Using Baking and Cake decorating as a therapeutic tool to help me along my personal journey with a disability
Author: Debbie, Baking for Therapy
Hi, I’m Debbie and in 2012 an accident damaged my spinal cord leaving me unable to work. This was a life changing event that I found difficult to cope with, both physically and emotionally. During therapy, I was advised to find a couple of things I enjoyed and focus on how I could still manage to do them.
At the time I was Chair of, and an active performer in a local Panto Society. Thanks to their support, I eventually made it back on stage, using a variety of sticks as props, and indulging in one of my favourite pastimes, singing, and passing on my skills to our younger members. As a wonderful bonus, both my children were actively involved also, and my son met his future wife during rehearsals of ‘Puss in Boots’!
I also decided, with the aid of probably every kitchen gadget known to man, to try my hand at baking and cake decorating. I discovered a treasure chest of free tutorials on YouTube which have enabled me to master new techniques, and as I improved, I created a Facebook page where I posted pictures of my cakey creations. To my surprise (and delight) friends started asking me to make cakes for them, and I get a fantastic sense of achievement from doing so. I've always loved baking but my two 'kids' had been the only recipients of my efforts up till then. My ‘babies’ now like to challenge me to make a different novelty cake every year! (Do they ever grow up? I hope not 😀)
My baking and involvement in the Panto Society have become very important therapeutic outlets for me, but I couldn’t do either of them without the support of my very special family and friends, who have helped me through some tough times.
Because of Children in Entertainment regulations, I have focused this blog mainly on the baking side of my ‘therapy’, but you may still get a few Panto related posts now and then.
And if reading any of my posts helps you to find your own therapeutic outlet, I hope you will share your journey with me too.
Stay safe and healthy
I can’t believe that it’s been a month since I posted!
Preparations for the Christmas Fair went much slower than I anticipated, as my helper (Mum) ended up being ill for 2 weeks, so I just had to soldier on as best as I could.
Up to the week before, I concentrated on things that could be prepared in advance, and just took it slowly which was fine.
Of the things I had planned to make fresh…fudge, gingerbread, shortbread etc…..only the fudge got made and packaged. As I also had a Children in need cake to make, I just couldn’t find time for the others without making myself physically ill!
I had Mum to help package and label from a few days before when she had recovered, and Glen (hubby) to do the delivery and set up with me.
However, 2 days afterwards I received a call from the organiser asking for more fudge and Christmas cakes! This meant buying more supplies, making the fudge, allowing it to set, and packaging up another 6 batches to take over! And decorating another half dozen Christmas cakes!
In the end, I brought very little back home with me, which was a great result. However, it did mean making yet more fudge and reindeer hot chocolate cones for my local church Christmas fair last Saturday!
In amongst all this I also ‘tested’ 2 versions of a new Sugar and Crumbs flavoured icing (cream cheese, mmmm yummy, more on that next time) made 2 birthday cakes, and cupcakes and scones for the Ladies fellowship Christmas lunch! And had an early ‘Christmas’ celebration with my son and daughter in law as they are away in New Zealand and Australia for most of December. Add Panto rehearsals into the mix, and my time management almost went out of the window!….almost.
I managed by scaling back and doing only what was essential. As mentioned earlier, that meant not taking some of the things I’d planned to take, but it was the only way I could make it work.
All was going to the ‘new’ plan, when more spanners were thrown into the works last week, with my poor hubby copping for it. Firstly by having a cluster of three migraines, and then by seriously hurting his back. Luckily family and friends rallied round to help, God bless them, but he is still in a lot of pain ☹️
My son and Mum helped set up and clear away at the Church Christmas Fair, and friends have been giving me lifts as hubby can’t even get into the car let alone drive it! My son also came to take the dog out for a proper walk, and picked up what was left of my Christmas fair stock to take to work.
I’m really hoping that Glen is well enough to attend the Panto Christmas meal on Friday evening, but will have to play that one by ear. At the moment it’s looking unlikely ☹️
Anyway, here are a few pictures of what I managed to do over the last few weeks. Unfortunately, there aren’t many of the Christmas fair goodies, as the priority was just getting stuff done!
This cake is the second of three cake requests from my friend Sue, who seems to have an unlimited supply of grandchildren with birthdays close together!
