My mom spent countless hours making many sweet treats in my childhood kitchen that are now filed away like little recipe cards in my brain as delectable memories. Mom’s Christmas cookie platters, with a magical assortment executed over weeks, were legendary. The Swedish Tea rings she spent full days baking as gifts for our teachers were works of art. Her honey-dripping crispy Baklava, those knock-off Mrs. Fields Chocolate Chip Cookies, the intricately layered birthday cakes she crafted for our celebrations… The smells and flavors of my youth were so scrumptious!
But what took everything to the next level was the love that went into it all. Our friend Bill recently said, “What I love most about this is the love that went into it,” as he peered over my shoulder at all the goodies I was finishing preparing for a little Oscar Party we hosted this year. That is exactly what I want people to experience in our home: the great love that goes into every little thing I make in our kitchen, just like my mom.
But nothing I do in my kitchen gives me more pleasure than creating sweet confections for loved ones. First of all, my mom was a fantastic baker, and we did it together, so it connects me with her. And I love to continue to share her love and honor her memory by baking the dishes we loved. Secondly, it’s so special to know amidst mixing and measuring that others will find what I am creating delicious, that it will bring some sweetness to their day. There’s a reason that there is a Cookie Monster and not a Chicken Monster. Few people on God’s green earth do not have a weakness for at least one type of sweet, let alone crave the sweet comfort they bring.
Cooking, for me, is a much different experience than baking. Cooking requires meal planning, breaking down the service of protein, veggies, and carbs to give our bodies the necessary nutrients—something I do daily and weekly as I make our grocery list. Cooking helps to sustain life, so it feels much more utilitarian in that it is a necessity and seems more scientific in the planning and preparation. Cooking is a daily duty, whereas baking feels more like an art, an outlet for creative expression which produces superfluous treats, beautiful and tasty. These treats are not necessary to sustain life, but they make it much more enjoyable. People may love your chicken, but they don’t make the same sounds or expressions as when they’re reveling in your chocolate ganache cake or dunking one of your farm-style oatmeal cookies in milk then in their mouth.
But did you know that baking also has mental health benefits? For a recent example, the COVID pandemic gave rise to a new trend, “stress baking.” #Stressbaking helped amateur bakers worldwide to try and find healthy outlets in our homes during lockdown amidst the high stress we were facing daily through baking.
“Baking is an opportunity to clear our heads and de-stress,” says Pamela Honsberger, MD, a family doctor and director at Kaiser Permanente in Orange County. “When you focus your attention on an activity like baking, you’re more present in the moment and less focused on stressors of the past or future.”
It’s so true. When I’m baking, if I don’t slow down and allow myself to be present, I will ruin whatever I’m trying to make. While it’s an art, there is a science to it, as the use of specific techniques (i.e., don’t beat when it says fold) and precise measurements matter in baking, as well as the specificity of the ingredients. If you’ve ever accidentally used Baking Soda instead of Baking Powder, you understand what I mean (yuck). While there are times when you can omit a lesser ingredient or when a suitable substitute will do, everything you do in baking matters. The measured combination of fats, flours, eggs, sugars, and spices create many confections that aren’t just yummy but also serve as culturally classic desserts and family traditions.
“Baking for others can increase a feeling of well-being, contribute to stress relief, and make you feel like you’ve done something good for the world, which perhaps increases your meaning in life and connection with other people,” says Donna Pincus, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University.
Baking has connected me with others. I made friends with my neighbor in Dallas after I left her some cookies I had baked outside her door. Baking for my coworkers always let them know I cared about them, and at least one confessed she would even dream about my Banana Bread (one of my mom’s most loved recipes). I especially love to bake with my nieces and nephews, as it creates new shared memories like the ones I treasured with my mom. It makes us intentional about spending time doing something together (especially when it’s so easy to sit and be on screens), being present, creative, and having fun. And there’s immense satisfaction at the end when we’re eating something lovely with our family that brings joy and tastes heavenly.
My niece, Annalyse, is living with us during her summer internship with Little With Great Love. She also baked with my mom in her childhood and shares the love. On Pentecost, we decided to bake an Apple Pie from scratch, my husband’s favorite. And while I’ve used a few recipes over the years, I decided to search for some new options, and I’m so glad I did. Trust me, this created the best Apple Pie recipe, a winning combination.
The Best Apple Pie Recipe
For the pie crust recipe: I found it on the New York Times site, yielding the most buttery, flaky crust I’ve ever made. Shortening is full of horrible trans fats and never gives that beautiful butteriness. There’s a reason this recipe has earned 5 stars from over 4,400 reviews. That pie crust is here, which I doubled so that we could do the lattice top. Make sure not to overwork your dough in the food processor or when rolling, as that will make the crust tough versus tender.
For the apple pie filling recipe: My Apple Pies are usually filled with sliced raw apples with a few seasonings and some lemon juice that gets mixed, dumped, and baked in the crust. But I found a pie filling that is precooked on the stove with diced apples. While it takes more time, it was well worth it since it made the flavor profile much richer! That apple pie filling recipe is here on the Delightful Mom Food blog. Here are my recipe notes: I used Granny Smith apples, gluten-free flour instead of cornstarch, brown sugar and cane sugar, and freshly ground nutmeg.
For the baking instructions: I followed step 7 on Sally’s Baking Addiction recipe here, which is: Place the pie on a large baking sheet and bake at 400°F (204°C) for 25 minutes. Keeping the pie in the oven, turn the temperature down to 375°F (190°C) and bake for an additional 30–35 minutes. After the first 20 minutes, put a pie crust shield (or foil) around the fluted crust to prevent the edges from browning too quickly. I should’ve followed step 8, which is letting the pie cool for 3 full hours at room temp, because it was still soupy, so the filling poured all out into the pie pan. But tell me, after 4 hours spent between making and refrigerating the crust, rolling the dough, slicing and cooking up the apple filling, and assembling and baking the pie, who can wait another 3 hours with that succulent smell hanging in the air? Not me!
I have had to change my diet, so I sparingly enjoy these types of desserts. I’ve been learning how to make wonderful treats in new ways, so if you’re interested in some of my favorite gluten-free/refined sugar free recipes, please drop me a comment below or on our social media.
In the meantime, I hope you’ll make some time for yourself to bake. Slow down, de-stress, be present, get creative, and connect with others. Let the love you feel come through your pie or cake pans, cookie sheets, muffin tins, and more. If you’re still not convinced, the Psalms give us the best reason of all to bake, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Ps 34:8)