Is comfort baking the mental health balm we all need in the age of coronavirus?

Annie Brown discovers that in times of crisis, we can always rely on the methodical quietude of baking.

Scattered throughout Heartburn, the late author and screenwriter Nora Ephron’s slim and bittersweet novel about a cheating husband (the book is indeed semi-autobiographical) are recipes for things like key lime pie, perfect mashed potatoes and linguine alla cecca with fresh tomatoes.

In the novel, the protagonist Rachel, a cookbook author, says of the act of preparing food,

“What I love about cooking is that after a hard day, there is something comforting about the fact that if you melt butter and add flour and then hot stock, it will get thick! It’s a sure thing! It’s a sure thing in a world where nothing is sure; it has a mathematical certainty in a world where those of us who long for some kind of certainty are forced to settle for crossword puzzles.”

We are of course now living in a time of unprecedented uncertainty.

Fearfulness abounds and our daily lives have been entirely upended. Social distancing is the new normal. We promise ourselves we’ll never take normality for granted again. In these times, just as I have in other times of heartbreak and disappointment, I choose to bake. In the past week I’ve made honey madeleines and cookbook author Alison Roman’s internet-famous chocolate chunk shortbread biscuits and a lemon tea loaf.

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For me, a quite chaotic and anxious person, there is a sense of order and calm to be found in baking. It’s a quiet, methodical, rather old-fashioned kind of therapy. I’m so rarely without my phone, my brain always has too many tabs open. But when I measure a cup of sugar or melt some butter or whip up icing I feel soothed.

I come from a long line of home cooks and bakers and feeders. We eat when we’re happy and when we’re sad. We always over-cater. Food is an act of love.

I’m not alone. My Instagram is flooded with people sharing their own self-care rituals during this time of self-isolation. And many of them involving baked goods (and also, judging by the lack of flour on the supermarket shelves).

For Charlotte Ree, author of the beautiful book Just Desserts, baking has always been a source of comfort.

“I started baking with my nan growing up, [baking] connects me to my family. I started doing it as an adult when I felt stressed and it was a way to unwind after a busy time at work,” says Ree, who by day works as a communications manager at a book publishing house.

She says she too has turned to baking in recent weeks as the news cycle has gone from bad to worse. “Baking is the one time I can’t be on my phone, I can’t be reading a live feed of the news,” she says.

“Baking is a science. You really need to focus and get the right ingredients. It means you’re really slowing down.”

The sense of slowness and deliberateness that baking requires is something that Melbourne-based psychologist Briony Leo says can be invaluable when we feel overwhelmed – by the news cycle, by social media, by the sheer strangeness of the time we’ve found ourselves living in.

“Generally we can find ourselves being reactive to our environment – most of our devices are designed to distract and pull our attention – and we can become overstimulated by technology and content. Unfortunately social media and even news media is designed for maximum impact, meaning we are often flooded with adrenaline and dopamine – making it hard to focus on things that are less stimulating,” she says.

“Taking time away from technology and modern life – such as being in nature, preparing food, being with animals and children – helps us to slow down and reflect on what is important – without being distracted by urgent and demanding notifications from our everyday life.”

As for the wellbeing benefits of baking Leo says there can be several aspects to it. This includes mastery – achieving a task can give us a fortifying boost of self-efficacy. There’s sensation too, baking is such a sensory experience of touch, texture, smell and taste, which can be grounding.

And finally, if you’ve ever baked for an appreciative audience (such as my toddler who with a precocious understanding of the art of flattery declared my “nandenines” to be “her favourite”), baking for ourselves and others feels good.

“Often when we bake, we are doing something for others – literally nurturing and nourishing our loved ones as well as ourselves. It is something that is a genuine expression of love and nurture and it is understandable that it is beneficial to us – and to others,” says Leo.

More essential coronavirus reading:

How Australians should sensibly prepare for a COVID-19 pandemic, the most dangerous myths to not buy into, why surgical face masks aren’t the answer, the five-step hand washing method to memorise, the proper way to use hand sanitiser, why hand dryers are a part of the problem and the seven most effective ways to protect yourself, according to a doctor.