The Simple Things Save Me

lemon cake on a pretty plate

Some days I need baking therapy—because the alternative is bourbon, or a punching bag, or a tantrum. I used to love baking: cakes, cookies, cupcakes, and then I stopped. It seemed pointless to make cakes and pies when I lived completely by myself (did I really want an entire cake sitting around? It would go bad if I didn’t eat it, and we couldn’t have that, but then I would just feel guilty for eating the whole dang thing.) I got out of the habit, and I kind of forgot about it. I forgot how calming it could be.

These days I’m craving more calm. And you know what? If my fella doesn’t help me, I’ll eat the WHOLE DAMN THING MYSELF.

Or I’ll share with friends. That’s a better idea.

Because baking therapy is real. And some days, I need it in a real bad way.

My mom was a baker, a collector of recipes. She clipped them from Southern Living, and hand-wrote the ones from friends on cards she kept in special boxes, grouped by savory and sweet. She followed these recipes to the letter, like they were chemistry—one wrong measurement might cause the kitchen to explode. She made notes on the cards as she experimented—more butter, less sugar—until she got them just right. My grandma was also a baker—but she was more of an alchemist. She kept recipes only in her head, and each time she baked something, it was a loose interpretation of what she held there. No cake or pie ever turned out the same way twice, and when she hit gold, we’d say, “Did you write it down as you went?”

“Nope,” she’d say. “I’ll remember.”

I used to bake like my mom. When I was thirteen, I baked a pound cake that won a blue ribbon in the South Carolina state fair. (It was my Granny’s recipe—she was a chemist who wrote things down. My father’s side of the family was more into guidelines.)

Over the years, I’ve become more like my grandma. The recipes are in my head (more or less), and each time things are a little different. I still have some recipes written down on cards, but for the most part, I cook meals by throwing things together and hoping for the best. Usually it works out ok.

Usually.

But that’s COOKING. BAKING is different. There’s still some chemistry to account for with buttermilk and baking soda and whatnot.

A couple of weeks ago, I wanted to bake a cake for my fella’s birthday (because where I come from, you get a homemade cake on your birthday), and I realized that my mom never made a wide variety of cakes. Everyone had their favorite: coconut for Dad, German chocolate for Grandma, apple nut cake for Grandaddy. I can’t even remember the kind I requested as a kid. But as I went through the recipes I’d written down, I realized I never experimented much outside of the family favorites.

So last week I went wild. First I made a lemon cake for my fella (it was actually that blue-ribbon pound cake with a lemon glaze.) Then I wanted to try something totally new, so I pulled a recipe off the interwebs (thanks, addapinch.com) and rolled the dice. I put on my chemist’s apron and went right by the recipe (because despite my grandmother’s tendencies, if I learned anything from my buddy Alton Brown, it is that baking is a science and by god there are RULES) and y’all, this was the most amazing thing that EVER came out of my oven. (You know you want that recipe. It’s here.)

It felt good to make something tasty. But it really felt good to do something that made both me and the fella happy. I felt like I had taken some time to make something I wanted, forget about work, and do something fun. It reminded me why I’d enjoyed baking, and how calming it could be to just focus on a little thing that was going to bring some joy, and forget about the daily aggravations for a minute.

It’s only been a few days since the chocolate cake, but you know what? I needed to get my zen on again, so today I tried a new lemon cake. With orange zest and buttercream frosting. (You can get that one here.) And yes, I have started tabata to balance out all this cake business. I needed some new hobbies, anyway. It’s important to have balance, right? I need to build some muscle anyway, but we need rewards in this life, and cake makes a pretty nice reward.

And like Ernestine Ulmer said, bless her soul: “Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.”

We always talk about how “it’s the little things” that keep us content. I still need this reminder sometimes, and I need to remember that even when work’s a dumpster fire, and life is driving us bonkers, and our family is pushing all of our buttons, we can still slow down and do one small thing that brings some sweetness into the day. Even if it’s as simple as a cake.