The first one was this ‘Dirt Bike’ Cake
And the second one, which was for yesterday is this Jurassic World Cake
The cake itself is 4 layers of my go to chocolate cake, sandwiched together with fudge frosting, and crumb coated with ganache. Once that was set, I applied a second coat of ganache, and smoothed it out as best as I could, ready for applying the sugarpaste.
I started off with white sugarpaste and added some black to make it a sort of marbled grey, then took a smaller piece and made it slightly darker. I added some Tylo powder to this smaller piece so that it would be firm enough to ‘stand’ on its own. I took some Renshaw brown and mixed some white into that to make it lighter, then made the gates and the triangular-ish stones at the side. I used this diagram from a google image search as my guide.
I used a wood grain impression mat and my dresden tool to mark the gates. I also covered a 12” cake drum with green sugarpaste.
The bulk of the grey sugarpaste was then rolled out and used to cover the whole cake. I was a bit concerned about doing this, as I prefer either Renshaw Extra, The Sugarpaste or Select Ireland for covering deeper cakes. I’d almost run out, and ended up mixing what was left with some Renshaw Premium which is a little softer. It actually worked really well 😀 And wasn’t too hard on my hands for kneading!
For the logo, I took the remaining darker grey, and attached an icing image, before cutting around it. I left it draped over the tin I baked in, so it would have the right ‘curve’
I only paid £1.79 for two images, so it was well worth it to get the perfect look, which would have been difficult to achieve in sugarpaste! I’ll leave a link below for where I got it. The seller does lots of different images, not just Jurassic World!
I added the covered cake to the board, and while I was waiting for the sugarpaste elements to dry a little, the airbrush came out to play 😀
I started with the board and gave it a light spray of green, just to add some shading, then did the same with the cake but using black this time. Finally, I airbrushed the top in blue.
Going back to my now dry-ish sugarpaste gate etc, I applied them to the cake with some edible glue. As a finishing touch I used my nifty nozzles large grass tip to make a semi circle at the front of the cake. This gave me something to put the lettering on 😀
I also piped some ‘grass’ on top for something to keep the three toy dinosaurs in place. Et Voila!
I’m really pleased with how this one turned out, and as an added bonus, Sue and Mick stopped for a cuppa and a catch up when they came to collect it 😀
For the next two weeks or so, I’m going to be micro managing my time as I prepare some of my goodies for a craft fair. Learning from my first experience last year, I am starting early, and have roped in my Mum to help.
Last year, I did way too much and made myself ill and exhausted. It was my first time at an event that ran over 9 – 10 days and basically, I had no idea what to take! This year, I’ve cut down my ‘menu’, concentrating on just a few items that are easy to prepare in advance. And of course I have the advantage of knowing what was popular last time too!
Using my usual ‘Pros and Cons’ list to decide whether the ‘consequences’ are worth the effort, I decided way back in May when I was invited back, that yes, it is.
One of the biggest things in its favour, is that it is manned by the organisers, who take a percentage, which in my case is completely worth it, as there’s no way I could do it otherwise! You take your stock, set up your area, and leave them to it! I’ll have my hubby to help with this, and collecting any remaining stock afterwards. During the week, the staff may contact you if anything needs restocking, but other than that, you leave them to it. Perfect for me 😀
So that just leaves the preparation beforehand. I’m taking lots of Christmas cakes, which were baked over the last few weeks and will be finished off over the next two weeks.
As for my other stuff, as a general rule, we start after lunch, and as Mum has osteo arthritis, it suits us both to ‘do a bit, rest a bit’……otherwise known as stop for a cuppa every 5 minutes! We do like our tea ☕️ I set everything up so that we can sit at the table, and if either of us needs to change position or get up and stretch, we just do it! Using my hands for more than a few minutes at a time is painful for me, and I don’t do well with anything ‘fiddly’, so we swap tasks out accordingly. Mum helped me package up my reindeer poop and snowman poop! (Kids find anything remotely poo related absolutely hilarious 😂) Chocolate raisins and mint imperials if you’re wondering 🤔
Today we’ve had a production line of ‘Cookies in a jar’ mix on the go
Tomorrow, we’re going to make a start on some Rudolph hot chocolate cones! And the day after, (if we’ve finished the cones!) Gifts in a Christmas mug! (Tea, Coffee, Hot Chocolate, Pud in a Mug!)
Wish me luck!
