In the past year I’ve made scones, cheesy garlic quick bread, chocolate chip challah, honey cookies, apple brunch cake, plum kuchen, chocolate zucchini cake…I could name more, but you get the drift. I like to bake.
Not only do I like to bake, my life is better for my baking. Sure, my family enjoys the desserts, breakfasts, and breads, but baking has been healing and life-affirming for me.
In 2013, my younger daughter was born with complex medical needs, including heart defects. She spent a lot of time in and out of the hospital, meaning my husband and I spent a lot of time living there, and the rest of the time we spent on her care and medical appointments. Many days we were lucky to find time to eat a frozen meal or takeout. We never had the luxury of baking something from scratch.
Before Eliana came into our lives and won us over with her spunk and joyful living through even the craziest of days, we were the family who bought a farm share and planned meals around the vegetables that came in a box every week. I read Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman’s books, I devoured Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” we stretched our palettes by trying things like fennel and kohlrabi, and we broadened our food ethics by buying fair trade foods when we could.
It’s ironic that caring for another person’s health needs can so alter your own. We kept buying cage-free eggs, but we often ate fast food as we cared for Eliana. We picked up the boxes from the farm each week, but the contents often went uneaten.
Then, bit by bit, Eliana’s health improved and we were able to eat more and more meals together. During her naptime, I’d whip up a batch of cookies. More and more weeks I found the time to bake challah. And eventually I realized I wasn’t baking just to feed my family and fill the freezer for those not-so-good days, I wanted to use my hands to make something good for us to eat just because I could. The more I baked, the more organized I got, the better I understood how baking works, and the more flexible I became. I knew how much I could prep while the baby was playing quietly, I knew whether I would have time to finish the challah while she was napping, and I knew whether I could use less sugar or swap in some whole wheat flour in a recipe.
I’ve discovered the joy in finding a recipe that uses ingredients I have on hand—because last-minute shopping with a special needs kid usually isn’t a good idea, and who keeps things like sour cream on hand? Last Sukkot, I tried five-ingredient pecan muffins. They may not have been healthy, butter being a star ingredient, but they were a yummy breakfast treat.
I’m not the only one who’s figured out how therapeutic baking can be. A mental health charity in London runs a bakery that teaches 10 people at a time the art of baking. A treatment center for teens in Connecticut holds cooking classes that teach the teens valuable kitchen skills along with the therapeutic benefits of hands-on work. And tons of Jewish mothers have baked challah each week with intention. I am blessed to have been able to rejoin their ranks.
Eliana has done a lot of healing, too, mainly because of an anonymous donor who gave her a kidney, although she will deal with heart defects and kidney disease her whole life. Ironically, one of the biggest problems now is getting her to eat. Children like her are often completely tube-fed, meaning she was so sick she didn’t learn to eat by mouth like a healthy child. She needs therapy to learn how to take bites, chew, and swallow, accept new foods, drink from a cup, and down the road, take medicines by mouth.
Although we work hard to make sure it doesn’t happen, eating for her can be a source of stress, but baking for me never is, and I hope one day soon she can enjoy challah French toast with the rest of us on Sunday morning. Maybe even better, a few years from now she can help to knead and shape that challah alongside me.