‘To be perfectly blunt about it, my choice sometimes is: I can kill myself or I can make a dozen cupcakes. Right so, I’ll do the cupcakes and I can kill myself tomorrow.’
So says Marian Keyes in the introduction to her new book Saved by Cake. Famous around the world for her works of fiction this is her first recipe book; but she isn’t just another Kirstie Allsopp. Marian Keyes believes her impulsive decision to take up a spatula and bake has actually brought her back from the brink of suicide.
‘Saved by Cake’ is a wonderful book. Keyes is very honest about her mental illness. At times she has been on the brink of ending her life, planning to avoid desecrating her home by booking into an anonymous hotel to do the deed. She seems to have tried every therapy, drug treatment and homeopathic and spiritual remedy available.
But as she says, even as she literally sought ‘asylum’ in a psychiatric unit she knew she could never lose or escape herself. It is a dilemma I have experienced too – that depressed self follows me around like a shadow sewn to my heels. I can’t kick it off.
A friend’s impending birthday appears to have literally ‘ignited’ Keyes’s passion for baking. Once she had made the one cake to celebrate that occasion she couldn’t stop. It gave her focus; got her through the day. Anyone who suffers from depression and anxiety knows that to simply crawl through the week is a challenge and for Keyes baking gave her a reason to concentrate, and to live. She learnt how to bake from scratch and the recipes in this book are sophisticated and interesting whilst being perfectly suitable for any novice willing to experiment and take occasional failure on the chin. It is also a really pleasurable read, full of little asides and self-deprecating anecdotes. I too use a large beige ceramic mixing bowl to suggest to easily intimidated friends that I know what I am doing…
The photos are as mouth-watering as the recipes: Espresso and Walnut Cake, Lemon Curd and Pistachio Pinwheels, Chocolate and Treacle Biscuits, Rosewater and Coconut Cheesecake and the gooiest Chocolate Baklava. All look and sound delicious. I can’t wait to try them all for myself.
The book appeals to me as a depressive who adores cake of course, but it is also an interesting contribution to a wider debate about the management of depression and anxiety with diet.
When you examine ‘mood boosting’ diets closely they are merely a variation of what is considered a ‘healthy’ diet for most of the population – wholegrain carbs, oats, nuts and seeds, lean meat and oily fish. Eat your ’5 a day’ fruit and veg, drink lots of water and restrict your caffeine and alcohol intake. Get more active. However, look at any such diet and listed under ‘foods to avoid’ you will always find saturated fats such as butter along with white flour and foods that are high in added sugars. Such indulgences exacerbate food cravings and can raise blood sugar too quickly resulting in a sudden dip in energy and mood. Basically these diets always suggest you have to avoid CAKE.
I don’t think Marian Keyes would argue with any of the general advice on a healthy lifestyle. Although she says she has eaten a lot of her own creations, she has made and baked for family, friends and total strangers simply for the creative outlet. I understand this feeling and in the midst of crippling anxiety the desire to bake a batch of scones has given me a brief respite from the grip of panic. If I can just get them in the oven I won’t die…
In any event, one of the best ‘moodboosters’ is to get outside in the fresh air and just walk; or garden - get an allotment or plant some pots. Exercise, once you can take the first step outdoors, has its own addictive properties. Addictive but healthy.
And best of all it burns off cupcakes and flapjacks.
Yes, walnuts are great brain food – so add them to a cake. Oatmeal helps in the release of the chemical seratonin – what many of those with depression lack – and as it is slow to digest it keeps you fuller longer. What better reason to eat Keyes’s Defibrillator Cubes? And dark chocolate? A ‘Black Hole’ Chocolate Cheesecake will get those endorphins going.
My only gripe with books such as this one (Hairy Bikers, Lorraine Pascale et al) is the undeniable expense necessary to experiment with most of the recipes. This is particularly important when you are linking a recipe book to a health issue. Marian Keyes says she became a one-woman cake factory and she is in the fortunate position of being able to afford the ingredients. Marketing and supermarket executives would say these books are ‘aspirational’ but in truth they are in danger of adding to the ‘celebrity chef effect’. We spend so much time watching cookery programmes and reading cookery books that we don’t have the time, or perhaps inclination to actually cook.
However, this book is not really about austerity, or about the growing divide between those that can afford to eat good healthy food and those that can’t. Generations of children have grown up with grannies, aunties and mums who baked cakes, even on the tightest budgets and if what Marian Keyes says is true, even making batches of relatively inexpensive scones and fairy cakes would have a therapeutic effect. And at times like this, when there seems so little pleasure in so many aspects of our daily lives there is much to be said for the book’s nostalgic feel.
So I say ‘hoorah’ for Marian Keyes. I feel better for just having her book on my worktop.
‘Saved by Cake’ by Marian Keyes was published on 16th February 2012 by Michael Joseph