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The Joy of Baking

One cake at a time, a woman learns to nourish the hearts of friends and strangers through food.

By Rachel Meyer

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When I was a little girl, I'd sometimes answer a knock at our front door to find one of the local church ladies bearing a homemade cake. My sisters and I would marvel at the confection delivered in howling winds and subzero temperatures to our remote acreage on the edge of a South Dakota town. Throughout the year, these kind women filled potluck tables with their homemade pies, cakes, and breads in celebration of births, weddings, and harvests; the same desserts were also offered to the sick and grieving. By watching these generous bakers offer the fruits of their kitchen labors to those who could use a sweet surprise, I learned early on the joys of nourishing the heart through food. Making food for friends and family has a powerful effect on both giver and receiver, says Scott Blossom, a Berkeley, California, yoga therapist and Ayurvedic educator. "It's not unlike the kind of nourishment that comes from romantic love. Food prepared with loving intention is spiritual.

A Year of Bundts

As an adult, I rediscovered the practice of baking heartfelt gifts in my new community in San Francisco. At one point, I decided to devote a year to baking cakes as offerings. Every Saturday morning I'd roll out of bed bleary-eyed, fill an empty bundt cake pan with batter, and give the resulting cake to someone in need of comfort or a little celebration. As I listened to the city wake up, I counted and chopped, mixed and measured. And in the process, my mind became still, my breath slowed, my body felt balanced and at peace. What I experienced was more than mixing butter and eggs—it was a practice in baking and giving from the heart.

It all began when my friends Heidi and Jeff were celebrating birthdays in the midst of difficult times: One was heartbroken, the other far from home. They shared a fondness for almonds, and so, after a quick Web search and a trip to the mom-and-pop store around the corner, I set up shop in my small kitchen, armed with a new cake pan and a recipe for a simple almond bundt cake. A few flour-covered hours later, sifting powdered sugar over the nearly finished cake, I felt a connection with the women in my family and community who'd taught me to bake when I was a little girl in South Dakota.

Later, I learned to toast walnuts, make streusel, and adhere rose petals to coconut cream frosting.

I also learned to balance hope for a beautiful confection with a letting-go of expectations, for there were certainly failures. At the same time, I learned that building such a regular practice into my life meant that there would always be a chance to approach each creation as a fresh start. It was the practice that mattered, not the product; the act of the offering, not the offering itself.

Some 60 cakes later, I see now how my "bundt cake Saturdays" have given me a creative outlet that, among other things, reminds me that compassion can transcend urban boundaries. Strangers on the street soften at the sight of my cake caddy, asking if that's a cat I have hiding in there. Even the bus driver will wait patiently for "the cake lady," going out of his way to drop me off at work, where my colleagues light up like children at the prospect of a new flavor to sample.

I've shipped cakes across the country to old college friends and my new goddaughter on the East Coast; buckled them into the back seat for a winding trip to a surprise birthday party in Santa Cruz; and hauled them up steep San Francisco hills to share with a friend going through chemotherapy. In the process, these silly bundts have nurtured burgeoning relationships among strangers, reminding me of the truth of yogic interrelatedness and the power of compassion to comfort the lonely.

Gift Exchange

As word of my practice spread, acquaintances showered me with unexpected gifts: cake molds and mixes, gadgets and glazes, recipes carefully clipped out of newspapers. In this receiving, I realized that when we offer up our labor, time, energy, love, and craft—humble and imperfect as they might be—with no expectation of return, people respond in kind, and tenderness opens up in the spaces between.

A few weeks ago, as I finished making a cake—chocolate decorated with red hibiscus flowers for a potluck with my yoga kula—I realized that my bundt pan is a perfect rendition of the yogic mandala, a whirling chakra, a vortex of energy spinning out hope and sacred intentions in the body. How fitting, I thought, to find here, in this simple pan, a reminder that giving and receiving are circular, that what we put forth with love and intention comes back to us in equal joy.

Rachel Meyer writes about bundt cakes and more at rawrach.blogspot.com.

December 2009

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