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Baking While Bitter: A Test Drive of the Baking By Feel Cookbook

Baking By Feel - whisk dusted in flour

The day I made Becca Rea-Tucker’s chocolate espresso shortbread was five days after my cousin passed away.

In four days, I would drive south for 11 hours in order to be with extended family and to attend a celebration of his life. But that day, in the in-between time? I was lost. Why not bake?

Baking By Feel

Rea-Tucker is the baker behind The Sweet Feminist. She’s baked everything from pro-abortion pies to prison abolitionist sugar cookies. In her new cookbook, Baking By Feel, she organizes her recipes by five emotional states — happy, sad, mad, anxious, and hopeful — giving aspiring bakers the chance to process their emotions while also processing some pretty sweet ingredients.

Throughout the coming weeks, we here at Feminist Book Club will be testing out some of the recipes in Baking By Feel, matching them to our moods. We’ll also be interviewing Rea-Tucker on the podcast. I’m excited because I feel like it’s the perfect time for us to work our way through a cookbook. I, at least, feel like November kicks off those months when I end up eating all of my feelings.

Now, based on my intro above, you might assume I’d try the recipe that’s paired with “sad” or “sorrowful.” Or, barring that, you might think I’d go for “angry.” After all, I wrote a whole-ass post on being an angry woman just the other month.

Welp. Any feelings of grief I’m experiencing right now are wrapped up in a whole slew of other negative emotions: anger, anxiety, resentment, frustration, and rage.

And when fellow FBC-er Ashley was quicker on the uptake than me and called dibs on “angry” (look out for her post in the coming weeks!), I was forced to take a second look at the cookbook’s table of contents.

I chose bitter.

Baking By Feel - bitter

Why I’ve Been Feeling So Damn Bitter

When I dig into the meaning of “bitter,” I feel recognition. In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, I find phrases like “distasteful or distressing to the mind,” “exhibiting intense animosity,” and “marked by cynicism and rancor.”

I see that something that is bitter is “caused by or expressive of severe pain, grief, or regret.”

The past three years have not been kind to any of us. On a personal level, in 2020 and 2021, the intensified emotional labor required around school closures and masking and social distancing tore me apart, leaving me feeling isolated from many of the people in my life.

The state of the world didn’t help. Between book bans, abortion bans, and rancorous school board elections, it felt like the work I did around sex ed advocacy was completely pointless. Why bother?

2022 was supposed to be better. But my cousin’s cancer diagnosis came in February and, as the months passed, several other problems and setbacks cropped up. I won’t go into detail in such a public forum because those stories are more than just my own. What I will say is that I feel so overwhelmed lately and so distracted and with so few fucks left to give about anything at all that I’m getting absolutely nothing done.

So… bitter? Sure. I’m bitter.

Baking Chocolate Espresso Shortbread

I love to bake. When I have a slow workday or when I feel like I need a flipping break, I like to turn on some music and dance around the kitchen while baking maraschino chocolate chip cookies or no-knead green olive bread.

I love to lick the bowl, too. Later, I eat whatever baked good I’ve made for every single meal there is until it’s gone.

That’s just self-care.

My favorite baked goods are light and citrusy, with a zing of sweetness. Lemon crinkle cookies. Orange bundt cake with a maple glaze. Applesauce cake with salted caramel frosting. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about baking and eating something that incorporated more bitter tastes. But I wanted to be true to my feelings for the sake of this post.

And so, I dug the espresso and cocoa powders out of the back of my pantry and put my music on shuffle. I didn’t feel much like dancing, but I’m a creature of habit.

dry ingredients

I like to start by gathering all of my ingredients. This means lining up my flour and my salt and my sugar and all the rest of it, only to inevitably discover that I forgot to take out the butter in advance so it could warm up to room temperature. This day was no different.

Once I finally got my shit together, though, I found myself settling into the rhythm of baking. Measuring out the dry ingredients and whisking them all together. Pouring in the other ingredients and digging in with my hand mixer. Chopping up chocolate to fold in at the end.

chopping chocolate

It’s some kind of magic the way focusing on the intricacies of baking makes everything else fall away. It helped that my music playlist seemed attuned to my mood. There were lots of slow, soothing ballads. Rich, husky voices and a good amount of soul. Sometimes, I sang along. Other times, the music just served as a soothing backdrop as I concentrated on the steps of the recipe.

After the dough was ready, I separated it into two lumps, rolled them into logs that ended up looking like large turds, and wrapped them in cling wrap.

I fucking hate cling wrap.

Once wrapped, I refrigerated the dough-turds for two hours. Then I cleaned up my mess because, when working in the kitchen, I always make a mess. I am incapable of not making a mess.

messy baker - baking by feel bitter

After refrigerating the dough, I sliced up those logs and placed my baking pans in the oven. My slicing was… inconsistent. I am not one for precision.

Either way, what came out of the oven looked… not terrible?

finished cookies

Eating My Feelings

The shortbread cooled during dinner with the fam. Afterward, when I tasted a cookie, I wasn’t sure how I felt. As I’d expected, it was more bitter than I typically preferred. My husband was a fan, but our palates are very different. I decided to pack up half the cookies and bring them along for a drink-and-bitch session with my two best mom friends. One of them was a very talented baker and, well, all of us loved to eat.

That evening, I had a couple of glasses of Champagne and a modest amount of cheese and crackers and I barfed out all the feelings I had been feeling as my friends held that space for me. I spoke of my grief, yes, but I also opened up about the anger I felt over another situation and the fear and the sadness I felt over yet another situation and the sense of helplessness I felt over all of it as one situation intertwined with another and made it all seem impossible to manage.

It was very cathartic and, when I offered them the shortbread cookies, they enjoyed them and ended up taking seconds.

It occurred to me then that the one thing better than eating a billion cookies singlehandedly was feeding the people I love. Giving back to them after they’d given so much to me.

The next day, feeling somewhat calmer but still wrapped up in everything that was going on, I passed through the kitchen and grabbed a cookie. As I nibbled on it, I realized I actually liked it. Those small chunks of milk chocolate mixed in with the espresso powder and the cocoa. That little bit of sweet mixed in with the bitter.

All in all, a successful experiment.

I spent the next few days eating my feelings.

me eating a cookie
Steph Auteri is a journalist who has written for the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, VICE, and elsewhere. Her more literary work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Creative Nonfiction, Southwest Review, and other publications. Her reported memoir, A DIRTY WORD, came out in 2018. She is the founder of Favorite Genres: horror, comics, horror comics, and narrative journalism.

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