Quarantine Baking in Times of Crisis

Jenny G. Zhang wrote . . . . . . . . .

As the novel coronavirus outbreak continues to spread across the U.S., more and more people are staying put inside their homes, whether because they’re at high risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19, their employers are allowing them to work remotely, or they’re choosing to limit contact with others in an effort to mitigate the transmission of the virus for the sake of more vulnerable populations, otherwise known as “flattening the curve.” Unsurprisingly, those who are stuck at home with no conclusive end in sight are hungry for ways to pass the time, judging by the sheer amount of articles about what to stream, how to keep kids entertained, and how to “kill boredom” during a quarantine.

Among the plethora of activities one could do with an abundance of free time at home, baking seems to be a no-brainer. Just scroll through Instagram, or do a quick Twitter search for “anxiety baking” or “stress baking,” and you’ll find all the cakes, pies, and cookies that momentary recluses are taking solace in these days.

Baking in troubled times is nothing new: anxiety baking, as documented by The Atlantic’s Amanda Mull, and “procrastibaking,” as covered by Julia Moskin at New York Times, are both phenomena that have gained new purchase in recent years, a response to present-day collective distress and working conditions. American millennials “seem to have turned to weekend baking as a salve for the ambient anxiety of being alive,” Mull writes; as writer Kat Kinsman told her, baking is a form of self-care, one that’s cheap, easy, and visceral. Meanwhile, procrastibaking — defined by Moskin as “the practice of baking something completely unnecessary, with the intention of avoiding ‘real’ work — is also an answer to stress, often the kind manifested in work. Paraphrasing the words of psychology professor Tim Pychyl, Moskin writes: “procrastibaking … is an unconsciously deployed strategy that makes us feel skilled, nurturing and virtuous in the present while distracting us from the future.”

In the midst of a pandemic, who couldn’t use a salve for their anxiety, or a way to put off thinking about the looming question mark that is the future? In countries like China and South Korea, where COVID-19 transmission has confined residents to their homes for an even longer period of time, “quarantine cooking” has emerged as a common way to pass the time, as people watch online cooking lessons, challenge themselves to make creative uses of limited ingredients, and follow the same viral recipes, often posting and hashtagging the results.

But quarantine baking is not quite the same as quarantine cooking, which often centers around stir fries, soups and stews, or other cobbled-together savory dishes that can be eaten as full meals. In terms of practicality, you could say that sweet baked goods fall somewhere closer to the bottom on a list of necessities during a time of crisis, according to food writer Charlotte Druckman, editor of the book Women on Food. After all, one can only eat so much dessert, and the average person probably doesn’t have heaps of empty space in their fridges and freezers to store multiple loaves of banana bread and pound cake.

But to some, the frivolity is kind of the point of such forms of stress baking; “the content of your product should not be something that you need to make in order to meet your daily nutritional needs,” one procrastibaker told Moskin. For Katie Okamoto, a Los Angeles-based writer who has been baking while under self-quarantine, baked goods are an indulgence, but one better attained through her own labor, rather than buying something off the shelves while stocking up on canned and dried goods earlier this month.

“If you’re spending all this money upfront to buy tons of cans of San Marzano and olive oil, things that actually do make your food budget seem above what it should be for a month because you’re stocking up, you’re probably not going to want to be buying cookies,” says Okamoto. But, she points out, you can buy butter and sugar — which can last for a long time without going bad — and use those ingredients to make the cookies you want, before baking or freezing them for later. “It’s stuff you can squirrel away, but it’s comforting, and it’s indulgent, and I think we all need that right now,” she says.

For Okamoto, quarantine baking is as much about the process as it is about the final product. “It’s a meditative process,” she says, noting that using her hands for baking means she is not on her phone or obsessing over the news. “It may not be the same serotonin as doing exercise, but it’s similar. I’m definitely doing it for mental health.”

That line of thinking has been echoed in other writers’ admissions of why they bake, and even by psychiatry professionals. “Baking is mindful. Mindfulness means paying attention to yourself in the moment and not being in the past or the future, but really being there,” Philip Muskin, a Columbia University psychiatry professor and the secretary of the American Psychiatry Association, told Mull for The Atlantic. As Mull writes: “Muskin says it can have an emotional impact akin to practices that are intended to more directly affect mood, such as meditation or breathing exercises.”

