The first time I experienced a really painful and deep loss was at 17, after a breakup with the first boy I ever loved. I remember being heartbroken, feeling lost, feeling alone. As I have come to learn, breakups are a part of life, but at the time it felt like my whole world was turned upside down. I struggled for a while, and called my mom a lot. She would often remind me, the pain was not something that was going to disappear overnight, the pain was not something I could avoid or evade. I had to look at it head on and walk towards it. This is when she reminded me of my toolbelt, not a real one with hammers and nails, a metaphorical toolbelt. The concept of the ‘toolbelt’ is, during hard times you have to find ways to cope, to soothe yourself, to survive, I find that it is closely related to self-care. The toolbelt is just methods to help you keep your sanity and take care of yourself.

This concept became particularly helpful for me as I dealt with increasingly larger struggles like my own father’s death. It is helpful to acknowledge ways that you, yourself, on your own, can make yourself feel better, because sometimes that is all you have. I also find it helpful to identify these self-care mechanisms because when s**t hits the fan, I struggle to even remember or comprehend how to make myself feel better. Thus, having a sort of list in the back of my mind or written out on paper can be a powerful tool, don’t try to think, just do. For me this list includes; long hot showers, walks in nature, watching/reading/listening to irreverent media, listening to music in the car, dancing by myself, and of course, journaling.

The thing I have found that keeps me grounded is cooking and more specifically baking. It’s something I can look forward to every day as a way to express myself, to nourish myself and time I get to spend thinking about something that is not the newest catastrophe. Cooking allows me time to get out of my head and focus on the present moment. This sort of focus is often meditative for me, it is something called a flow state. When I’m in a flow state I experience a quiet mind, I feel immersed, entertained and I stop thinking about the worries and the plans.

I first learned about flow in one of my psychology courses. Positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as “…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake…Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost”. Which is to say being completely absorbed, focused and intent on an activity so the mind quiets and you dissociate from anything except the present moment. However that psychology course was not my first introduction to a flow state as I’m sure this article is not yours. For anyone practicing mindfulness, other sorts of meditation, or even prayers, flow state is probably something with which you are already familiar. Many have likely experienced a flow state, which can occur during exercise, whilst playing a sport or completing an activity.

Flow state is a positive experience and in my opinion can be very healing as well. It provides a pause, a chance to recharge. The news has been brutal lately, coronavirus and quarantine have caused a lot of emotional stress, economic stress, and many of us are experiencing a loss of normalcy and a loss of stability. The tragedy of the death of George Floyd and many others and the subsequent unrest have challenged many Americans to think critically about the systematic racism entrenched in the country’s past and their own privilege. Not only is the repeated story of unnecessary deaths and bigotry heartbreaking, but as a white woman I continue to look within myself to explore the implicit biases I know I have. It can be a lot. Breathe. Remember, you are worth something and you need to take care of yourself.

Here is where I reference my toolbelt. This week I was able calm down my limbic system and find some peace in my heart by taking on a baking project. I made cookies, lots of cookies and then I sent them to some of the people I love. I used a recipe from Bon Appetit for digestive cookies which is available on the website here.

Entering a state of flow is not only a positive experience, but it can be part of creating an important and meaningful life. Flow has been shown to make one feel that they are part of something greater. This is caused by the loss of any ego, flow state encourages focus and energy only going toward the activity. It quiets both the outside and the internal world, which in turn enriches our lives by allowing full engagement with activities. Flow is also a self directed process and therefore can provide a sense of control over happiness. Therefore, flow state can be an incredibly useful tool during stressful times.

For me, flow happens during activities that are not too easy and therefore leave mental space but also do not take up all my bandwidth. To access flow the activity needs to be immersive but not daunting in nature. It’s usually an activity I enjoy and therefore creates a positive mood. It is easiest without distractions, for example I most often myself in flow when I am alone and I am not listening to a podcast or even music, although in some cases music can be a helpful tool. I try to quiet any conversations or loud thoughts in my mind. During flow I may have thoughts but in general, it is about existing solely in the present moment therefore lots of mental conversation can hinder the experience. It’s hard to describe exactly how to access a flow state because I often do not recognize I am flowing until I come out the other end. If it’s your first time or even your thousandth time experiencing flow my best advice is do not try too hard, do not put pressure on yourself, just be and see where it takes you.

The takeaway with flow: It is another tool in the toolbelt and it can be accessed in a wide variety of activities. Try this recipe or immerse yourself in a different activity you love. Flow will not make your problems disappear, they will still be there waiting but it gives you a moment to gather yourself to care for yourself so you can put your best foot forward in solving the problems you are facing.

