does it like a cup of tea for me) — even better if you’re sharing it with someone (this part may not be possible for everyone in quarantine, self-isolation or lockdown right now. Thank goodness I have little Luna who enjoys cake as much as I do, the other two members of the family aren’t into cake. To avoid having to eat an entire cake on my own, I often split the cake in half and freeze one half for another time).
I wondered if there was something that science could explain about why baking is stress-relieving and comforting — indeed there are plenty of articles about the connection between baking and its therapeutic qualities. Maybe it is the eating of the cake (comfort eating) and the sharing of it with those you love (the company, compassion when you cook for others) or maybe it has more to do with the ritual (there is a kind of mindfulness to baking, the careful measuring, the stirring, the order of it all) or simply the certainty of cake when faced in a period of uncertainty that makes it feel good to bake.
I read an article where behaviour experts and psychologists describe that the seemingly inexplicable toilet roll hoarding accompanying the global pandemic panic was simply a way of taking control of something during a crisis, a situation where you otherwise have no control. Fascinating, though I think baking a cake is more constructive, personally.
Baking is creative, like other creative outlets from painting to music to dancing, and if you’re like me and often need to keep your hands busy creating something, these kind of outlets have a positive effect on our well being too.
I found a cake that really hit the spot particularly well for me: Danielle Alvarez’s brown butter buckwheat and apple cake, which she posted in her Instagram stories recently (and which will appear in her upcoming book, Always Add Lemon). I absolutely love Danielle’s food, her restaurant in Sydney, Fred’s, is one of the most inspiring — I would eat anything and everything she proposes.
What I especially love about Danielle’s cake is that it is flexible — I followed her recipe that she posted at the end of her stories but she used spelt flour instead of the buckwheat, and oat milk instead of regular milk, and she says if you don’t have either of these flours you can use regular all purpose flour. It also only calls for 1 egg — bonus if you’ve been having trouble finding eggs lately. I have written about a similar northern Italian torta di granosaraceno, a buckwheat and apple cake that is usually eaten with a lingonberry jam filling but the main differences are it calls for 6 eggs, white sugar rather than brown and a grated apple instead of chopped chunks of apple. Also, Danielle makes hers with brown butter, which is a game changer. Simply the smell of the butter browning and the perfume that will fill your kitchen as this is happening is worth it.
I made a little instagram video of baking Danielle’s brown butter apple cake and I included in it a slightly longer clip of how I line a springform cake tin — I admit, I am very lazy when it comes to lining cake tins and this is a good trick. Also if you’d like some further ideas for a comforting baking project this weekend (some are handy if you do not have flour or butter or all the basics), here are some favourites:
Torta caprese, my favourite flourless chocolate cake, all you need is dark chocolates, almonds, eggs and sugar (and you can adjust it to however many ingredients you have, the chocolate, sugar and almonds just need to be the same weight).
Ada Boni’s chocolate cake, an incredible recipe from the famous 1920s Italian cookbook to have in your back pocket. There’s no egg or butter required, just flour, water and cocoa powder plus a liquid — you can use any liquid from milk, coconut milk, almond milk, I’ve also done it with coffee or even simply water. The perfect thing if you’re craving cake but lacking a few basic ingredients.
Walnut cake, it’s another Ada Boni recipe and all you need is walnuts, eggs and sugar.
Lemon polenta cake, this is the kind of baking that makes me really happy — sunny, lemony, easy, you can make these in a loaf tin, a round tin or a muffin tin for mini cakes. There’s no flour but if you have polenta lying around and some almonds. I make these with olive oil but if you don’t have it, you can substitute with melted butter.
Focaccia pugliese, if you’re more like my husband and savoury baking is your thing, I love this Bonci recipe for a fluffy, bouncy pugliese style focaccia with cherry tomatoes.
For some further reading, perhaps while you’re waiting for the cake to bake, there’s this personal essay I wrote for Food52 about Lockdown in Florence and why we are holding onto hope and there’s this article by Dorie Greenspan on the pleasure of baking.