Tuesday 22 August 2017

The Irish people who found solace in baking: 'Cake makes people happy, it's a fact'

As 'Great British Bake Off' returns to our screens, we talk to the enthusiasts who say making cakes has helped them battle anxiety and stress

Sweet thing: Eva Lawes, credits baking with helping her overcoming anxiety. Picture: Arthur Carron
Sweet thing: Eva Lawes, credits baking with helping her overcoming anxiety. Picture: Arthur Carron
Amy O'Connell bakes to relieve stress
Almond and chocolate battenberg
Sam Homan's love of baking started at a young age. Photo: Evin Doherty
Victorian sponge cake
Vicki Notaro

Vicki Notaro

'Cake makes people happy, it's a fact," says 25-year-old Dubliner Eva Lawes. "The house may be covered in flour but, baking makes me feel good, eating the cake makes the people I love happy and that in turn makes me feel pretty great. It's like the opposite of a vicious circle."

A few years ago, Eva wasn't feeling quite so positive. After the death of her father when she was just 19, she had begun suffering from anxiety, culminating in panic attacks. Then after leaving college a couple of years later, her stress was compounded when her attempts at finding a job as a costume designer floundered, and she found herself out of work.

"The stress sort of doubled up. I was at a loss and looking for a bit of purpose in my life. After college, I worked in retail and hated it. I was looking for a job in design, but couldn't find any, so eventually I stopped."

To fill her time, Eva turned to baking, a pursuit she'd enjoyed as a little girl. "It gave me something to focus on, and it was a relatively quick process.

Amy O'Connell bakes to relieve stress
Amy O'Connell bakes to relieve stress

"I'm the kind of person who has lots of ideas, but difficulty finishing them. With baking, in a couple of hours, you have a completed product. I liked putting all my stress and tension into something good, a kind of near-instant gratification."

It also allowed her to channel her impulses in to something far less complicated and time-consuming than creating elaborate costumes.

Almond and chocolate battenberg
Almond and chocolate battenberg

"It's a great creative outlet for me; I get to use my design skills when planning a cake from the inside out."

Eva had tried medication to ease her panic attacks, but discovering her passion for baking has truly helped take the edge off. "It calms me down, and when it's all done and looks pretty on a plate it makes other people happy too," she says.

Sam Homan's love of baking started at a young age. Photo: Evin Doherty
Sam Homan's love of baking started at a young age. Photo: Evin Doherty

"It's a win win really! Don't get me wrong, it doesn't make everything go away, but baking is something I can put all my energy in to, where I'm blinkered and not thinking about anything else."

In fact, Eva is such a believer in the restorative power of baking, that she's hoping to make it her profession. "It's worked for me so much that I've realised how much I love baking, and that I'd like it to be my job."

Victorian sponge cake
Victorian sponge cake

Baking has become trendy again in recent years - the very fact that the Great British Bake Off, a show where contestants combat soggy bottoms, is back for a sixth series tonight is testament to the continuing popularity of whisking, piping and yes, devouring.

But did you know that baking is also therapeutic? That the very act of concentrating on making a cake can be beneficial to our mental health?

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal at the end of last year, it's true. So much so that psychiatrists in the United States are rolling out baking programmes in treatments centres and clinics, encouraging those living with depression to channel their energies into creating cakes with a view to concentrating the mind on more positive pursuits.

In Connecticut, chef Patricia D'Alessio told the newspaper that baking "got them to focus on something other than stressful emotions, or what was going on in their day... it redirects their thought process to focus them."

Author Marian Keyes famously found such solace in creating sweet treats that she credited it with getting her through a deep depressive period in her life, and even wrote a book on the subject called Saved By Cake.

She describes how she'd tried absolutely everything recommended to ease the suffering of her depression, but nothing had worked, and she felt unable to even write.

Then one day, she decided to bake a cake for a friend's birthday and found she couldn't stop.

While Marian says it didn't 'cure' her exactly, baking saw her through the incredibly difficult period when she was suicidal.

"Baking makes me concentrate on what's right in front of my nose," she writes. "I have to focus. On weighing the sugar. On sieving the flour. I find it calming and rewarding because, in fairness, it is sort of magic - you start off with this disparate stuff, like butter and eggs, and what you end up with it so totally different."

So is it this self-help element that has helped baking retain its popularity in recent years?

After all, it seems that in today's manic world, we're all attempting to seeking solace in something positive, be it exercise, mindfulness or in this case, cake.

It's not just the pastel kitchenware porn or innuendo-laden commentary that has people tuning in to the Great British Bake Off - it could also have something to do with the sense of harking back to simpler times and finding contentment through such a wholesome act, as well as rooting for the very normal people piping their way to confectionery success.

Yet baking has its more unusual aficionados, like international male model Sam Homan. Even though you might never think it to look at him, the 31-year old tattooed, muscular Adonis is most comfortable in the kitchen.

"I always took an interest whenever my mother was baking growing up, and then in secondary school I tried to get into woodwork but all the places were taken. I ended up doing Home Economics for six years, and I guess it set off a spark inside of me."

When asked how his baking is received, considering his appearance doesn't equate with someone often up to their neck in sugar and flour, his response is simple: "Don't judge a book by its cover."

"There are definitely people that are very surprised that I can bake and create very pretty wedding and birthday cakes, but I enjoy it because it's just me, the ingredients and the kitchen," says Sam.

"It is the one time I can truly be myself, and be alone with myself. I find it therapeutic. And yes, it gives me pleasure to know that what I'm baking will result in enjoyment for somebody else."

For others, like Amy O'Connell (25) from Monkstown, Co Dublin, baking is something that's ingrained from an early age and has never left her. Amy says she finds the slow, deliberate process of making a cake really helpful at times of stress. "I don't think I can remember a time where baking wasn't part of my life - I learned it by osmosis," she says.

"To me, it's immensely satisfying to create something from scratch. I love the feeling of accomplishment you get from producing something for people to enjoy, and the old-fashioned appeal in this modern world is part of the attraction.

"I enjoy slowing down and taking the time out to engage in an activity I was taught by my mother and grandmother. It's very grounding."

Mood food: Cakes to make you happy

Almond and chocolate battenberg

2015-08-05_lif_11692439_I1.JPG
Almond and chocolate battenberg

Ingredients

• 110g butter - softened

• 110g caster sugar

• 2 large eggs

• 100g self raising flour

• Teaspoon baking powder

• 25g ground almonds

• A few drops of almond extract

• A drop of pink or red food colouring

• 25g cocoa powder

• 4 tablespoons strawberry jam

• 225g marzipan

Method

1. In a bowl, whisk together the butter, sugar, eggs, flour and baking powder with fluffy.

2. Divide the mixture equally between two bowls. In one bowl, fold in the ground almond, almond extract and food colouring. In the second bowl sieve the cocoa powder and gently fold the mixture.

3. Grease and line two 1lb loaf tins. Spoon the chocolate mixture into one tin and the almond into the other.

4. Bake in a preheated oven at 175°c for about 20 minutes. Test with a skewer that the cake is cooked. Allow the cakes to cool for 10 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack, then leave to cool completely.

5. Trim the edges and top of the cakes. Then cut each cake in half length ways. Heat the jam to make it easy to spread. Then spread a little jam on one of the chocolate pieces of cake. Stick the almond cake beside it. Spread another layer of jam on top, then place the almond cake on top of the chocolate, put a little jam on the side finally put the remaining piece of almond cake. This creates a chequerboard pattern.

6. Roll out the marzipan into an rectangle large enough to wrap around the cake. Spread the remaining jam all over the cake and carefully roll it up in the marzipan.

Irish Independent

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