Culinary therapy: how cooking can help alleviate anxiety

There’s a growing body of research to suggest that cooking (and I’d say repetitive or slow cooking processes in particular) can function as a form of mindfulness meditation and improve mental well-being. I’m particularly interested in how cooking can help to calm an anxiety-frazzled mind.

Carrying out a step-by-step process forces you to focus on the task at hand, keeping you in the present rather than allowing your mind to wander into ruminating on the past or worrying about the future.

Following a recipe successfully also provides a sense of control (often sorely lacking in the anxious) and of achievement at a time when you might be feeling as though nothing is going right. And while half an hour’s meditation may have the same benefits, with cooking you have a very tangible — and hopefully delicious — reward at the end. It is also a way to nurture and show love to those close to you, which in turn makes you feel good yourself.

And while anxiety can numb your senses, cooking brings them to life: it’s a multi-sensory experience stimulating sight, sound, taste and smell. Try cutting open a pomegranate without marvelling at the jewel-like colour of the seeds, or baking cheese scones without feeling comforted by the homely aroma filling the kitchen.

Some recipes are more therapeutic than others. I think the trick is to avoid anything too complicated so you don’t get disheartened, while challenging yourself enough to feel a sense of satisfaction with and pride in the result.

Here are my favourite kitchen calmers.

Preserves

Squirreling away food for a later date gives you a satisfying sense of virtue that lasts well beyond the time you spend in the kitchen. Look up preserving ideas for whatever you happen to have an abundance of; you could make jam with a glut of plums or preserved lemons with a backyard bounty. Preserving by Ginette Mathiot is a great book to get you started.

Pasta 

Homemade pasta is my ultimate comfort food. My favourites forgo the fiddly pasta maker — think thick rustic ribbons of pasta, which are just rolled-out pasta dough cut into strips. If you want to get a bit fancier (and therefore more meditative, in my book) you can make filled pasta with a veg, meat or cheese filling. My pici carbonara recipe is here.

Dumplings 

Dumplings seem to be universally adored, and so many cultures have their own version of them — probably because they’re comfort food at its best. The repetitive process of filling and sealing a pile of dumplings might seem tedious, but if you let yourself get into a little rhythm you might find it becomes a pleasurable exercise. You can find my recipe for very simple pork, shiitake and ginger dumplings here. Afghan mantu are stuffed with a beef and onion mixture and served with yoghurt and a tomatoey sauce and are totally delicious.

Risotto 

Risotto requires your full attention for the entire cooking time, with frequent liquid additions and stirring (again, quite meditative), and it’s so satisfying to see it come together and become creamy, while retaining an ever-so-slight bite. My favourite risotto is of the spring veg variety, bright with peas, mint and asparagus. There’s a good recipe here.

Bread 

There’s nothing quite like the aroma of baking bread, and making it from scratch is a calming and satisfying process. You can get pretty technical with bread, but there are also very simple recipes for no-knead breads. I’ll be making this potato and rosemary focaccia this weekend (to serve with a glass of nero d’avola, as suggested, because a glass of wine can also help with anxiety . . .).

Cake and other baking 

Baking soothes the soul. There’s something deeply ritualistic and therapeutic about weighing out ingredients and getting the proportions, consistency and cooking times just right. My go-to cake at the moment is this pear, dark chocolate and pistachio cake from Gourmet Traveller, which I usually make with almonds.

I realise that none of these foods would be described as health foods, and I’m not suggesting that any of them contain ingredients that help ease anxiety — it’s the process I’ve focused on here. There’s lots of information online about foods that are said to help with anxiety, as well as information about anxiety itself. I’m also not suggesting that cooking provides a cure for anxiety, just that, alongside other positive practices, finding recipes that you enjoy making may help you to achieve a more content and relaxed state of mind.