Stay safe and healthy
Update: I forgot to post this last week, it was still sitting in my drafts! Oops! Anyway, as is apt to happen, a spanner hit the works ☹️ My poor Mum has been ill with a cold, so we actually got nothing done last week! (Apart from me designing and printing some labels)
You see? This is why I start early 😂 Hopefully, we’ll have better luck this week, 🤞
This time, I’ve been baking for a friend’s grandson, who absolutely loves dirt bikes! And chocolate cake 😋
Happily, the bike ‘topper’ was provided, saving me trying to make it out of modelling paste!
The cake is four delicious layers of my go to chocolate cake recipe, sandwiched together with an easy chocolate fudge frosting. The whole thing was then crumb coated and final coated with ganache to give a firm base for the sugarpaste.
The board was covered in Renshaw’s Premium Coverpaste White, which I coloured with Wilton leaf green gel colour. It was then imprinted using Sweet Stamps ‘Vanilla’ letter set. Instead of painting the letters, I decided to try airbrushing them to see if it made the message stand out. It worked pretty well, but I think I could have been a bit more heavy handed with it! I still get a bit scared I’ll overdo it…more practice needed 😂
I find it hard to get a good orange colour by adding colour gel, so I used a ready made one from Renshaw for the logo. The badges and logo were cut out by hand, and a ganached top and drip added to the muddy effect I wanted. Whilst the ganache was still wet I added some crushed up chocolate biscuit to the top to represent soil. A simple green buttercream border covered where the cake met the board 😀
And there it is guys! My first ever ‘Dirt Bike Cake’
Many thanks to my friend Susan Tighe for asking me to make this, I had a lot of fun!
As always, until next time,
Stay safe and healthy
Products used in the making of this cake: Note, some links may be affiliate links, which means I may get a small commission if you buy via that link
In this post, I thought I would give you an insight into how I manage my baking with my particular mobility and pain issues.
Before I begin, here’s a reminder of my condition, OPLL
As you can see, it’s a debilitating chronic condition, with a whole host of possible symptoms. Mine is the mixed type, and was picked up after a fall in 2012 pushed the ossification into my spinal cord causing severe multilevel compression from C2-C7. Up to that point, I was blissfully unaware of it, although I now know that it would have caught up with me eventually. The difference being that the symptoms would have manifested gradually, possibly giving me more options for treatment. Because of my injury, my options were limited. It didn’t help that even after my fall, it was a good five months before I was given the mri scan that eventually provided the diagnosis. By that time my options were surgery, or be in a wheelchair within 12 months. Not much of a choice huh? Needless to say, I had the surgery (cervical laminoplasty) to create space around my spinal cord. Unfortunately, there was some atrophy and irreversible damage. My current symptoms are chronic pain in my legs, buttocks, hands and feet resembling a burning sensation (think sunburn!) weakness in my arms, hands and neck, myelopathy, numbness and tingling, muscle spasms, difficulty with balance, problems with grip, difficulty urinating, anxiety and depression. In 2014, I had further surgery to implant a spinal cord stimulator. Along with my array of medications, this helps with the pain in my lower body.
So now you have the background! As you can imagine, it took me a good few years to come to terms with the lifestyle changes this necessitated, but that’s a whole different post! For now, I’m just going to concentrate on the physical limitations, except to say that it was during counselling that I was advised to find a hobby that was (a) doable, and (b) something I actually enjoyed!
Which brings us to the baking! (At last, I hear you cry!)
Baking was something I had always enjoyed from when my kids were small and started having birthday parties. I would try to create their favourite toys or cartoon characters out of cake, with varying degrees of success! For more adult family birthdays, I had a go to chocolate fudge cake, but that was the extent of my repertoire really. I made everything by hand with just a mixing bowl and a wooden spoon. The availability of ready to roll icing in every colour under the sun in the 1980s was a game changer for children’s cakes though! I think that was when I started experimenting with character cakes for the kids birthdays! Nowadays, I take photos of every cake I make, but mobile phones didn’t have cameras then. I’m sure we must have taken photos at birthday parties, but they’ll be in a box in the attic somewhere….and maybe that’s a good thing!
Here’s a few more recent ones:
It was after my second surgery in 2014, that I finally felt able to revisit the advice I’d been given about focusing on a hobby. Up until then, I hadn’t really accepted my new ‘reality’, and wasn’t ready to listen. That’s the thing about advice. It doesn’t matter how good it is if you’re not in the right place on your journey to accept it. But I was reminded of it during a later counselling session, and this time, it was the right time, if that makes sense?
