Kitchen Shrink: The Therapeutic Kitchen

KITCHEN SHRINK:

Ahh, the heady aromas of fruit pies, cinnamon buns and chocolate chip cookies perfuming the house are both nostalgic and intoxicating. But the whole baking process to me, including measuring, blending, kneading, rolling, pouring, and decorating is a calming cakewalk (pardon the pun).

As long as you follow directions closely, the end product will be divine. And even though creativity is limited by the fixed methodology, there is still some leeway, especially when doing the finishing touches. All-in-all, baking is a fine distraction or escape from your problems at hand.

But the pièce de résistance — the masterpiece that emerges from the oven, gives a great feeling of accomplishment, and instant gratification. Then when serving the delight, you nurture with a slice of love, which tends to warm one's own heart.

But for those intimidated by baking, some "coping mechanisms" to help embrace the process, include using light-colored cookie sheets and pans to lessen the chance of burning the bottoms of cookies, crusts and cakes. Also, the middle oven rack, along with parchment paper, are a baker's best friends to prevent overbrowning, and heavy-duty mitts will protect you from burns.

It's also OK to cheat a little with ready-made (high-quality and organic) crusts, pie fillings, puffed pastries, and doughs.

• Baking vs Cooking

While baking's more of a structured event, a symphony where the players follow the maestro, on the other hand, cooking is a jazz improvisation with a lot more flurry and creativity. It's still a good distraction from life's worries, creating a calming effect. Yet, people angst over cooking, perhaps because they're preparing dishes for others to judge.

So to alleviate the stress of cooking for a crowd (and pull off a seamless dinner party or gathering), plot out a game plan. Compile a guest list with their dietary tastes and restrictions, then create a menu.

Shop in advance, and buy local, seasonal, sustainable and organic, where possible.

Finally, prep and cook ahead. Some foods actually taste better days after they are made as flavors meld, developing a rich complexity. Many dishes can be frozen or refrigerated, then simply reheated on the day of the event.

How 'bout some bittersweet chocolate with cocoa content of 70 percent or higher to boost your mood and makes us all a little more mellow and happy, thanks to high levels of antioxidants, namely polyphenols and flavonols. A recent Swiss study has also shown the darling to lessen stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.

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••• Recipe: Super Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Fondue

Ingredients:

• 1/2-cup heavy whipping cream

• 1/4-cup hazelnut or almond milk

• 1-teaspoon hazelnut extract

• 20 ounces semisweet chocolate chips or chunks

• 1/4-cup chocolate liqueur or Frangelico

Dippables: (Your choice) Dried apricots, pineapple chunks, tangerine segments, almond biscotti, jumbo strawberries, ladyfingers

Method: In a small saucepan on medium heat, bring cream to a soft boil. Remove from heat and add chocolate. Stir until melted. Blend extract and liqueur. If too thick, stir in milk. Transfer to fondue pot and arrange dipping items on a platter.

Catharine Kaufman can be reached by e-mail: kitchenshrink@san.rr.com

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