Posted by: Sarah | March 23, 2009

Baking Therapy


On occasion, I have what I un-affectionately call ‘mental typhoon’ days. Meaning: All my mental sticky notes go swirling and whirling around so fast and furious that I can’t pluck one To Do from the storm. (I have been told this can be a side-effect of Type-A individuals.) Like in a typhoon, where residents board up their homes and hunker down with water and canned goods, my creativity locks itself up, refusing to come out and be useful. So there I am, stuck at my computer, staring at the page without an ounce of productive ability.

Today happened to be one of those days and I hate them. They make me frustrated and sad and angry that my own brain has lost control. It is at these times that I often feel the unexplainable desire to bake. Yes, bake. As in, bust out the bowls and teaspoons, measuring cups and recipe books. There’s something ordering and comforting about beautifully photographed dishes beside cheerfully printed recipes. My psyche especially loves (and needs) these systematic lists when my own are a tangled mess.

And isn’t it rewarding—to brainlessly follow exactly what the directions say and produce something exactly (or close enough) like the corresponding brownie/cake/cookie/snack photograph? Instant gratification! No one’s approval is needed either. It’s you and the ingredients: sifting, mixing, baking, eating. There are no high bars to reach, no Jones to keep up with. You don’t have to worry that your creation might take longer to bake than the next person’s; the recipe has a universal bake time (give or take a few minutes for oven variances). You don’t have to worry that it won’t have the same flavor as someone else’s; the ingredient list is printed on the page, unchangeable (unless you decide for one of the ‘optional’ ingredients). And as long as you stay true to the written word, you are 100 percent guaranteed a successful outcome (truthfully, it’s probably more like 75, but those are still very good odds). For a writer in need of a creative jump-start, baking therapy is just the trick.

I did some research to see if my gut instincts were correct regarding the culinary cure. Could baking really be a kind of mental therapy? Indeed. A study published in the British Journal of Occupational Therapy (March 2004) declared that “Baking gives you confidence.” The study interviewed participants and found that baking allowed people to feel they’d acquired new skills and produced a positive end result. In addition, the act of baking provided people with a desired “structure” to their daily routine. Researched concluded that baking had many therapeutic benefits for its users. Well, I’ll be. It’s medical! (Being married to a physician, I’m always searching for a dash of science to back up my musings—just a dash, though.)

So after sitting in my office for nearly two unproductive hours finger tapping, Internet surfing dream European vacation spots, and thrice lotioning my arms and legs, I called it a ‘mental typhoon’ day and went down to my kitchen to see what Giada, Nigella, Paula and the wondrous cooks at William Sonoma could offer. Part of the fun for me is figuring out what recipes I can make with the ingredients I already have on hand. It’s a game I play with myself. I have to find a recipe using only the contents of my cupboard and refrigerator. Going to the grocery store is cheating. So my baking therapy is also a kind of intellectual puzzle. No surprise. I do this in my writing, too. I love puzzling together characters, plots, settings, crises and motivations like playing pieces on a game board. The same with baking. I search my cupboard for that one main ingredient—that muse that sings to me. Today, oddly enough, it was a can of garbanzo beans that have been on the shelf for months. My baking therapy isn’t limited to the sweet stuff. Besides, just last week I made two-dozen German chocolate cupcakes for my husband’s birthday. So I was in the mood for something…savory.

“Garbanzo beans, garbanzo beans, garbanzo beans,” I incanted while skimming the indexes of a handful of recipe books. Chili-Roasted Garbanzo Beans. Mmm… now that sounded pretty good.

Out came the sheet pans and nonstick cooking spray, my spice rack and sea salt! There’s a building excitement to baking. You gather the ingredients then begin: step 1, step 2, step 3, climbing ever-steadily to that climactic moment when the oven timer dings merrily, and you slip on your oven gloves, open the door, and voila! Together, you’ve creative something delectable out of items that were unspectacular alone. You rejoice with the first too-hot bite, relishing both the taste and the feeling of achievement. You’ve done something. You’ve created despite all the obstacles! And in that post-baking high, somehow you feel righted. The storm has passed. Through step-by-step recipe osmosis, your sticky notes are back in their rightful place. The mental winds have calmed. The sky is clear. The sun is shining.

Thus, after a little under an hour of baking therapy, I was ready to come back to my laptop and write. The white page no longer stymied me. Instead, it seemed refreshingly clean and open to so many possibilities.

I thank God today’s mental typhoon was easily pacified by chili-roasted garbanzo beans. But sometimes the storm lasts for days, producing muffins and cookies, lasagnas and soufflés, bread loaves and pies. My husband both loves and hates these sudden baking binges, but he knows they serve a greater purpose. So he happily obliges my manic love-affair with the oven, and shouts up the stairs where I’m clicking away on my laptop, “Honey, these chili beans are good!”

Now, this is my prescription for a mental typhoon, but I also utilize the culinary arts for other ailments. When I’m depressed, I make all my childhood favs that my mom and I used to bake on wet, April afternoons: blueberry muffins and tandy cake, sourdough bread and Mexican wedding cookies. When I have a cold, I whip up soups from every corner of my memory: Grandpa’s rice and milk, Mom’s chicken and veggies, Sheri’s garlic and broth. And when I’m most frazzled in December, my Christmas cookie bake-off helps me stop and remember why I really do love the crazy season. You can’t help smiling while dressing a gingerbread man in pink icing pants.

An old friend recently shared that her dream is to open a pastry bakery. She explained that pastries make her happy both to make and to see. I couldn’t agree more. Nothing lifts my soul like tiers of frosted cupcakes exploding with sprinkles or pastel petit fours and golden cookies in neat rows. There something magical there. You don’t even need one bite to experience it either. It’s the concept: Someone took the time and energy to create something lovely out of nothing, and they’re willing to share it with you, should you want it. That’s darn near spiritual. I pray my friend opens that bakery. I think we need more bakers in this world. According to the medical research, it’d be a happier place for sure.

Chili-Roasted Garbanzo Beans

49 min | 4 min prep


  • 2 (15 ounce) cans garbanzo beans (chick peas)
  • cooking spray
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder, heaping
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • cayenne, to taste
  1. Drain garbanzos in a strainer and rinse well with cool water. Shake to help remove water. Let sit to drain while proceeding.
  2. Cover a rimmed cookie sheet with tinfoil and spray with nonstick cooking spray. Pour garbanzos on the foil and spread them into a single layer. Take a few sheets of paper towel and gently press over the top of the beans just to remove any extra liquid- speeds cooking time too.
  3. Spray top of beans with cooking spray and sprinkle seasonings over. Shake pan to help distribute the seasoning and make sure the beans are all in a single layer.
  4. Place pan in an oven and set to 350 F. Use lowest rack on oven and return every 15-20 minutes or so to shake the pan so nothing burns. Cook until beans are browned and crispy. About 45 minutes.
  5. Remove from oven and let cool completely on pan.
  6. Store in Ziploc bags for snacking.

Post Script: You should see what I can do with a skillet and pot. My Puerto Rican grandma says a good worn pot is worth its weight in gold. That’s the gospel truth. I challenge anybody to walk into a true Puerto Rican kitchen and not find that one big, stained, old pot. I guarantee it’ll make the best darn chicken you’ve ever tasted.


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