Even before my dad died 2 weeks ago, I was fighting a battle with depression that started after I had my hysterectomy in March and persisted through the summer, which is usually my happy season.
I started coping by baking, staying up all night on weekends making soups and stews and cookies and breads, because apparently “depression baking” or “grief baking” is a documented thing that people sometimes do.
I liked staying up all night baking because it made me feel like I accomplished something substantial in a night that could be enjoyed by everyone in the house, unlike making art, which usually takes longer than a night, no one cares about it but me, and it gets thrown in the dark recesses of my portfolio after it’s finished.
Whenever I was choosing a baking project, the goal was always to make something “happy”, whether it be a nostalgic recipe like snickerdoodles or roasting pumpkin seeds like my mom did when I was little, or happy looking like these pinwheel cookies, which I made purely for aesthetics because I actually don’t really like them. Looking at them and creating them made me happy for a few hours though, which was a brief reprieve from the suicidal ideations plaguing my bipolar brain, and that joy transferred to friends on Instagram and Facebook, so it doesn’t really matter if I actually ate them or not.
Since my depression and grief were manifesting in the form of sugary confections, I knew precisely what to do with the gift card for Michael’s that my work sent me with their condolences about my dad: I spent the whole thing in the fancy baking aisle, an aisle I had never been in before but was vaguely aware of its existence.
The first thing I was struck by were the cookie cutters because there was a set of small, basic shapes that my great-grama used to also have – the exact same shapes – and I was hit with the nostalgia of baking sugar cookies with her at midnight when I was sleeping over but neither of us could actually sleep. Suddenly I wanted to make sugar cookies in as many fun shapes as possible, so I tossed a heart, a star, a flamingo, a pineapple, and a sunflower in my cart, along with the set of 6 small shapes that reminded me of my grama.
I also knew I wanted to make cupcakes because dammit, I love cupcakes, and I invested in some disposable icing bags, couplers, and tips, with the idea that I could decorate the cupcakes all fancy-like with no training or experience whatsoever. Since I knew I was gonna be making cupcakes, I thought I’d make them more interesting by purchasing a mini cupcake pan and heart-shaped, silicone baking moulds, as well as pink and yellow cupcake wrappers, colours I instinctively put in my cart because they were the happiest ones in the aisle.
I also got pink edible glitter, pink sanding sugar, pink and yellow sprinkles, yellow pineapple sprinkles, pink flower sprinkles, pink metallic sphere sprinkles, silver star sprinkles, candy eyes, pink sparkle gel icing, and a white-enamelled, metal cake stand.
On our way home from Michael’s, we stopped off at the grocery store and I got Rainbow Bit cake mix (that’s what “Birthday Cake” flavour is called in Canada) for the cupcakes, 2 bags of icing sugar to ice the cookies, and 2 boxes of 8 different vials of food colouring. By the time we got home, it was cold and dark and I was tired, so I took my loot out of the bags and put it all on the kitchen table and went to bed.
I woke up crying a few hours later at 2am after having a dream about my dad and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I brought my pillow out to the couch and played Animal Crossing on my phone in the dark until the sun came up. Then it was time to start my Lovely Money Job, which I also did from the couch, and spent the first hour crying because I was feeling depressed and miserable.
Finally, maybe around 8:30am, I got up to go to the bathroom and get a drink from the kitchen, and when I walked into the kitchen, the sun started shining its guts out and streamed through the window, illuminating the kitchen table and the goodies from Michael’s that were heaped upon it that, until that very moment, I had completely forgotten about. My heart swelled three sizes with inspiration, so I quickly jotted down all of the decorative ingredients that I’d got, and brought my notebook back with me to the couch so I could sketch what the cookies and cupcakes should look like during work breaks.
To say I was stoked was an understatement and it felt good to be excited and inspired about something rather than depressed and miserable and playing the “what if…?” game with myself 24 hours a day like I’d been doing ever since my dad died, even though I knew from previous experience that that was a dangerous game to play, especially when you have a lying bipolar brain like I do. I could barely contain my enthusiasm during the 4 hours I had to work and ended up gushing to my coworkers about my plans, which I thought was okay since the gift card was technically from everyone at work.
I had to find a sugar cookie and icing recipe, and printed two out from Pinterest, then I searched the site for cooking decorating inspiration to see if anything cool and doable popped out at me. Somehow I found myself on Sweetopia.net, which is a site run by a professional cookie artist, and I spent my whole shift watching her ice cookies in fast motion on YouTube while I worked. As it turned out, I had no idea how to actually ice a cookie or cupcake until I went to this woman’s website, and, deciding she was an expert, I ditched the recipes I printed out before and decided to go with hers instead.