Baking can also imbue a sense of control and creativity, according to Druckman. “I think a lot of it has to do with control, a feeling that you started something and you completed it within a certain period of time,” she says. “A lot of times there’s a disconnect between me craving something and me wanting to bake something … I have a creative idea, I want to find out what happens when I put malt powder into this cake. It stops being about the fact that I ever wanted to eat the cake. I wanted to see what would happen, I wanted to write out the recipe and see if it works.”

Okamoto, who expressed anxiety as a person who has asthma — a preexisting condition that could make her a “high-risk” individual if exposed to COVID-19 — articulated a similar desire for a sense of control and stabilization: “There’s a certain reliability to it. If you cream butter and sugar, you get cookies. That’s one of those things that, no matter what happens in the news, will always be true.”

There is, admittedly, something a little absurdist about the idea of baking a cake during a pandemic — especially in the framing of some of these social media posts, which combine the jitteriness of unease with a parallel-universe expression of abundant leisure time that is normally reserved for staycations. There’s a sense of being sequestered in an apocalyptic adult snow day, at least for those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to work from home, outside the front lines of risk that healthcare workers, gig workers, individuals in the service industry, and so many other people have to live and operate in.

Desserts might be trivial, but sometimes triviality should be embraced. We’re living in absurdist times, after all, and everyone — for the sake of their mental and physical health — deserves a coping mechanism that lends some sense of structure in a chaotic world. Especially one you can share with other people (assuming you’re diligent about keeping a clean kitchen and are regularly washing your hands while preparing food). Okamoto, for instance brings granola and cookies to her fellow self-quarantined, high-risk neighbors. She says: “It’s a way of being connected to people. That’s one of the ways to show care.”

And if you, like many isolated home bakers across the country, have no one to whom you can give the products of your labor — well, as Quartz’s Chase Purdy suggests, you can consider them a gift to yourself. Thank you, and you’re welcome.

Source: Eater

Steamed Hot Chocolate Pudding


1/2 cup dark chocolate, grated
2 Tbsp milk
2 Tbsp brandy
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup butter or margarine, softened
4 Tbsp dark brown sugar
2 Tbsp ground almonds
2 eggs, beaten
1 Tbsp coffee extract or very strong coffee, cooled
icing sugar and grated semi-sweet chocolate, for decoration


  1. Lightly butter a 1-quart pudding dish.
  2. Slowly melt the chocolate with the milk and brandy in a bowl over hot water.
  3. Sift the flour into a mixing bowl and cut in the butter until the mixture resembles bread crumbs.
  4. Stir in the sugar, ground almonds, eggs, coffee extract and melted chocolate mixture.
  5. Spoon the batter into the pudding dish, cover with pleated wax paper and foil secured with string. Steam, covered, for 1-1/2 to 2 hours or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.
  6. Turn the pudding out onto a warmed serving plate, dust with icing sugar, and sprinkle with grated chocolate.
  7. Serve hot with custard or cream on the side.

Makes 4 servings.

Source: Steam Cuisine

Lower-Sodium Turkey Breast Wins Sensory Test Over Full-Salt Option

University of Massachusetts Amherst food scientists produced a lower-salt processed turkey that consumers in a blind sensory test preferred to a full-salt version, according to a study published in the international journal LWT-Food Science and Technology.

“This isn’t the holy grail, but it is one strategy that can help reduce salt content in processed foods,” says senior author Amanda Kinchla, extension associate professor of food science.

Researchers like Kinchla and her team are constantly looking for ways to reduce sodium in food products because so many health risks are associated with a diet high in sodium, including high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease and kidney problems. Americans typically consume more than half of their calories from ultra-processed food, which is the top source of sodium in the typical diet. Processed deli meats fall into this high-sodium category.

“The U.S. significantly overconsumes sodium from so many places,” Kinchla says. “We know this, but we aren’t changing. Consumers don’t want to buy food with known reduced salt, because they think it’s going to taste yucky.”

