by Madeleine Brown
I typically unwind by means of yoga, running and long Food Network binges. In the kitchen though, there’s nothing that chills me out more than icing cakes. No, I’m not hardcore. I don’t go all Ace of Cakes and shape Taj Mahals out of fondant. I enjoy the simple action of spreading buttercream, cream cheese or sour cream icing of the perfect consistency over layers of beautiful cake. Then I may artfully arrange whole or crumbled nuts over top before releasing a deep exhale and leaving the kitchen to face my troubles. There’s something about transforming those naked layers into comforting, rewarding and indulgent cake.
I see icing cakes as the food world’s equivalent to Zen gardens. Just as you can use your little rake to arrange and rearrange your little pile of sand (or whatever that stuff is), you can use your spatula to spread and respread your icing. Granted, there have been those brutal occasions where the boiled icing stiffened too quickly or the chocolate glaze was just too loose and slid right off the cake onto the floor. That’s why when you need to unwind through this method, rely on trusted classics.
The atmosphere is also key. I need an empty kitchen where the mess of preparing the batter and the icing itself have been tidied away. The sink is empty and the counters clear. Hopefully, I’m alone. I may choose to have a beloved album or playlist play the background, but often silence will do. As far as light, it’s got to be either enriching mid-afternoon sun pouring through the windows or the glow of just a single overhead light sometime in the evening when the rest of the world has settled.
I can’t rush the process. The cakes need to be cooled. I like to ensure I have as much time as possible. As I said it’s that sensory experience of spreading the icing (as many times as I feel necessary) that’s ultimately stress-reducing. Unlike mixing batter or beating egg whites, you can’t overdo it. The icing is flexible, yet still slightly resistant. You can add embellishing flicks, carve your crush’s initials and then wipe them over and start from a fresh canvas. It’s like age-appropriate finger painting—although I’m sure some hipsters have deemed finger painting a reasonable adult pastime. It’s food you can play with without ever making it inedible.
Even if you can’t bear to make either the cake, icing or both from scratch, pick up the pre-made stuff. You can throw your focus entirely into the practice of icing or as the motions become more unconscious give yourself reflection time and think through your troubles.
The best part of this method of relaxing? There’s a slice of cake at the end of all. And, that’ll cure anyone’s stress.