 

Embracing the art of hygge in rural Scandinavia

The Nordic concept of hygge (cosiness, warmth, conviviality, celebrating the simple things – in case you’ve been living under a rock) has been pretty well thrashed since being ‘discovered’ by the rest of the world a while back, but before you roll your eyes and stop reading, think of the Scandinavians: for them it’s not a lifestyle-section trend but a way of life. I’ve always had a problem sitting still, but found it a cinch to ease into a slow-it-all-down mindset during the Scandinavian leg of our epic camper-van trip, especially when there was little to ‘do’ but hunker down and happily do nothing much. The cities of Scandinavia are unquestionably cool (and I’ll write about them in another post), but when I look back on the month or so we spent driving around Denmark, Sweden and Norway, it’s the memories of our time spent in the countryside, sitting by a fire doing very little, that are the most enduring.

Bornholm is a Danish island that sits in the Baltic Sea, closer to both Sweden above and Germany and Poland below than to Denmark. It’s one of those out-of-the-way islands that sometimes get set in a little box in the corner of the country map. It’s far from obscure though – it enjoys more hours of sunshine than mainland Denmark and holds a special place in the hearts of holidaying Danes. A magazine article that put Bornholm on our radar before setting out on our trip focused on the culinary scene and painted the island as a hyper-fertile fruit basket of the north and summer idyll. We didn’t need much convincing.

Our first taste of the Scandinavian seaside, waiting for the night ferry from Ystad in Sweden to Bornholm.

Bornholm is known as both Solskinsøen (the Sunshine Island) because of its weather and Klippeøen (the Rock Island) because of its geology; apart from the white-sand southern beaches, it’s mostly granite. We visited at the end of the summer season, so frustratingly, many of the restaurants I’d read about had recently closed for the long off-season (one day we’ll go back and eat at Kadeau), but we still had mostly fine weather during our three days there.

After our ferry arrived in the very early hours of the morning we drove straight to Allinge and our Airbnb summer house, Bolle’s Minde. The summer house (sommerhus in Danish) is as ubiquitous in parts of Scandinavia as the bach is in New Zealand. Echoing the bach-building trends of this country, there was a big sommerhus building boom during the 1960s and 70s; the Danish economy was growing and people began to build a second residence close to the sea to holiday in. In a country with under 6 million people, there are a whopping 200,000 sommerhus.

Our Bornholm home was fairly basic, but had the essentials of solid relaxation: hammock beds outside for the daytime, and a fireplace inside for the cooler evenings. Determined to go full hygge, we stocked up on supplies and spent our first day cosied-up inside, unnecessarily stoking the fire early in the afternoon, and making the most of having a full kitchen after weeks in the camper van by cooking a pork roast (flæskesteg, one of Denmark’s national dishes – always, always, cooked with the crackling on). With the aroma still mingling with the smoke from the fireplace, we finished off the meal with apple cake (æblekage) served with sun-kissed figs from the tree in the garden (a local variety known as Bornholm’s Diamond) and blackberries picked from the laden bushes in the lanes around the house: a forager’s dream.

A backyard of apple trees opening onto the seaside, spied on one of our walks.

Dragging ourselves away from cosy hibernation for a tour of the island the next day, we stopped in at the ruins of Hammershus, the largest medieval fortress in northern Europe, and the small towns of Sandvig, Rø, Gudhjem, Svaneke and Nexø, where hand-blown glass and ceramic studios rub shoulders with fish-smoking warehouses and their pyramid-shaped chimneys. We climbed the vast sand dunes on the southern coast and stopped in Tejn for a meal of ‘shrimps on toast’ at Skipperkroen, an old-school fisherman’s restaurant run by the endearingly surly henna-haired Pippi and groaning with nautical knick-knacks. Before heading back to the summer house for another evening by the fire, we stopped in at seaside hotel and bar Nordlandet to take in the views back towards Sweden and try the excellent craft beer by Penyllan, a local boutique brewery recently started by a friendly Aussie girl and her Danish partner.

