Thursday, January 23, 2014

Stress baking: A primer

Some people stress-eat. Some stress-drink. Others stress-exercise. I have been known to do all three (I might be lying about doing one of them. Guess which).

But when the shit really hits the fan, I have my own crazy way of dealing with stress. I make ludicrously elaborate baked goods and care packages.

This particular coping mechanism seems to be triggered by surgery. It started in July of 2009 when the weather was hot, I was two days away from a scheduled C-section, and my feet had swelled out of every pair of shoes on earth, including a couple of huge, borrowed men’s flip-flops.

It was at this terribly uncomfortable time in my life that my dear friend, Robin, was also about to go under the knife for appendicitis, so I “sprang” (as much as a 500-weeks pregnant person can “spring”) into action. I waddled my two-bills body to the nearest liquor store and bought a bottle of Robin’s favorite Patrรณn tequila, a stack of trashy magazines, and some high-calorie treats, and put them together into a care package.
Then I had a baby and forgot to mail the package, so my mom mailed it for me.
Flash-forward a few years, and said baby is now four years old. My husband, Brian, is having surgery on his ankle, so naturally I signed up to make something for a PTA bake sale on the same day. It’s just day surgery, so I bake in the handful of hours between kissing him goodbye in front of the hospital and picking him up in his drugged-out, post-surgical haze.
Instead of baking something easy and low-stress, like cookies from store-bought dough, I insist on making Martha Stewart’s pumpkin-cream cheese whoopie pies, complete with homemade filling. I take it all a step further by individually bagging each pie in professional-looking plastic baked-goods bags, twisting them closed with pretty gold ties, and tagging them with lovely computer-printed labels that I painstakingly designed myself.
A few months later, it’s the eve of my four-year-old daughter’s spinal cord surgery, and I have a choice. I can either curl up, wailing and dry-heaving, on the bathroom floor in worried anticipation or make homemade marshmallows and graham crackers for s’mores gift boxes.
I choose the latter. Using the fabulous “Made From Scratch” cookbook by America’s Test Kitchen, I whip homemade marshmallows out of gelatin and sugar syrup, and bake homemade graham crackers in less than an hour.
Incidentally, people look at me like I have a third eye when they hear that you can make graham crackers at home. They’re worth the (very little) effort that goes into them. The hardest part about making them was finding graham flour; which is to say, it's not hard at all, since graham flour is stocked at my local grocery store with other alternate flours, like rice flour. Making homemade graham crackers is no more difficult than making your own cookies; it’s actually quite the same process as making pie dough. But unlike cookies, pie dough, or even yeast bread, homemade crackers seem to be something that people just abandoned once they became mass produced. Seriously, the homemade ones are soooo much better. (Although it turns out that Chloe doesn’t like graham crackers of any kind. She handed back the homemade one after one bite, and rejected ones that the nurses offered her as one of her first post-surgical foods. She later claimed to also dislike the word “graham.”)
But I digress. After cutting the marshmallows and graham crackers into their respective rectangles, I wrapped a stack of each in cellophane and nestled the packages into tins along with a bar of organic, stone-ground Taza Chocolate from the nearby Taza Chocolate Factory in Somerville, Massachusetts. I put thoughtful notes into each package for the two food editors that I intended to send them to. I affixed a cute little sticker that reads, "Toast (a marshmallow) to 2014."

Then my daughter had surgery, and I forgot to mail the packages.

Days later, my daughter is still in the hospital, and I'm operating on little more than stress and French Roast coffee. I dispatch my husband to the UPS store to mail the s’mores packages, forgetting that I had addressed the cards inside them to two different people. And of course, he inadvertently mailed each of the otherwise-identical packages to the wrong person. Sigh.
But really, the process of making these foods and gift packages was so much more important to me than the final outcome (although getting them to the right editor would have been nice). These projects allowed me to concentrate all my energy on a complicated task. I wasn’t pacing around the house waiting for the nurse to call after Brian got out of surgery, or wailing and dry-heaving on the bathroom floor the night before I let someone cut open my baby’s back. Instead I was rushing to bake, bag, and tag as many whoopie pies as possible in a few hours. I was worrying that the edges of my graham crackers were coming out a little too brown.

Worrying about my husband and daughter would come later. So would the pacing and the tears. But at least I had homemade whoopie pies and s'mores fixin's to stress-eat along the way.

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