By the time noon rolled around and my shift was over, I was borderline manic and was just waiting for my Wellbutrin alarm to beep at 12:05pm to begin baking, like waiting for a starter pistol to go off and shoot sweet, sweet serotonin straight to the core of my brain.
The Sweetopia lady had a post with how she schedules her cookie-making, so I knew what I was envisioning was going to take me a few days, especially because I was going to be making cupcakes as well. I decided on one day to bake the cookies and make the Royal Icing, one day to do the first layer of cookie icing and make the cupcakes, and on the third day, I’d finish the cookie details and ice the cupcakes. Since I was starting on a Wednesday, I would be finishing on Friday, and I would have all these desserts which Blake and Wes won’t eat and I can only eat so much of, so I thought if I finished on time, we could take everything to my mom’s and share with her and her fiance, John.
Making the cookies was relatively easy because as I previously mentioned, I’d made the exact same kind of sugar cookie with my great-grama from the time I was wee. Chilling the dough before cutting out the shapes took an hour, then I had to take the scrap dough from the cuttings, smoosh them all together, and then chill that ball of dough for another hour before cutting out the rest of the shapes. Of course, after the shapes were cut, those shapes also had to be chilled in the fridge for an hour before baking so that the cookies would hold their shape better and were less likely to spread. I didn’t count how many cookies I baked total, but I used all four of my cookie sheets to do it, and in the end, there were an awful lot. Some of them I rolled too thin so they were too brown and crunchy to bother icing, but I ate those ones and they were probably the best ones of the whole bunch, in my opinion. The flavour and texture of the plain, browned sugar cookie brought me right back to my great-grama’s tiny, yellow kitchen. Sometimes we would ice the cookies using a glaze of milk, a bit of food colouring, and icing sugar, but usually she would just let me add chocolate chips or sprinkles. I distinctly remember her having a goose-shaped cookie cutter and I always gave that cookie a chocolate chip eye.
Making the icing was pretty straight forward because it only had 3 ingredients, and I divided it into for bowls, one for each colour. The colours I chose were turquoise (or as close as I could get it with liquid food colouring), pink, yellow, and lime green. Using the piping bags was a new experience that took some getting used to, but once I got the hang of it, creating the first icing layer of the cookies was relatively easy. The only time I had a problem, really, was when I was trying to control the yellow icing because making it the colour of yellow I wanted it to be required me adding like, 1 tablespoon of liquid food colouring, which thinned the icing enough that it pretty much poured out of the tip. I ended up chilling all four icing bags in the fridge for an hour before attempting to ice the cookies again, and they behaved much better after doing that, so I got the first cookie icing layer done the first day, putting me well on schedule to be finished by Friday.
My dad and my brother were never far from my thoughts the whole time I was doing all of this and I was already disappointed that my brother wasn’t coming for Thanksgiving, so I knew if I invited him to my mom’s on Friday to share these treats, he would probably say no to that too, so I didn’t ask him.
Baking cupcakes from a box is not exactly rocket surgery so obviously I did it flawlessly…aside from the fact that I didn’t think to grease the heart-shaped, silicone baking moulds so my cupcakes were hard to get out in one piece. I ended up leaving them in the moulds. As the cupcakes cooled, I finished the 2nd icing layer on the cookies and planned a strategy for decorating my “dream cupcakes” with specific mixes of sprinkles to be used with specific cupcake wrapper and icing colours.
As soon as I finished dropping the pink edible glitter onto the white vanilla icing swirl of the first mini cupcake, I was aesthetically in looove and my brain was pinging with visual ideas. I wanted to draw this cupcake, I wanted to paint this cupcake in watercolours. I ate the cupcake, then decorated two dozen more as I flipped through photographic possibilities in my mind. If I went to my mom’s on Friday, I could use her antique dishes, my new cake stand, and a few props to stage a cupcake and cookie photo shoot. I checked the weather and the sun was supposed to shine all day, so I’d have good light. I had specific shots in my head and this became the goal. Life seems so bleak right now that being consumed by a creative idea and staying busy was a gift.
The photos didn’t turn out perfect, the ISO was too high because Blake was in a dark room when the camera was last used and I didn’t think to change it, so the pictures are a little grainier than I would have liked, but considering they’re for posterity purposes only, I think they’re okay. Hopefully they bring you a bit of the joy I had while shopping, planning, baking, decorating, and creating them.