The island’s roads were lined with small honesty-box produce stalls, with blueberries, figs and apples apparently the main crops at this time of year. Every little town has at least one bakery where you can pick up supplies for fika (coffee and cake), a tradition embraced with varying enthusiasm all over Scandinavia. ‘Fika’ is used as both a noun and a verb, and it didn’t take us long to happily give in to regular fikasugen (fika cravings) and make the question ‘Shall we fika?’ part of our daily routine. As Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall point out in their book Fika: The art of the Swedish coffee break, it isn’t merely a coffee break, it’s a moment to slow down and appreciate the good things in life.

It was tempting to linger longer and slide further into the island way of life, but the road, and Sweden, was calling. Roxette serenaded us on the local radio as we drove north towards Stockholm, stopping in Kalmar for lunch. At a salad and sandwich bar, we ordered smørrebrød – an open sandwich of thinly sliced rye bread with various toppings, technically Danish but enjoyed more widely – and smörgåstårta – slices of bread layered with many fillings and garnishes, creating a creamy, salady layer cake. The idea of a savoury cake may not appeal to the uninitiated, but you’ve got to treat it like an elaborate club sandwich – it was delicious.

A little further north, after a detour to Örland island, we arrived in teeny-tiny Oknö. This really was a pick-a-random-spot-on-the-map location, a one-night stop chosen because it was in the excellently named Mönsterås region and because we liked the shape the finger-like shoots of land made on the map. It’s technically an island, one of many little dots of land covered in reeds and forest and connected by bridges and causeways. We arrived to a near-empty campsite and set up right by the water, enjoying an evening spent beside a bonfire on the beach. A morning sauna heightened the sense of retreat – exotic by New Zealand standards, but something we came across in a few of the campsites we stayed in.

(Curiously, the entry for Oknö on Wikipedia consists of only two lines, the second being a reference to Karolina Olsson, the ‘Sleeping Beauty of Oknö’, who apparently stayed asleep – or ‘hibernated’ – for 32 years.)

After a few days in Stockholm we drove west towards Norway, through vast swathes of sun-dappled pine and birch forest and small red-painted settlements. Dalarna County is the home of the hand-painted Dala horse, born in the region about 400 years ago when long winter nights by the fire would be whiled away carving wooden toys, and now a symbol of the whole of Sweden. It’s also home to the Mora knife, used all over Scandinavia and beyond in industry and outdoor pursuits, and by all of the region’s armies.

In Särna, we camped for a night at a lägerplats – a designated but very basic camping spot you pay a small fee to use (much like a DOC campsite in New Zealand). True wild camping is forbidden here, unlike the rest of Sweden, where the ‘freedom to roam’ policy is restricted only by the ‘do not disturb; do not destroy’ proviso. We cooked meatballs over the riverside fire, drank cups of tea with the addictive sötsak dammsugare we’d bought in the food market at Stockholm’s flagship IKEA store, and went to sleep early, only to be woken in the night by the unnerving sound of highway truckers using their horns to scare off wandering animals. Getting back behind the wheel in the morning, the reindeer sharing the road reminded us that this was the beginning of Sami country.

Knäckebröd and colourful cheese pastes (apparently very popular) displayed like art supplies in the supermarket.

A lagerplats in Särna, where we shared the campsite with reindeer.

After driving to the top of the nearby ski field (Salen hosts the start of Vasaloppet, the oldest, longest and largest cross-country ski race in the world) and deciding against a walk thanks to signs warning of roaming bears, we continued on route 66 into Norway. Some of the houses on this side of the border have grass and even pine trees on the roof and there are almost immediate differences in the landscape – the most obvious being the majestic fjords, which saw our journey punctuated by many short ferry rides and less-short tunnels (one, at 30km, is the longest road tunnel in the world and has a light show every 5km to ‘keep drivers awake and alert, avoid mental strain, and lift claustrophobia’ during the twenty-minute drive).