Recipe:

*Items with an asterisk were not included in the original recipe, they are suggestions or additions that are optional

I have put the weight in grams first because measuring and executing a recipe by weight yields more precise results. Kitchen scales are widely available and are not expensive, however if you do not have one you can use the cup measurements. With these cookies I don’t think it is imperative to have a scale, they will still taste good.

Ingredients:

The cookie-

1 stick (½ cup) chilled unsalted butter

* I used salted butter because that is all I had on hand and the recipe wasn’t too salty.

If you are using salted butter, you can dial back the salt a bit.

33g (½ cup) wheat germ

75g (6 tbsp) granulated sugar

* This could be subbed for turbinado, raw or coconut sugar. I wouldn’t try brown sugar because it is more moist and might respond differently

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp kosher salt

* 1 tbsp orange zest

167g (1 ⅓ cups) whole wheat flour

65g (¼ cup) milk

*I used oat milk instead of dairy and it worked just the same

The toppings-

55g Chocolate

1tbsp coconut oil

* 460g (2 cups) milk

* 100g (½ cup) granulated sugar

* ¼ tsp baking soda

* ½ tsp vanilla

* chevre cheese

* honey

For the cookies

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F

2. Cut the stick of butter into ¼ inch cubes and leave the butter in the fridge until it is needed.

3. In a large bowl add the wheat germ, granulated sugar, baking powder, salt, orange zest and flour. Mix to thoroughly combine.

4. Remove the butter from the fridge and drop the pieces into the flour mixture, work quickly so that the butter stays cool. Use your hands to gently toss the butter into the mixture and begin to press the butter cubes between your fingers, think about flattening them into little butter pancakes. Use your thumbs to rub the pieces of butter against your other four fingers. Both these motions happen at the same time, tossing and flattening. Try to keep the mixture in motion tossing frequently. The butter should disperse into smaller pieces until the mixture in the bowl feels almost like wet sand. Do not over mix. If the mixture is wet, your butter has melted. You can try putting it into the fridge briefly to see if it will solidify and then continue working.

*Bon Appetit suggests using a food processor to combine all the ingredients and cut in the butter. This will probably be an easier approach if you’re worried about melting your butter. Do not feel intimidated though! Using your hands is fun and easy once you get the hang of the motion.

5. Add the milk to the bowl and use a spatula or wooden spoon to fold the mixture together. It might not seem like enough milk at first but the dough will come together into a sticky mass. Feel free to give it a couple kneads, but do not go overboard. Pastry doughs are delicate and over handling will lead to the final product being less tender.

*At this point you can rest your dough in the fridge for 10–15 min if it is soft and sticky.

6. Use parchment paper to cover 1 or 2 baking sheets.

7. Aggressively flour your work surface and turn out the dough from the bowl, flour the dough as well. Shape the dough using your hands into a sphere and then flatten it down into a cylinder. Using a rolling pin roll the dough out evenly to ¼ inch thickness.

8. Use a small cookie cutter about 2 inches around, or the circumference of a glass to punch out the dough. The cookies will not rise or expand very much in the oven so you can place them about ½ inch to an inch apart on your baking sheets.

9. Before they go into the oven, use a fork to prick each cookie three times in the middle.

10. Bake for 15–18 minutes until the edges are golden and then allow to cool completely on a rack before moving on to toppings.

For the toppings

  1. Add the coconut oil and chocolate to a heat safe bowl. Either use a double boiler or the microwave to slowly heat the mixture and stir regularly. If you are using the microwave heat in increments and stir in between. Then carefully dunk the top of the cookies into the chocolate mixture and return them to the drying rack to harden. This is not tempered chocolate so it may not harden completely, for faster results use your fridge.

*Top your cookies with homemade dulce de leche following these steps

  1. Combine the 460g milk, 100g sugar and baking soda in a heavy saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer. Watch the pot and stir frequently. As the mixture begins to caramelize, stir it more to prevent burning.
  2. Once the mixture has been cooking for about an hour, and it is deep golden and thick, remove from the heat.
  3. Stir in the vanilla.
  4. Carefully dunk the top of your cookies in the dulce de leche and return them to the drying rack

*Top your cookies with chevre cheese and honey. Only add this topping combination onto the cookies right before serving. If the chevre is left on the cookie for too long, the cookie will get soggy and that would be sad. No soggy cookies please.

Croissants for the soul

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