When in doubt, bake. That's always been my answer to uncertainty, maybe ever since I slid that first tin of chocolate cake mix into my Easy-Bake oven as my mother wondered aloud how she was going to pay the phone bill. The more things change, the more they stay the same; last year my 401(k) evaporated, my husband's stock reports looked like Ponzi schemes, and as many of our friends were laid off as were employed. I had to make the switch from staff to freelance in a shrinking job market, and soon the only growth industry I knew of was the incessant baking going on at our house.
For me, baking is better (and cheaper) than therapy. It gives me something to do with my hands besides wring them nervously. It makes the house smell great—I'm convinced that warm bread is the original aromatherapy—and it yields tangible results. Baking is a form of meditation, as I learned from Edward Espe Brown, a Zen Buddhist priest who wrote The Tassajara Bread Book.
Mindfulness is essential; one wrong measure (was that a quarter or half teaspoon of baking powder? or was it baking soda?) really can make the cookie crumble.
My baked good of choice during this Chicken Little year has been muffins. Bread takes patience, which I've been short on, and cookies give me the sugar blues. But muffins are an ideal marriage of the two: light and fluffy, a little sweet but not too, and versatile. They work for breakfast, a teatime snack, or dessert. My husband likes to take them to work for a midmorning holdover until lunch, so I started baking them for him.
Out came the muffin tins and the recipe books. I started with an old standby, banana walnut muffins
. It's the perfect solution to any overripe bananas that might otherwise be thrown away (horrors! the waste!); in fact, the spottier they get, the sweeter the muffin will be. The tenderness of the cake and the firmness of the walnuts make an excellent match, and the result is a rich, moist muffin that doesn't taste nearly as healthy as it is. I then moved on to applesauce muffins laced with cinnamon and, feeling a little bold one gray Sunday afternoon, I test-drove pear-ginger muffins. On a day when I had no fresh fruit in the house, my baking Yoda, Ed Espe Brown, supplied an imaginative recipe using dried fruit. ("Best muffins ever!!" read the text message from my husband.)
Baking muffins for him gave me an outlet for my anxiety, and they made him happy. With practice, I gained the satisfaction of getting good at something when everything else was going to hell. My only mistake, as it turned out, was talking about it.
The first muffin oppressors were a group of women I worked with years ago and have dinner with once a month. One wrote a book about traveling through the jungles of Costa Rica; another blogs about Spanish wines; the third styles celebrities for fashion shoots. I was the last of us to get married, so the question of whether I'm still experiencing wedded bliss comes up every time we get together. They're always thrilled to hear that the honeymoon isn't over, but they nearly dropped their iPhones right into their iCocktails when I mentioned the muffins.
"You're doing what?" asked one.
Baking muffins, I said. For Nathan.
"How's that book coming?" sniped another.
"Wow," said the third, looking particularly unwowed. "You're a really good wife, aren't you?" Ah, the Good Wife—June Cleaver of Leave It to Beaver
, the scapegoat of the Equal Rights Amendment. I'd forgotten that her crest was two rolling pins under a muffin tin.