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Can you bake your way to happiness? This 'existential baker' is trying to find out

Through the pandemic, Tanya Bush has been documenting her "quest for the pastry panacea."
/ Source: TODAY

On a wintry Thursday night at an impossibly hip natural wine bar in Bushwick, Tanya Bush was running out of plates. She surveyed the room, where seemingly every table had a slice or two of cake alongside glasses of funky orange wine, not so usual a sight in a part of Brooklyn where potato chips are more likely than fanciful sweets to appear as a bar snack. Bush’s eye fell on a stack of saucers and she grabbed them; they would do for the next round of orders. She melted back into the kitchen.

Twenty-five-year-old Bush makes desserts that catch your eye on a menu even before you get a glimpse. That night’s offerings included dark chocolate cake with malted, softly whipped cream and syrupy black cherries, and a richly sticky coconut cake with miso caramel, tart makrut lime whip and toasted coconut chips. Not too shabby for a self-taught home baker. But Bush’s mission extends far beyond her baked goods.

Tanya Bush with one of her creations at Cherry on Top bar in Brooklyn.
Tanya Bush with one of her creations at Cherry on Top bar in Brooklyn. Courtesy Sanaë Lemoine

Growing up in Princeton, New Jersey, Bush was constantly playing around in the kitchen.

"I had a ferocious sweet tooth, so I loved to make my own creations and present them to adults and have them be wowed by whatever four-layer cake that I was making," she told me.

As she got older, she pursued jobs in the baking and restaurant worlds, including a stint at an artisanal ice cream shop, before other interests took her attention. She moved to New York for grad school and was just starting to get her bearings when the pandemic struck. 

'A quest for the pastry panacea'

It was a tough time for all New Yorkers, and Bush, suddenly isolated, was no exception.

"I was confined to my boxy Brooklyn apartment, feeling relentlessly depressed and alienated, as many of us were," she said. "I hadn’t been baking much, but I decided I needed a pastime. It was the heyday of the stress-baking articles, directing you to bake banana bread and tend to your sourdough, and the implication was that that activity would at least alleviate existential dread, if not offer some kind of cure. I was reading those articles and baking, and it wasn’t really having the promised effect. I was like, I just don’t really know if this is the way it’s going to work out for me. So I decided to document a quest for the pastry panacea, if you will."

Bush hadn’t had a personal Instagram account in years when she decided to launch The hyper self-aware Bush admits it was partly because she "wanted a place to publicly complain," but was also looking to "find some camaraderie in the ghastly moment we were in" and "test whether baking, and for me baking sweets specifically, could help quell personal depression and anxiety, and on a broader scale, collective anxiety, because it was this moment of such acute despair for so many people."

Bush’s stunning pastry pictures look at home on any social media feed, but read the captions and you’ll find unusual candor about topics not often touched on in an algorithm-driven world.

'The unsavory truth'

"I’ve been medicated at various junctures in my life, and I’ve seen those 'I’m not in a good place so I’m baking' reels, but no one ever asked, 'Is it working?' And for me, the answer generally is no. My feed has been dominated by a decisive no. I deal with a lot of anxiety. I didn’t set out necessarily to put all of my neuroses on display, but I was seeking honesty and transparency, which is not something that I was seeing a lot of, especially in that first year of the pandemic," she said. "I completely understand the desire for baking to be palliative, but I have only found that it brings me happiness when it becomes a form for connection, whether that be digital or in real life. And I wanted to give that a voice. People weren’t really saying, 'This isn’t helping me a lot.'

"While I understand the myriad reasons people were turning to it as a meditative experience in this moment of crisis, I thought, it’s not going to truly offer an antidote to the ails of our moment and to serious depression and anxiety that I have endured and a lot of us have endured. That’s the unsavory truth."

What the science says

Many of us are familiar with cooking and baking as forms of self-care, and they fall under the umbrella of behavioral activation therapy, where therapists help patients battling feelings of disinterest or despair by finding ways to re-engage them in routine activities. A 2016 study in the Journal of Positive Psychology examined the "emerging emphasis on everyday creativity as a means of cultivating positive psychological functioning" and showed that spending time on creative goals during the day, including cooking and baking, is associated with higher positive affect, i.e., feelings of "flourishing."

Even if you were flourishing before the pandemic, the past few years have done a number on us all, and driven many people to seek comfort close to home.

"I think a lot of people turned towards domestic life during the pandemic," New York City-based psychiatrist Anna Fels told me. "Cooking at home has a lot of profound emotional, comforting qualities. It’s something active you can do when you’re feeling helpless. It’s also true that eating is a profound activity. If you think about what you feel like when you go into a pastry shop and you smell that incredible aroma, it has an emotional impact. I think that food plays a real role in organizing people’s lives, giving them structure, and something to share with family and friends.” 