Processed foods are high in sodium because of the sodium diffusion that takes place inside the food during processing. Food product developers have discovered that they can manipulate the size of salt particles and use less if the salt hits the tongue first and lingers. “That is amazing and clever, but it doesn’t work with deli meat or foods with a lot of water. The salt will dissolve; you can’t keep it on the surface,” Kinchla explains.

Under Kinchla’s guidance, food science Ph.D. candidate Janam Pandya and undergraduate student Kelsey Decker tested out a novel way to reduce the excessive amount of sodium in processed turkey meat by using different sodium salt species.

The food scientists used turkey breast meat as a protein model to investigate whether limiting the sodium diffusion rates could reduce overall sodium while maintaining a quality of saltiness that consumers accept. To test this out, they incorporated sodium anionic salts, which held a larger structure or molecular weight than sodium chloride, or table salt.

“We processed a portion of turkey breast in traditional sodium chloride [table salt] and in these other salt species and measured a lot of different things: the morphology, texture and the sodium diffusion rate in the meat with different variables, such as processing time, temperature and salt conditions,” lead researcher Pandya explains.

The scientists then recruited 46 people on the UMass Amherst campus to participate in a sensory evaluation experiment of three different turkey samples: the control sample with full salt; and two with reduced sodium, one using disodium phosphate and the other a blend of sodium chloride and disodium phosphate.

The overall favorite was the turkey processed with a 50-50 blend of sodium chloride and disodium phosphate. It had 20% less sodium than the full-salt control, compared to 41% less sodium in the disodium phosphate sample. “Sensory results reported that the turkey prepared in a blend of two sodium salts was perceived to be as salty as the control while providing juiciness and texture scores that were preferred over the control,” the study states.

Kinchla explains the results: “In our study, the use of sodium salts with a larger molecular structure, such as disodium phosphate, slowed down the overall sodium diffusion rate inside the turkey meat but left enough sodium on the surface of the meat for people to perceive enough saltiness,” she says.

The study’s “promising results” suggest this is just one of the potentially successful strategies food scientists can pursue to make processed food healthier. “One approach is to find several small ways across the food supply to lower sodium without compromising the quality of the product,” Kinchla says.

Source: University of Massachusetts Amherst

Researchers Find Our Brains are Powerful, but Secretive

Talor Kubota wrote . . . . . . . . .

When Stanford University neuroscientist Brian Knutson tracked his smartphone usage, he was shocked to learn that he spent twice as much time on his phone as he had anticipated.

Research investigating the neuroscience of choice have found that our brains hold hidden information about the viral potential of online videos. (Image credit: Getty Images)

“In many of our lives, every day, there is often a gap between what we actually do and what we intend to do,” said Knutson, who is a professor of psychology in the School of Humanities and Sciences, reflecting on his smartphone habits. “We want to understand how and why people’s choices lead to unintended consequences – like wasting money or even time – and also whether processes that generate individual choice can tell us something about choices made by large groups of people.”

Toward that end, Knutson and colleagues are investigating an approach he calls “neuroforecasting” – in which they use brain data from individuals who are in the process of making decisions to forecast how larger groups of unrelated people will respond to the same choices. His lab’s latest neuroforecasting work in collaboration with researchers at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, published Mar. 9 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focused on how people spend time watching videos online.

By scanning people’s brains as they selected and watched videos, the researchers discovered that both neural and behavioral responses to a video could forecast how long other people will watch that same video on the internet. When forecasting video popularity on the internet, however, brain responses were the only measure that mattered.

“Here, we have a case where there is information contained in subjects’ brain activity that allows us to forecast the behavior of other, unrelated, people – but it’s not necessarily reflected in their self-reports or behavior,” explained Lester Tong, a graduate student in the Knutson lab. “One of the key takeaways here is that brain activity matters, and can even reveal hidden information.”

Cerebral secrets

The researchers analyzed data from 36 participants, who watched videos while being scanned with a brain imaging technique known as fMRI. The researchers also monitored participants’ behavior – like whether they chose to skip a video – and asked them questions about each video, like how it made them feel and whether they thought it would be popular. Then, they examined how those same videos performed on the internet in terms of daily views and average duration of viewings.

