When asked to pick an emotion from Baking by Feel, I gravitated immediately toward caring. Caring is what I strive to be, even when it is not exactly how I am feeling in the moment. When it can be so easy to tune out and turn off and be apathetic, caring — about others, about the world, and for ourselves — can be a defiant act. It can also be a small, solitary one that provides comfort during a hard time.
Baking has such great potential as an act of care, on both a small and large scale. We bake birthday cakes for our loved ones and bring casseroles to the grieving. In times of upheaval, we can organize large-scale fundraising bake sales or learn to bake bread in our apartments, tending to our sourdough starters. In so many ways, on so many different occasions, there can be real power in mixing sugar and flour together.
Baking as Care for Others
I have always, to some extent, equated baking with care. I knew it was an act of love and service when my mother, who despises baking, would nevertheless make me what my family simply referred to as “the birthday cake” when I was a kid. The recipe, which has been passed down through generations in our family, is a three-layered cake that used vinegar instead of butter — a holdover from the depression — with chocolate frosting that incorporates whole raw eggs. No one else liked it. And now, having made it myself, I know that it is a fairly complicated cake, requiring a patience and aptitude for baking my mother otherwise lacked. She never baked anything else, but she made this fussy, strange cake for me. It was a labor of love.
When I was in college, I started baking my friends’ birthday cakes. It was an inexpensive way to show I cared and to bring some amount of joy to a party. I started with box mixes and slowly graduated to more difficult endeavors. As I became enmeshed in local communities, I baked more. I baked cupcakes for fundraising bake sales when my friends were injured or needed legal fees to fight immigration lawsuits. I baked pies and cakes and cookies for holidays and invited my friends to my apartment to celebrate when they couldn’t get home to family.
When my father moved several states away from me and we began to spend holidays and birthdays apart, I mailed him boxes of baked goods. When he was in the hospital during his final months, he would call me with requests: marble pound cake… fudge brownies with frosting. I know he was glad to receive them, but making those things was also something I could do during a time I felt otherwise helpless. Taking the time to make something for someone, something that can provide some amount of joy or comfort, something you’ve made considering their likes and dislikes or their dietary needs, can communicate care in a way that words sometimes can’t.
Baking as Care for Self
In her description of “caring” in Baking by Feel, Becca Rea-Tucker reminds us that when caretaking, it is important to also care of ourselves. Baking often serves this purpose for me. Most of the time, I find the practice soothing (though don’t ask my partner about that time the lemon bars refused to set). It is tactile and creative. It provides a welcomed break. I procasti-bake or, really, I use time spent mixing and measuring, with my hands in flour, to focus on something sweet. And the results themselves provide a different kind of comfort.
The Mini Limey Olive Oil cakes Rea-Tucker pairs with caring are perfect for this. It is not a complicated recipe or a stressful one to make. I work at a school and am in the middle of the semester, a time when everything feels incredibly busy and urgent. I am training for a marathon and trying to work on my writing while maintaining some semblance of a life. And after having COVID last month, I feel like I’ve been struggling to catch up. But this recipe didn’t create more stress. It came together quickly, easily, and without much fuss.
These cakes were calming to make. I gathered and mixed the dry ingredients, and then the wet ones, zesting lime into sugar. I enjoyed a few moments of mixing the zest in with my fingers, which Rea-Tucker says helps to bring out its flavor.
They baked to a perfect golden color in the prescribed 22 minutes, during which I whipped up the very quick, simple glaze. I popped the cakes carefully out of the muffin tin and dolloped them with it while they were still warm. I ate one of the cakes almost immediately. It was soft and sweet, but not too sweet, and I appreciated the bit of cornmeal. The texture it gave reminded me of poppy seeds.
I packed half of these up for my coworkers and decided to keep the other half at home: two acts of care.