A Recipe for Less Stress

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A local writer bakes away his troubles by making cookies.

Whenever my wife, Julie, comes home from work and smells cookies baking, she knows something’s wrong. Baking is like therapy to me. After a particularly stressful day, I head to the kitchen and start gathering the ingredients for some form of comfort food, usually chocolate chip cookies or brownies. Sometimes I’ll make a loaf of bread or bake cupcakes, but whipping up a batch of homemade cookies is, hands down, my favorite form of stress relief.

Baking cookies is relaxing for several reasons. First, there is the aromatherapy: Anytime you combine ingredients such as vanilla extract, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, chocolate and so forth, spread them out on a cookie sheet and insert them into a hot oven, your house is sure to fill with a scent that reminds you of childhood, holidays, mothers who look like Betty Crocker and other pleasantly nostalgic associations. Also, baking keeps your hands busy, making it nearly impossible to multitask. With your fingers covered in gooey dough, running to the computer to check your e-mail is pretty much out of the question. When you are up to your elbows in batter and chocolate, you are much more inclined to let phone calls roll over into voice mail. What’s more, although baking doesn’t require a huge amount of mental effort, the measuring of ingredients, consulting of recipes and coordinating of various mechanical tasks (affixing the proper blade to the mixer, setting up a double boiler to melt some chocolate) require just enough thought to keep you from dwelling too heavily on nonbaking concerns. And if your mind does wander a bit, causing you to add too much baking powder to your dry ingredients, say, the problem usually can be solved by making a few simple adjustments to the mix. Baking isn’t brain surgery, which is one of its chief benefits as a form of stress relief. If you make a critical error when preparing a batch of brownies, the worst that can happen is that you will have to throw out the batter and start again from scratch&emdash;not an entirely unpleasant prospect.

Those who find tinkering around the house and attending to minor home-improvement projects relaxing always have baffled me. The smell of paint gives me a headache, while the smell of cake gives me an appetite. I can walk away from a botched batch of sugar cookies with relatively little worry, but who can walk away from a water pipe that one accidentally has ruptured while drilling into a bathroom wall?

It should be noted that the therapeutic benefits of baking arise only when you have no real need for the treats that you are making. If you are baking for guests arriving for a dinner party later in the day, the stress-relief factor is likely to be zero. You’ll find yourself worried about burning the batch of cookies and smoking up the house. Stress relief, for me at least, comes only when I am baking something we have absolutely no need for (and, as hard as it is for me to admit it, almost no one ever really needs a chocolate chip cookie). Thus, it isn’t unusual for me to spend an entire afternoon in the kitchen making far more cookies than my wife and I can possibly consume in a week. When that happens, Julie generally hauls the cookies off to her office the next day, where her co-workers and clients devour them.

Recently, I spent several stressful weeks preparing an essay for publication in The New York Times. Every day I e-mailed the latest version of my essay to an editor at the Times, and every day I would get an e-mail in return stating that the essay wasn’t quite ready for print, that it required just a little more information or slightly more polished prose before it could be considered worthy of such a venerable journalistic venue as the Times. So I would work late into the night, rewriting my poor little personal essay, inserting the additional flesh that my editor insisted it needed in order to keep it from coming across as too skeletal, all summary and no story. This wasn’t easy, because I wasn’t allowed to invent anything. The piece was rigorously fact-checked. If, for instance, I said my stepdaughters have thrived financially, I could be sure that my editor would come back and ask me just exactly how much money my stepdaughters earn, where do they work, are they married, do their spouses work and on and on and on. (This is an actual example of the fact-checking done for my essay.)

Every morning, as my wife was leaving for work, I would assure her that this latest revision was sure to be the one to finally secure my story a spot in the Times. But, day after day, Julie returned home to a house filled with the aroma of warm cookies. That was all she needed to tell her that the rewrite hadn’t done the trick, that I would once again be up late trying to produce the masterpiece that my editor insisted the essay was capable of becoming, if only I worked hard enough at it.

Naturally, Julie and I couldn’t eat more than a tiny fraction of the cookies I produced during this period. She took most of them to work, but after several days her co-workers began to complain. What was the point, they asked, of eating Lean Cuisines and Top Ramen for lunch if Julie was going to torment them with chocolate chip cookies all day? So I began delivering batches of them to friends and family members. Eventually, I was forced to forego the baking part of the process: I would create cookie dough, then seal it in gallon-size Ziploc freezer bags and store it in the refrigerator for future use. This eliminated the aromatherapy aspect of cookie making but kept my hands and brain just busy enough to prevent me from fretting too obsessively over my essay.

When the essay was finally published and elicited not only more fan mail than I’ve ever received but inquiries into the availability of the film rights from not one but two Hollywood producers, my wife suggested I celebrate by concocting one of my favorite desserts. But by that time, I was so sick of baking that my beloved KitchenAid mixer and I were undergoing an amicable trial separation.

Because I work out of my house, I am the one who prepares dinner most days. But when things get stressful, it isn’t unusual for me to spend all afternoon baking and have absolutely nothing that remotely resembles dinner ready when my wife gets home from work. When that happens, I usually pick up the phone and call Zelda’s Pizza. A pre-cooked, deep-dish vegetarian pizza is another great antidote to stress&emdash;especially the stress that results from a hungry spouse arriving home from work and finding no dinner on the table. And afterward, perhaps a few homemade cookies for dessert.    

Kevin’s Basic Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe

Ingredients:
1½ cups softened butter (salted)
1¼ cups granulated sugar or Splenda artificial sweetener (to give the illusion that the cookies are low-cal)
1¼ cups packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2 eggs
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
20&emdash;24 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
1&emdash;2 cups broken pecans

Directions:
In a large bowl, mix (at medium speed) butter, sugars, vanilla and eggs. Stir in flour, baking soda and salt, and mix until dough becomes stiff. Stir in chocolate chips, ½ cup at a time. By hand, crumble up pecans and drop into mix. Stir again.

Cover an ungreased cookie sheet with parchment paper. Roll dough into pingpong-size balls and place on cookie sheet. Flatten the balls slightly.

Bake at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes or until lightly browned (centers will remain soft and chewy). Remove from oven and allow cookies to cool on cookie sheet 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from cookie sheet and place on cooling rack.  Makes about 2 dozen cookies.