My transition from mixing up boxes of chocolate cake to ‘real’ cakes came sometime around the 3rd grade. The recipe on the inside of the box of unsweetened baking chocolate was my initial guide, along with my mother, who supervised. I learned about using the double boiler to melt the squares down, adding in the butter at the halfway point so it too could become a gooey mess that had no good taste until the sugar was finally added. Those brownies were my mainstay for a few years until I was introduced to Maida Heatter, at the time an unknown to me author of many cookbooks. She had a chatty style, detailed directions and made all of her creations sound like something I needed to make ~ now. My copies of her books are covered in notes, reminders. They are well loved.
Recently, I heard she died and thought to myself, “wow, it took me a long time to hear this news.” The reality was that she has just died, months after her last book was published. She was 102 years old. While she clearly had some great genetics to help her along it is also obvious there was something else at work ~ one does not get to 102 without a certain something. Zip. Drive. Determination. Wisdom. I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s the extra butter that was coursing through Maida Heatter’s veins or all the love she got back when she shared her baked goods.
I do know that she shares some of that wisdom in the forward to her last compilation of recipes. “Years ago I heard a doctor talking on television about the dangers of stress. It can kill you. It can cause a heart attack or a stroke. The doctor listed ways of coping with stress. Exercise. Diet. Do yoga. Take a walk. I yelled, “Bake cookies.”…Baking is a great escape. It’s happiness. It’s creative. It’s good for your health. It reduces stress.” Who can argue with that when the speaker is clearly more of an expert than you or I on the tips and tricks of living to over 100?
As a professional who has spent many years talking about exercise, diet, walking, meditating, reducing your stress by using a journal or petting your dog, I too have started to talk about the number one activity I have used since those first brownies ~ baking cookies. Or cakes. Or bread. Or maybe you’re into making your own jam or granola. It matters not. Maida was right; bake. And then share the results. With your neighbors, the UPS person who shows up at your door, the dentist, the mechanic. I swear my 1972 Volvo lasted several extra years due to the care that Marshall, the only mechanic who would work on her, bestowed upon the finicky carburetor because I usually left a massive bag of Maida’s Palm Beach Brownies in the passenger seat for him when work was required.
What makes the act of baking so magical? There is, believe it or not, creativity in it. Do I use this or that brand of brown sugar and how does it alter the taste? What if you do this and then that? How can I alter this to make it gluten-free and still tasty? The techniques you learn ~ when to line a cookie sheet, what makes it important to bring the butter to room temperature ~ are soothing in their own way. But the real stress reducing benefit from baking is found in the sharing. The simple act of holding out a bag of cookies or individually wrapped brownies. The thought of who you’d like to share them with. The smile on their face when they realize this is their treat, not for just anyone. I suspect the recipient can also taste the love that goes into everything that is baked or created from scratch. There is no other ingredient like it.
I know cardiologists who will tell you less butter, not so much sugar and for the love of all things holy, not so much heavy cream are best for you. And I know they are right. More exercise, a diet full of fruits (and not in upside down cakes!) and lean proteins, greens, and fish, yoga, journals, meditation, community involvement are all fantastic. Do I need to say that smoking is for-sure-no-go in terms of healthy behaviors? OK, I’ll say it; don’t even think it. Get help to stop if you need to. But baking? I dare you to tell me it’s not amazing for doing a body and soul good. A deep bow of gratitude to Maida Heatter for teaching me still, after all these years, about the wonders to be had in the alchemy of baking. She remains a fabulous teacher.