Cooking for Stress Relief: An Introduction to Mindfulness

I don't know about you, but when I'm stressed I tend to drop the very things that I should be doing to help combat it: you know, exercise, social activities, THIS BLOG. Anyway, I've had a lot going on the last few weeks between weddings, interviews, conferences, and Thanksgiving, and I'm sure you have too. Of course, the holiday season is only just beginning, and that means more stress for many of us. So, now that I have things slightly more under control, I thought I would devote this blog to a stress relief technique that I try to practice while I cook: mindfulness. 

If you aren't familiar with the concept of mindfulness, or you've heard about it but hadn't really read in depth about it, here's a helpful definition: Mindfulness is "commonly and operationally defined as the quality of consciousness or awareness that arises through intentionally attending to present moment experience in a non-judgemental and accepting way." That definition comes from researchers at the University of Sussex who reviewed the literature on mindfulness and its effects on stress and depression. 

To break that down, mindfulness the noun is a way of thinking. That way of thinking is characterized by A) paying attention to what's currently happening and B) paying attention without judging. Although it may seem simple, mindfulness has profound implications, particularly for stress relief. For example, in one of the studies I've linked above, cancer patients either participated in mindfulness training or were enrolled into a wait-list control group (who received the training after the first experimental group). Those who participated in mindfulness training showed significant improvements not only in mindfulness compared to the control group (meaning the training was successful) but also reported significantly reduced stress and increases in positive mood compared to the control group. 

While one can be mindful at any time, I find that cooking--with its multiple steps, processes, and multisensory cues all constantly vying for my attention--tends to require at least a degree of mindfulness. Sometimes there is a thin line between doing enough to be mindful and doing so much that it becomes overwhelming, but I find that controlling the difficulty of the steps and the order in which I do them helps me to stay on the mindful side of the line.

What do I mean by that? Well, unless I'm trying a completely new technique, it's relatively easy to control the difficulty of most skills related to cooking, because I practice them so often. Consider the difference between a roughly chopped and a diced onion. Both of them take a big circular object and make it smaller, yet a dice will result in equally sized cubes, while a rough chop would not. And though in many cases the slight size differences between the pieces that can occur after a rough chop wouldn't ruin the recipe, when I make an effort to be mindful, I find myself choosing to dice. Dicing requires me to attend to each of my knife cuts (part A of being mindful) but if I mess up, I also know that it doesn't really matter, and so it doesn't upset me (part B of being mindful).

In addition to being able to control the difficulty of the tasks I'm doing, I also find that cooking lends itself to mindfulness through the practice of mise en place. As I've talked about before, practicing mise en place is an organizational philosophy that allows professional chefs to put out consistent meals, night after night. In the context of home cooking, it means actually preparing your ingredients (chopping, toasting, measuring, et cetera) before turning your stove on. Being able to devote your full attention (again, mindfulness part A) to each process as they occur--whether it's dicing an onion or browning butter--tends to lead to better results and it's always easier to remain non-judgmental (mindfulness part B) when things turn out well. 

As we head into the holidays and all their associated stress, I know I will be using these techniques to help me. Luckily, the holidays make for a great excuse to hide out in the kitchen!

Chocolate Cake with Cranberry Buttercream and Chocolate "Snow"

Sorry about the picture quality; I didn't originally plan to post this recipe, but it was so good I had to share :)

Sorry about the picture quality; I didn't originally plan to post this recipe, but it was so good I had to share :)

It's been so long, I owe you guys at least one recipe. This is a cake I made the other week for a friend's going away party, adapted slightly from Food52

Ingredients for the cake:

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
  • 1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the pan
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the pan
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon cider vinegar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Ingredients for the buttercream and chocolate "snow"

  • 3 cups (about one 12 oz bag) fresh cranberries
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 (or 2, in my case) pinch salt
  • 18 tablespoons (2 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly softened
  • 2 egg yolks (optional, I left them out)
  • Zest of half a lime (my addition)
  • 1 cup sifted confectioners' sugar
  • 1 bar of dark chocolate, for shaving (I used some of a pound-plus bar from Trader Joe's, but a normal sized chocolate bar should be sufficient)

To make the cake:

  1. Preheat the oven to 375° F, and place a baking sheet on the lowest rack, to catch any drips when the cake bakes. Put the sugar, unsweetened chocolate, butter and 1 cup of water in a saucepan. Place over medium heat and stir occasionally until all of the ingredients are melted and blended. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly.
  2. Meanwhile, sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. In a small bowl, stir together the milk and vinegar.  Grease two 9-inch cake pans, line them with parchment and then grease and flour the parchment. The original author said just greasing and flouring the pans would be sufficient, but the three lumps of cake that I had to spackle together with icing say differently!
  3. When the chocolate in the pan has cooled a bit, whisk in the milk mixture and eggs. In several additions and without over-mixing, whisk in the dry ingredients. When the mixture is smooth, add the vanilla and whisk once or twice, to blend. Pour the batter into the pans and bake on the middle rack until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Let the cakes cool completely, then remove from the pan and cool on a rack and proceed by making the buttercream.

To make the buttercream: 

  1. Combine the cranberries, sugar, salt and 2/3 cup water in a saucepan and cook over medium heat for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the cranberries slacken and release their juice, then start to thicken. Purée the mixture in a blender and cool completely.
    • This will give you about 2 cups of cranberry purée. That irritated me, because the recipe only calls for 1/4 cup. I sweetened the additional puree with a scant 1/3 cup of sugar and slightly reduced it before using about 1 and 1/4 cups in a cranberry swirl version of these blondies. (If you make the cranberry swirl version as I did, without the other mix-ins, be sure to bake it in a 13x9 rather than half sheet pan.) The remaining 1/2 cup I used for breakfast for two days, mixing about 1/4 cup into oatmeal with some chopped apple.
  2. On medium speed, using electric beaters or a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the butter, egg yolks if using, confectioners' sugar, lime zest and 1/4 cup cranberry purée for about 5 minutes, scraping down the bowl several times, until you have a fluffy, light pink icing. Do not worry if the icing curdles at first (it did for me). Persevere, and it will all come together.
  3. Level the 2 cooled cake layers with a serrated knife. Use about half the icing to fill between the layers of the cake and to apply a crumb coat. Chill the cake for 10 to 15 minutes, then finish icing. If applying a coat of chocolate "snow", use a vegetable peeler to shave your chocolate bar, then sprinkle the snow over the top. Refrigerate the cake until ready to serve.