Vice has reported on similar benefits: "It really does circumvent the symptoms of depression: the inertia, the lack of energy, the lack of focus, the lack of interest," Norman Sussman, director of the Treatment Resistant Depression Program at the NYU School of Medicine, told Vice in 2016. "It takes all your attention. For the time that you’re doing it, there’s nothing else that you’re thinking about."

Fels added that she wouldn’t necessarily recommend cooking and baking as a new hobby for someone who didn’t already like it, but if they did, "I would emphasize that this is a wonderful activity for them to participate in with their family."

Connection through confection

Looking for community and connection, Bush did something that felt scary for reasons both pandemic and personal — she ventured outside of her apartment. On a "glorious spring day" in April 2021, she posted that she would be hosting a cookie giveaway in a Brooklyn park.

"It was the first time I had gathered with more than a couple of friends in a long time. And it brought people from all walks of life. Passersby were definitely curious; they would meander over and ask what was going on. I began chaotically approaching people to ask, 'Would you like cookies?' And sometimes they were like, 'Uh, we shouldn’t take cookies from strangers,'" Bush recalled. "I felt more socially awkward than normal that day because it had been a while. But I remember seeing that it made people happy, and that made me feel useful. And it provided a place for people to enjoy things together and we hadn’t really had that. It made me feel good. That’s the feeling that ultimately inspired me to continue doing what I have been."

For me, there clearly seems to be an interaction between emotional instability and baking."

Tanya Bush

Bush’s Instagram account has grown as she honed her baking skills; part of the appeal for followers lies in the cognitive dissonance between those beautiful pictures and her introspective captions sprinkled with darkly funny confessions, like calling Prozac her "secret ingredient." Lately, she has been particularly interested in examining the way our emotions affect the way we eat.

"I’m finally finding a place to explore both baking and eating sweetly, and writing and thinking critically about food and mood," said Bush. "People message me when things resonate with them, and I obviously want to welcome sharing and camaraderie. I feel really lucky that I am surrounded by a ton of amazing collaborators and supporters who are excited to talk about spiraling and pastry at the same time. For me, there clearly seems to be an interaction between emotional instability and baking."

Serene Sandwich Cookies

For anyone seeking a soothing way to pass an afternoon, or a creative project to provide delightful sustenance, Bush recommended what she calls the "Serene Sandwich Cookies" she made during a recent snowstorm. "They’re basically like spicy peanut butter cookies with miso dulce de leche in the middle. Making the dulce de leche is hands-off, but it’s a long enough process to be serene because you have to spend a few hours simmering a can of condensed milk. And then after that time had passed, my impatience kicked in; I made a screw-it peanut butter cookie dough, where I just threw in a ton of spices and was like, let’s just get after it.

"There are times when I want a project that will require me to exercise some patience and excite me for days, and other times, I need a cake urgently. I appreciate having an idea and bringing it to fruition and ideally if that happens in an hour, that’s better than three days. But multi-day-long projects are exciting to me sometimes too because it’s stretching a muscle."

Bush told me her sandwich cookies were the best of both worlds, so I decided to give them a whirl.

Her recipe gave weighted measurements, which actually produced anxiety rather than relief as I worked to convert them without a scale; I equate scales with stress, whether they are in my bathroom or my kitchen. But cheeky asides kept me smiling, like when she lists "3/4 tsp bs" on her ingredient list. My smile widened when I saw how a can of sweetened condensed milk turned to dulce de leche like magic after three hours in a simmering bath on the stove; I was full-on swooning when she had me stir in miso and that incredible salty umami punch cut through the buttery sweetness of the caramel in the most perfect way.

I tried making Bush’s Serene Sandwich Cookies she developed during a snowstorm. That’s miso dulce de leche between the Sichuan-spiced peanut butter cookies!
I tried making Bush’s Serene Sandwich Cookies she developed during a snowstorm. That’s miso dulce de leche between the Sichuan-spiced peanut butter cookies!Courtesy Emily Gerard

The thing about baking for creative fulfillment rather than a specific purpose is that it leaves you with, well, baked goods. Alone in a house full of cookies, I packed them up for my neighbors who had family visiting from Chile and my gruff landlord, who fixes my sink without any small talk but always accepts a treat. I brought a few to the restaurant owner next door who had signed for a delivery for me so it wouldn’t fall prey to our local package thieves, and some more to Derek, the doorman in the lone staffed building on our block, who always comes outside with a biscuit when I walk by with my dog.

Like Bush, I have also loved baking from a young age. It’s such an easy way to make someone smile.