Because videos are complex and change over time, the researchers specifically examined brain responses to the start and end of videos, as well as average responses to each video. They focused on activity in brain regions previously shown to predict peoples’ willingness to spend money.

The researchers found that longer video views were associated with activity in reward-sensitive regions of the brain, while shorter video views were associated with activity in regions sensitive to arousal or punishment. The subjects’ answers to questions about the videos also predicted their own behavior.

When it came to forecasting the behavior of others online, however, the data told a different story. Both the group’s behavior and brain activity forecasted how long people would watch the videos online. However, only group brain activity forecasted the popularity (or views per day) of each video online. During just the first four seconds of watching each video, more activity in the brain region associated with anticipating reward forecasted a video’s popularity online, whereas heightened activity in the region associated with anticipating punishment forecasted decreased popularity.

“If we examine our subjects’ choices to watch the video or even their reported responses to the videos, they don’t tell us about the general response online. Only brain activity seems to forecast a video’s popularity on the internet,” explained Knutson, who co-leads the NeuroChoice Initiative of the Stanford Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute.

This and related research indicate that some steps of the choice process may prove more useful for broad neuroforecasting than others. By teasing out the specifics of which steps matter, the researchers think neuroforecasting might even apply across groups of different ages, genders, races or cultures when they show similar early neural responses.

Valuable choices

These findings suggest similarities between neuroforecasting how people spend time and how they spend money online, which the team has previously studied in non-traditional markets, including online markets for micro-loans and crowdfunding.

Source: Stanford University

Gene Tests May Guard Older Breast Cancer Patients Against Other Tumors

Serena Gordon wrote . . . . . . . . .

A significant number of older women with breast cancer may have genetic mutations that put them at risk of additional cancers, particularly ovarian cancer, a new study finds.

The researchers said that as many as one in 40 postmenopausal women with breast cancer before age 65 has a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.

Currently, the guidelines emphasize genetic testing in women who have a strong family history of these mutations. A well-publicized risk group is women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. These women face about a 2.5% increased risk of having these mutations, study author Dr. Allison Kurian said.

“Most women survive breast cancer, and a healthy woman may live quite a while after breast cancer treatment. Could this person get breast cancer again? What about ovarian cancer? I think this risk should be discussed with them,” Kurian said. She’s an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology and population health at Stanford University, in California.

“We found the likelihood of carrying a BRCA mutation was about 2.5% in postmenopausal women diagnosed with breast cancer when they were under 65,” she noted. When the investigators included older women diagnosed with breast cancer, there was a 3.5% risk of a BRCA or other mutation in the group.

Funding was provided by Myriad Genetics, the Suzanne Pride Bryan Fund for Breast Cancer Research, the Jan Weimer Faculty Chair in Breast Oncology, and the BRCA Foundation. Myriad Genetics makes the genetic tests.

Kurian said in addition to family history, doctors often take age into account when deciding whether or not to suggest genetic testing.

The study included previously collected data on nearly 162,000 women between 1993 and 1998. The women were aged 50 to 79, and were from all over the United States.

From that larger group of women, the researchers compared nearly 2,200 women who were diagnosed with breast cancer to just over 2,300 women without the disease. The average age of women with a breast cancer diagnosis was 73.

In the whole breast cancer group, the researchers found a 3.5% genetic mutation rate. Just 1.3% of women without breast cancer had the genetic mutations, the findings showed.

Only about one-third of the women who had breast cancer and were found to have BRCA mutations had been recommended for genetic testing. In the women without cancer, but who had a BRCA mutation, only one in five had been recommended by their doctor for genetic testing.

Robert Smith, the senior vice president for cancer screening at the American Cancer Society, said this was an interesting study that suggests there may be value in testing this older group of women who’ve already had breast cancer.

“The guideline-developing groups will look at this information to help inform their recommendations. This study will have to be put into context with other studies, but this data suggests this [genetic testing in postmenopausal women with breast cancer] is something to consider,” Smith said.

Kurian said the test isn’t expensive. She said the usual out-of-pocket cost for someone with insurance is about $100. For women without insurance, she said the cost is about $250 or less.

The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Source: HealthDay

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