Recently, I found myself stuck in Groundhog Day for some indiscriminate amount of time. This Groundhog Day had not much of the cynical wit of Bill Murray, nor the lightness and charm of Andie MacDowell.
This was a period of time driven by anxiety. Routine had been replaced by internalised chaos and not much (if any) thought had been put into what I was making in the kitchen. I needed a touchstone to pull me back in.
My touchstone of choice? Bread, or more specifically, dough. This raw, prehistoric invention became my stress ball. It was something that I could physically get a grasp on; have tangible understanding over in a time where I was struggling to accept the “new norm”. Unable to turn the volume down on the niggles in my broogle (that’s brain to you), I needed to use my hands and let them do the thinking instead. Aside from cooking, I paint, which means I’m well-versed in the therapeutic benefits of busying your hands. Homemade doughnuts were the task that I had decided upon. If warm, deep-fried balls of enriched dough, coated in sugar and stuffed with jam didn’t do the trick, then I’d already accepted full hibernation as my next option.
I’ve been counting the coronavirus pandemic in seasons — not the binge-worthy Netflix type, but the often difficult to move on from nature-type of season. It’s Autumn (the third trimester of the Corona year) and I have been eagerly watching the trees, waiting for them to produce their seasonal bounty. If 2020 has given me anything, it’s been a deeper appreciation for the ebb and flow of seasons changing. With jam for my doughnuts in mind, I set off to find fruit. Not quite the epic hike I’d psyched myself up for, I came across a hoard just a few metres from my house. After weeks of blistering sunshine, the damson tree that dominates the front garden of an abandoned chalet nearby had deposited its goods. The scorched grass was now covered in a carpet of deep indigo fruit which was getting plusher by the minute as more damsons fell to the ground with a dull thud. Picking my way through the fallen fruit, I assessed which damsons were worth popping into my paper bags. As I methodically rolled each plum between thumb and and forefinger, I was creating a subconscious check list:
- Untarnished velvet skin, free from bruises and piercings.
- Size no bigger than a tablespoon but no smaller than a teaspoon to ensure a higher fruit to stone ratio.
- A squish factor similar to the fleshiest bit of your palm.
- Darker in colour – inky black with the iridescent tone of Indigo – like an oil slick.
With sticky, violet fingers I brought my jewels home. This simple act of foraging had awoken something deep inside the primal parts of my brain. The muscle memory that was stored in my ancestral fingerprint knew how to take over. My hands rinsed the fruit in glacial water of a nearby mountain stream, they fumbled out stones, weighed, stirred, poured and got burnt in new-found enthusiasm. Four radiant jars of damson jam sat on my worktop as a warm Autumnal glow filled my kitchen; I realised in that moment why Alice Walker had decided to title her novel, The Colour Purple.
Jam down, doughnuts to go. For once, thankful for my poorly equipped kitchen, I set to make dough without machinery to speed things up but with the tools that I am most familiar with. My hands weighed, sifted, mixed, kneaded, folded, pushed and stretched. As the dough transformed from a sticky, gloopy mess to something pliable and full of potential, so did my thoughts. Syncing in perfect harmony with my brain, my seasoned chef hands worked to rebuild my self-esteem. Realising that I could literally do this with my eyes closed, all I needed was the power of touch to tell me when the dough was ready. Knocking back the dough became a symbolic gesture of punching out “Shitty Brain”.
Anybody who knows me well enough will tell you that elegance is not an attribute that I can boast about. I possess about as much spatial awareness as a pinball in a pinball machine and having the proportions of a baby giraffe in platforms doesn’t help. The kitchen however is my domain, a place that my limbs have adjusted to and my hands understand. That day, and like most time spent in the kitchen, my hands moved with the fluidity and playfulness of leaping dolphins. When words often fail me or my confidence takes a beating, my hands remember what to do, how to manifest creativity.
My touchstone had evolved throughout the day. What stared as a bowl of flour and a couple of basic elements — water and air, had turned into a living, breathing ingredient. Waiting for dough to proof is a form of meditation, both require patience and strong-will. Unlike meditation however, which promises a lowered heart rate and maybe enlightenment if you stick at it long enough, making dough promises instant gratification — a sweet, yeasty treat, laced with nostalgia. Again, muscle-memory kicked in. My hands rolled, cradled, lowered, turned, sprinkled and squeezed until each and every dough ball had been fried, sugar-coated and filled to the brim with jam.
In a time where touch is taboo as hands are seen as perpetrators of disease, mine had reminded me that I was OK. They had given me a quick win. My hands had made something, something small but something good enough to give me the confidence to tackle something a bit bigger. Doughnuts, of course always help.
Sink your hands (and teeth) into your own homemade dough with my doughnut recipe and experiment with new and classic fillings.