Therapy bakes for the anxious

Author: Jennifer Le
Fellow Type: Knauss Fellow
Year(s) of Fellowship: 2020
Host Agency: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research

April 23, 2020

As a 2020 Knauss Fellow, Jennifer Le started a new position in Washington DC just as the coronavirus pandemic upended everyone's work and lives. Here she shares her coping tips and a delicious sourdough recipe to try at home. Originally published on the Sea Grant Knauss Blog.

Most recipes on the internet begin with a quirky story related to the author, recipe or dish. In a similar vein, this “recipe” is a step-by-step story about how baking has helped me, personally, work through my anxiety both during graduate school and the current pandemic.

My sourdough starter that is over two years old and made the cross-country move with me.
My sourdough starter that is over two years old and made the cross-country move with me.

1. Feed your starter

No one can avoid the topic of COVID-19, which pervades almost all aspects of our lives. It is the source of bubbling stress and anxiety for many as the news touts “social distancing” and “self-isolation”. These two themes are likely no stranger to graduate students, especially those in the throes of writing down words and ideas that have been fermenting for years.

2. Mix all your ingredients together

Personally, my anxiety was at its worst about a month or so before my dissertation defense. A combination of severe imposter syndrome, stress about moving across the country to start this fellowship and fear of failure were constantly swirling around in my head. It was easy to forget that people are more than what they do: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. 

3. Knead and proof your dough

So I did what I always do when my emotions get stretched a little too thin: bake. Whenever I feel unproductive in one aspect of my life, often academically, I turn to a different outlet for productivity: baking, usually bread. The process is just involved enough that I have to focus, but still flexible enough to let me breathe. And while the dough is rising, it serves as my reminder that I can be productive without an immediate deliverable. For me, one of the hardest parts of graduate school was not always having a tangible outcome. But reading publications, going to seminars and meeting with colleagues wasn’t a waste of time; it was building a foundation for what was to come.

4. Bake and enjoy

And what was to come was a delicious loaf of sourdough (and eventually a dissertation defense that I was pretty proud of). The best part of therapy baking is getting to enjoy the labor of “loaf” with friends and family. The yeasty smell of freshly-baked bread never failed to lure my roommates into taking a break from their own work and sharing warm slices of sourdough. Food has a special way of bringing people together, especially derelict graduate students who will never turn down free food or an opportunity to commiserate. So, maybe, I write this slightly satirically. The real treasure of baking was more than a mental break but also the friends I made along the way.

A surprise gathering with friends the day before my dissertation defense.
A surprise gathering with friends the day before my dissertation defense.

In these unprecedented times of worry and panic, it seems like therapy bakes are what many people are turning to, since I can’t seem to find flour anywhere. If you do happen to have flour, here is my favorite recipe for sourdough adapted from King Arthur Flour.

For one small loaf of sourdough bread

1/2 cup fed sourdough starter

3/4 cup warm water

1 tsp yeast

1 tsp salt

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup whole wheat flour

(optional) anxiety

  1.  Feed your starter with equal parts by weight flour and water (amounts separate from above) at least eight hours before you plan on making bread. This will activate the yeast and bacteria for that characteristic tangy, fermented, sourdough taste. To check if it’s ready for use, drop a pea-sized piece into water and see if it floats.
  2.  Mix all of your ingredients together to form a rough ball. If using active dry yeast, activate it in the warm water for five minutes before mixing with other ingredients.
  3.  Knead the dough until smooth and elastic. If a piece of dough can be stretched smoothly and thinly enough to let light through, then it is ready.
  4.  Form the dough into a ball and place in a covered bowl. Let rise for an hour. When ready, poking the dough with a finger should cause the dough to slowly spring back but leave a small indentation.
  5.  Gently shape the dough and let rest for another thirty minutes. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
  6.  Score the loaf and bake for 30-40 minutes until golden on top. Knocking on the bottom of the loaf should make a hollow sound. For an extra crunchy crust, bake with a tray of water.
  7.  After removing from the oven, let the loaf rest for at least one hour before serving.
  8.  Feel accomplished, productive and refreshed.