So, how did I go about it? Well, I discovered this magical place called YouTube, where experienced Cake Artists were miraculously willing to share their skills! You can find a list of recommended channels on my homepage if you want to take a look yourself 😀 I became obsessed with watching tutorials and trying them out. But it was difficult, because I could no longer rely on my wooden spoon and mixing bowl. My hands just didn’t work like that anymore. I couldn’t stand for long either, or sit for long periods without supporting my neck for that matter.
However, my lovely husband could see that my interest was piqued, and that it was having a positive effect on my mental health. I knew there were appliances that could help me, but financially, we weren’t in a position to go on a spending spree! But he did buy me a stand mixer for my birthday. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen 😀 It was a Morphy Richards Stand Mixer similar to this one, in a gorgeous ruby red colour, and it was wonderful!
I could mix up a cake batter in no time, and without hurting my hands. The house that we lived in at the time had a very long kitchen which also had a small dining table in there, so rather than stand at the worktop, I set up a baking station there so I could sit down.
The actual decorating part was a bit more tricky, but I found that if I took things at my own pace, and kept it reasonably simple, I managed. There is a ‘cost’ involved of course. Even having a timetable of 3 days didn’t leave me totally unscathed. Day 1, I would bake, Day 2, fill and first coat of buttercream, Day 3, final buttercream or fondant covering, and add any decorations. Day 4, sleep or rest all day! (Sometimes Day 5 too) Part of the advice I was given was to weigh up the benefits and the consequences. And of course, plan for those consequences. The pleasure I get from completing a cake, whether it’s a family birthday, a friend’s grandchild or just a treat, also releases pain relieving endorphins, which means I often don’t feel as uncomfortable whilst I’m ‘in the moment’, but I’ve learned to factor in my ‘rest days’ afterwards, by making sure I have no other plans for at least 2 days. Hubby knows that he’ll be practically babysitting me during that time too. But, you can’t beat the satisfaction of a job well done, the happiness on the face of the recipient, and the joy of doing something you love. There’s also the feeling that you are ‘contributing’ in some way too, which is something I struggled with when I had to give up work.
So basically, you weigh up the pros and cons, and if you think the former outweighs the latter, go for it! And of course, every day is different. Anyone who suffers from chronic pain from whatever cause, knows that there are ‘bad days’. At those times, you have to be sensible and honest with yourself, which is sometimes harder than it sounds.
A few years later, and I’ve moved on from ‘Ruby’ my first mixer. She served me well, but I wanted something a little more powerful. So when the chance to buy a Kitchenaid stand mixer cropped up, along came ‘Luther’ Kitchenaid Artisan Stand Mixer. Isn’t he handsome?
The Kitchenaid is a joy to work with, and mine came with a flex edge beater, which scrapes the bowl down as it mixes. Three years ago, we had to sell our family home of nearly 20 years, and move to a bungalow, so Luther now takes pride of place in my new ‘designed for me’ kitchen. I’ve picked up lots of cake decorating tools and gadgets over the past few years, all making my hobby a lot easier to enjoy. Another really useful appliance is a food processor, especially one with attachments for slicing and grating as well as chopping. I can even make pastry again! I have this one
I do appreciate that some of these items are not in everyone’s budget. They wouldn’t have been in mine if we hadn’t have had to move house! But I know I’m going to use them a lot because of this passion I have found for baking, and the therapeutic value of this hobby of mine has been nothing short of miraculous!
If you’re not sure it’s for you, but you’d like to give it a try, ALDI Special Buys do their own range of appliances called ‘Ambiano’ to start you off, which are very reasonably priced. If you don’t have problems with your hands, you can also pick up an electric hand mixer in most supermarkets. These are quite capable of mixing up a simple cake batter and buttercream too.
Whatever you decide to do, and I do recommend giving baking a try 😀 finding something to focus on, that you enjoy, definitely has therapeutic value, both physically (remember those endorphins?) and mentally. It’s called distraction technique and really does work! And if you do try baking, you get cake 🍰 as a bonus!
Please do let me know how you get on, or tell me what hobbies you have found therapeutic for you 😀 I have another one to share too! But that’s a whole other story!