Having done little research on our route – preferring to find our way as we went – we were surprised to come across the serpentine Trollstigen (trolls’ ladder) road, whose eleven sharp hairpin bends follow a steep incline though the mountains. The Trollstigen viewing platforms are exceptionally well designed and built to blend in with the surroundings; some sections have been carved into the rock and others built onto sympathetically constructed stone walls. The dramatic viewpoints are well protected against the elements by steel and glass and from the top you enjoy a dizzying view all the way down the mountainside you’ve just climbed if coming from the east. (We came across examples of this superior public design all over Norway.) We spent that night in a campsite on the water’s edge in Geiranger, dwarfed by the emerald-green walls of the fjord and the huge, alien cruise ships lit by festoon lights.

Our log cabin in the woods in Tinn Austbygd in Telemark County provided the deepest sense of retreat. The settlement is about half an hour from Vemork, the site of the dramatic ‘heavy water sabotage’ – a series of actions undertaken by Norwegian saboteurs during World War II to prevent the occupying Germans from acquiring heavy water to produce nuclear weapons. We visited the museum at the imposing hydroelectric plant before driving north around Lake Tinn (Tinnsjå) to our cabin in the woods. The Airbnb listing describes it as a ‘fairytale place’, and it really does feel like something out of a Scandi children’s book: a log cabin with grass and small trees growing on the roof set in an untamed garden of blueberry and lingonberry bushes, with a white lavvu tent and an outdoor fire-heated bath tub beside the river at the far side of the property, all nestled so neatly in the surrounding forest that we drove right past it several times before finally spotting the roof peeking out among the trees.

There was an open fireplace inside and beside it a little stove, and a big fire pit outside. We alternated between the two, with it still warm enough in September to sit outside in the early evening. We baked cinnamon buns, picked berries and wild flowers, read books in the sun and took walks up river, across the moss-carpeted forest floor.

I didn’t know too much about Scandinavian food before our trip, having unfairly focused solely on cold pickled herring, which is in fact enjoyed all over Europe. But the Scandinavians certainly know how to bake, and their savoury dishes skilfully utilise quite subtle and unusual flavour combinations, especially when compared to more well-documented cuisines like Italian or French.

Seeking to emulate our Bornholm bliss, I made the Spiced Roast Pork Belly from Signe Johansen’s How to Hygge (not strictly a cookbook, but it has a great recipe section; it’s also endorsed by Nigel Slater so a guaranteed winner). A fairly straight-forward recipe in terms of cooking time and preparation, the special thing about it is the spice paste for marinating the meat: fennel seeds, allspice berries, star anise, coriander seeds, smoked sea salt and acacia honey (which I substituted with blue borage honey). It’s a thick, pungent paste, but mellows with cooking, and I ended up wishing I had used a bit more of it. To go with the pork, I made the Nordic Coleslaw, a fairly simple mix of shredded celeriac, white cabbage, fennel and carrots, with a complex and punchy green dressing of crème fraiche, lemon juice and zest, horseradish sauce, grainy mustard, cider vinegar, dill, coriander seeds, caraway seeds and spring onion. I added some thinly sliced radish for a colour pop. It was delicious – rich pork belly balanced with a crunchy fresh salad couldn’t be anything but – but we did miss the open fire and smugness of being on a little Danish island floating in the Baltic Sea.

A few days later, I made a buttery apple cake (æblekage in Danish; äppelkaka in Swedish) from The Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nilsson. It needed almost an hour and a half in the oven rather than the 50 minutes the recipe called for, but it was a lovely golden buttery colour and rich without feeling too decadent. Next I’d like to try the cardamom and cinnamon buns, as well as some of the more unusual recipes.

Not many New Zealanders travel to Scandinavia, mainly I think because it’s seen as just too expensive. Admittedly we ate out in restaurants very little and drank out even less (those shrimps on toast in Bornholm were on par price-wise with a fine-dining restaurant in New Zealand, two small beers at one very beautiful bar we went to in Stockholm was a scandalous $50 and coffee was also pricey at upwards of NZ$8 for a small espresso), but more casual dining was not too eye-watering, and it is well worth scrimping a bit in order to admire the fjords of Norway, share a road with reindeer in Sweden’s Sami country and bask in the sun on a white-sand beach in Bornholm. In fact, the expense and need to budget for a trip there could encourage you to practise the hygge of 2017: ‘lagom’, or the perfect balance of not too little, not too much. And if you’ve brought a little hygge into your world already (or naturally embrace the cosy things in life and don’t need to be told how to do it, thank you very much), you’ll love hanging out in a region where it’s almost mandatory.

