Last week, this article about the psychological and emotional benefits of baking for others made the baking blog rounds (which I found through Joy the Baker's weekly writeup "Let It Be Sunday!”). For anyone who winds up being a baker in their friend group for all things birthdays, picnics, celebrations, I suspect when you read this article, you were nodding and saying “yes, yes, it me” aloud to your computer monitor, like I was. The points addressed in the article are things I’ve known in my cornball baking heart but haven’t quite been able to articulate in words. (semi-related sidenote: I’m still a pinch timid about my early blogging attempts here at Jo Bagel. I’m a little rusty writing for a public audience, particularly about my personal pursuits. Working on more confidence in that arena. Anyway, thanks for your patience while I find my footing. Prayer hands emoji and all that.)
Baking is a powerful outlet for my self-expression, a release when I’m frustrated, anxious, angry, depressed. It’s also been my non-verbal go-to for saying things like “I’ve been thinking about you”/ ”Thanks for being a lovely friend” / “You seem like a cool person, can I exchange these salted brown butter Rice Krispie treats for friendship?” / “I like working with you, please eat these chocolate glazed donuts with rainbow jimmies” / “I have a crush on you and can only tell you through cookies” / “Ok I know I yelled at you recently, but I still care about you, have a pretzel”.
Admittedly, my baked goods seem to run the gamut feelings.
Yes, baking for friends has been an important part of my life for the past decade, but only recently through Jo Bagel have I discovered the power of baking with friends. The catalyst here of course was baking with my OG Bagel Bud Lewis last year. Without his enthusiasm, his food science curiosities, and his offer to host a number of bagel baking Saturdays & Sundays, I very likely would not be baking bagels at all (or even if I was, I most definitely would not have the courage to share them with others or write about them).
Over 2016, we baked with others, like Lewis’s bud John (who also just happens to make some of the best lox in the city of Austin… I still dream of it…). Then, there’s our lovely friend Colin, a talented home baker and cook himself (once when I was sad, he invited me over and made New Orleans Style Barbecue Shrimp. Forget a pint of ice cream, THAT coupled with a giant baguette is the perfect comfort food to cry into.). Not only did he hand knead and bake bagels with us in his kitchen, we baked nearly 100 bagels for a Bagel Brunch hosted in his home.
40 guests and not a single bagel leftover (also, don't worry, I'll never be brunette again.)
Since launching this site in February, I’ve had a couple opportunities to take the “Jo Bagel show” on the road. Or that is, to take it down the not so far east Austin streets to bake with a couple friends. For a couple months I repeatedly begged to bake in my friend Justin’s kitchen (because, uh, it’s beautiful and knocks the socks off my 1 counter kitchen. Oh, also friendship!). Finally, we found time to bake on a March Friday night and Saturday morning. Not only was it a joy to hang with a bud (and some solid sous chef pups), but I realized it was a great test for me to prep bagels while talking, joking, catching up, and drinking a fair share of evening wine and morning mimosas. Justin also blew me away when he casually mentioned “Oh, by the way I think I’m gonna make some cream cheese”. Making cream cheese has been on my laundry list of things I’d like to do myself, but I’ve been nervous about it, and had no idea I was conveniently baking with a bud who had those skills. Watching Justin pour cream through cheesecloth, I realized cream cheese isn’t the scary beast I’ve been making it in my mind. Stay tuned for some attempts from me…
Cream Cheese Makings in Justin's home
Then, a couple weeks later, I get a Facebook message from Hannah, pitching we bake bagels together. Hannah is a baker/chef/dietitian by trade, who I met in the past couple years through other friends (there should be a word when you add someone on Facebook and you have 35 friends in common from half a dozen friend circles, right?). Prior to this month, we seemed to run into each other in passing but never hang out, though, frankly, she's one of the food talents in Austin I've been admiring from afar but didn't quite have the courage to say "Um hi, you are very cool, let's bake bagels and share baking secrets!". Not only was I excited to bake with Hannah, but when I learned she has a dreamy Hobart commercial stand mixer in her home, I got a bit overeager and suggested we triple my usual batch. That evening, joined by our sweet friend Meg, we wined and dined and gabbed while the bagel sponge fermented. For this round, I may have gotten a bit ambitious tripling my batch in an oven and kitchen I had no experience in, but Hannah helped me keep my usually nonexistent chill. The dough in the mixer looked soupier than usual, and after adding a lot more flour I switched to hand kneading.
"Hrrrrrmmm... I don't know, these bagels probably won't be my best, They might end up a bit ridiculous..." I quietly muttered.
Hannah responded to the effect of "Well yeah, they could, but they're still gonna be bagels", and a low-key shrug that seemed to suggest "Who cares if the bagels you're baking in a friend's home turn out a little odd? Stakes are low here, and these baking learning lessons are still gonna result in some delicious chewy bread". This was a great reminder to reel in my usually second-guessing nature. We made a mountain of bagels, and they may have looked what I affectionately like to call "rustic as fuck", but were still delicious enough for a bagel brunch with Meg, Hannah's mom and Hannah's neighbor (with the extras delivered to other buds). It was a fun time, I learned a number of things about flour, gluten, and baking from Hannah (and also learned I need to grab a copy of Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking"), and I think we're both eager to attempt another adapted round soon.
Our "Rustic AF" Bagels... not entirely uniform, but full of gumption (and delicious)
I could go on about both these baking experiences (and maybe from here on out I'll have some posts dedicated to the buds I bake with, their kitchens, the experience... yes?). There’s something so wonderfully kind for a friend to open up their kitchen to me to bake with them. Perhaps I’m projecting because my own kitchen space (along with this project) feels so very personal to me, but all of these bagel baking moments I’ve had with friends have added almost a new intimate layer in our friendships. Baking with friends has given me a space to gather courage in my baking process, become confident enough to share my baking with others, and learn new skills, new shortcuts, new things about each other (ok, and maybe new gossip too).
Simply, I feel like I’ve had the opportunity to grow closer with all of these friends, and even make new friends, through baking.
Explaining Jo Bagel, in its current state, is a bit of a challenge. It's about bagel baking, but it's not food blog. It’s partly about my neuroses and insecurities and the therapy I find in food, but dear god it’s not a mental health blog. Sure, bageling is a way of life for me… but this ain’t a lifestyle blog. So I broadly call it a “personal project”, but one recurring theme in all my ramblings is community, and the joy I discovered baking for people and baking with people.
The act of baking itself has historically not been a social act for me. I’m very grateful to all of you who have joined in with me over this past year to make it one.