How to Hygge : the secrets of Nordic living by Signe Johansen (PanMacmillan, 2016); The Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nilsson (Phaidon, 2015).

Gooey lemon and rosemary slice

This recipe was inspired by the groaning lemon tree in my backyard. I’ve been stalking it for weeks, waiting for the lemons to tip over into juicy ripeness so I could make some limoncello using the family recipe some Dutch/Italian friends shared with us. Luckily there are plenty for baking too. For this slice, I freestyled the measures (not being a natural baker I like a test!) and next time might use a little more lemon zest or juice and a little less sugar (I used 1 3/4 cups) in the topping to make it tarter. Some recipes for this type of slice use icing sugar for the base, which would give more of a shortbread texture. (Limoncello to come.)

1 1/2 cups flour

1/2–3/4 cups caster sugar

150g room-temp. butter, cut into cubes

4 large eggs

1–1 3/4 cups caster sugar (depending on how tart you like things)

zest and juice of 3–4 large lemons (about 2/3 cup juice)

1/3 cup flour

Preheat oven to 180°C and line a slice tray. I used a glass dish and that worked fine.

Sift first measures of flour and sugar into a bowl. Mix in butter until you have a crumb-like texture. You could also do this in a food processor.

Press into tin and bake for around 20 minutes, or until just starting to colour.

Beat eggs and second measure of sugar until pale and thick. Add lemon zest and juice and then sift in second measure of flour. Fold gently to combine fully (don’t stir too hard or the tiny air bubbles in the mixture will skedaddle). Pour over base.

Bake for 30–40 minutes, until set and slightly crispy on top but still gooey in the middle. If it starts to colour too quickly, drop the temperature to around 150°C.

Leave in tin to cool then remove, dust with icing sugar and sprinkle with rosemary flowers (and extra lemon zest if you like) and slice as desired.

You can turn this slice into a decadent dessert by fancying it up with some whipped cream or ice cream and a drizzle of limoncello.

Banana chocolate loaf

IMG_3621I made up this unintentionally dairy-free (apart from the lashings of Lewis Road Creamery salted butter on top), wheat-free, refined-sugar free banana chocolate loaf the other evening when I was craving something sweet and had over-ripe bananas to use up, but didn’t want to leave the house for ingredients I didn’t have in the cupboard already. You can easily substitute the flours and sugars according to what you have in your own pantry, or possibly leave the sugar out completely if you have very ripe bananas. The banana makes it really moist and it’s perfect warmed up and ruined with heaps of butter, with a cuppa.

3/4 cup oat flour (or buckwheat or potato flour, if keeping it wheat free; otherwise use any flour)

3/4 coconut flour (as above)

1/2 cup raw cacao powder (or cocoa powder)

pinch of salt

1 cup coconut sugar

1/2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

2 very ripe bananas, mashed

1 egg

1/3 cup olive or melted coconut oil

1 tbsp cacao nibs

1/2–1 tbsp coconut sugar (or use a grainer sugar such as brown sugar crystals for a crispier crust)

Preheat oven to 180°C. Line a loaf tin or dish with baking paper, leaving a bit of overhang. (I used a glass loaf dish.)

Combine all dry ingredients except cacao nibs and second measure of coconut sugar in a medium–large bowl.

Combine all wet ingredients in a separate bowl, then mix into dry ingredients. Add a little more oil if needed; it should be in between a runny batter and a firmer dough.

Spoon mixture into prepared tin or dish, smooth the top, then sprinkle with cacao nibs and coconut sugar.

Bake for 40 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Lift loaf using the edges of the baking paper and leave to cool slightly.

Eat warm with lots and lots of salted butter to avoid feeling too virtuous or smug.