The healing power of baking

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Often, days pass — sometimes even weeks — without Julie Jones’s mother ever really looking at her.

Lost in the fog of dementia, her mind drifts, her gaze blank and uncertain.

So Julie didn’t dare hope for much when she recently presented her mum, Joyce Armstrong, with the first published copy of the book she’d written. Perhaps a flicker of a smile, some hint of pride or interest.

‘Oh Mum,’ she sighed. ‘If only you knew what this was.’ Suddenly, their eyes met in a rare, startling moment of lucidity. ‘Oh, I know,’ Joyce said.

Julie, 40, was deeply moved by this glimpse of her ‘real’ mother, the gentle, loving woman who has been transformed by her illness into someone unrecognisably anxious and unpredictable. She can’t say for sure how much her mother understood —- such is the cruel nature of Alzheimer’s, eroding memory and clarity piece by piece while leaving traces of the sufferer’s personality intact — but the spark of recognition was unmistakable.

‘I always speak to her as though she can hear me properly, because I do believe she’s still in there,’ Julie says.

Julie Jones, 40, (pictured) has written a book of family recipes to honour her mother

Julie Jones, 40, (pictured) has written a book of family recipes to honour her mother

Julie Jones, 40, (pictured) has written a book of family recipes to honour her mother

‘It hurts to think it — that she’s trapped in her mind — but every now and again I get a reaction, and it makes me think she can understand everything.’ The moment of connection was all the more significant to Julie because her book is a heartfelt tribute to her 74-year-old mother.

Called Soulful Baker, it documents a lifetime in her mother’s kitchen — and how, when Joyce became ill, baking was the one activity that could restore some sense of her old self.

‘I remember being very small, and feeling very important standing on a stool in the kitchen alongside my mother, her apron folded in half and tied around my waist,’ says Julie, who herself has three children — 17-year-old Evan, Oscar, six, and Myles, four. ‘I used to love it when she suggested we bake. She’d give me a big wooden spoon and a ceramic bowl so I could beat away. We had no fancy equipment or anything and she didn’t care about mess. We just made easy things, like sponge cakes.’

And so, to honour her mother, Julie wrote a recipe book. While it’s stuffed with current family favourites, it also includes the simple, traditional recipes Julie and her mother baked together in the months before dementia took her away completely; the simple acts of stirring, pouring and piping inducing rare moments of calm at a time when Joyce’s behaviour was unpredictable and erratic.

‘She was very frightened and confused,’ recalls Julie, who lives in Carlisle. ‘She’d lost four-and-a-half stone because she barely ate, she didn’t want to wash and always wanted to wear the same clothes. She was repetitive too, asking me questions over and over and pulling on my arm if I didn’t look at her and listen.

‘It was so distressing to see her like that, one day I just said, “Come on, let’s make a cake.” And that was the turning point.’

Julie pulled out ingredients from the cupboards — sugar, flour, vanilla essence —unsure if her mother could follow a recipe or if she’d get frustrated and angry. Instead, something incredible happened.

Julie and her mother Joyce Armstrong (pictured) began baking four years after Joyce was diagnosed with dementia

Julie and her mother Joyce Armstrong (pictured) began baking four years after Joyce was diagnosed with dementia

Julie and her mother Joyce Armstrong (pictured) began baking four years after Joyce was diagnosed with dementia

‘Her anxiety disappeared and the repetitiveness and arm pulling just stopped,’ says Julie. ‘I’d give her the sieve and flour and she’d automatically start sieving, the movements clearly ingrained from years of baking although she couldn’t even fasten a button on her skirt at that stage.

‘It was the same when I gave her a rolling pin, or a spoon to stir cake mixture. As long as she was baking, the frustrated furrows in her forehead completely smoothed out and she seemed so peaceful.’

Their baking began in January 2015, four years after Joyce’s diagnosis, and lasted for three months. Joyce was still living at home with her husband Gerry, a few miles from Julie’s house, and the bakes became a twice-weekly occurrence. They were an oasis of calm for both mother and daughter, each struggling in her own way to deal with a new and frightening reality.

By pure coincidence, Julie had hit on one of the most popular new approaches to dealing with dementia — the benefits to sufferers of recreational activities such as baking have been well-documented in recent years.

One American study showed that two weeks of daily participation in a cooking programme resulted in a significant improvement in levels of passivity and agitation for older adults with dementia.

Research suggests activities such as baking can slow the outward expression of dementia (Julie pictured right her mother)

Research suggests activities such as baking can slow the outward expression of dementia (Julie pictured right her mother)

Research suggests activities such as baking can slow the outward expression of dementia (Julie pictured right her mother)

Other research suggests such activities can slow the outward expression of the disease, as well as making sufferers feel happier and calmer.

A 2012 project found that cognitive stimulation therapies — such as discussions, word games, music and baking — had a beneficial effect on memory and thinking in people with dementia. The benefits were still being noted up to three months later, along with improvements in social interaction and communication.

The NHS, too, encourages sensory activities, stating: ‘Bright colours, interesting sounds and tactile objects can all catch a dementia patient’s attention in a way other activities, such as conversation or reading, may not any more.’

For Julie, conjuring up delicious food with her mother made perfect sense. ‘My mother was always such a loving person,’ recalls Julie. ‘She was full of cuddles and a great cook too. She and my dad split up when I was a baby, so she worked two jobs to keep me and my two older brothers going, but she was never happier than when all her family were around the table and she could serve up her delicious roast beef dinner on a Sunday.

‘She wasn’t happy unless you’d accepted some kind of food — when you walked into our house, you’d have a full English breakfast on your lap if you stayed longer than 20 minutes!

‘Her food was always full of butter and homely comfort. If I could have one of her roast beef dinners just one more time, I’d be in heaven!’

Julie (pictured right) says they had to stop baking as the disease made her mother become more and more anxious 

Julie (pictured right) says they had to stop baking as the disease made her mother become more and more anxious 

Julie (pictured right) says they had to stop baking as the disease made her mother become more and more anxious 

As she baked side by side with her mother, Julie found herself recalling childhood memories, taking the time to relive and savour every moment, for she knew her mother’s disease was progressing every day.

‘She was getting more and more anxious and eventually couldn’t bear anything touching her, not even her little finger, so we had to stop baking,’ says Julie.

Not long after, Joyce was taken into respite care, which turned into a permanent stay.

Although a sensible decision, it was heartbreaking for Julie. She found herself baking furiously each night, losing herself for hours in the fine details.

‘It was awful,’ says Julie. ‘I didn’t realise at the time but I was grieving. My youngest was just a newborn and I missed my mum horribly; as a Nana to them, but also as my best friend.

‘I used to talk to her about everything but we hadn’t had a proper conversation in years because of her illness. I turned to baking as something creative to focus my mind.

Julie attracted the attention needed to publish her recipe book by posting images of her creations on social media 

Julie attracted the attention needed to publish her recipe book by posting images of her creations on social media 

Julie attracted the attention needed to publish her recipe book by posting images of her creations on social media 

‘My husband Jonah worked away a lot, so every night I’d put the kids to bed and come downstairs when the house was quiet, switch the oven on and bake for hours, sometimes until midnight. I loved making pretty chocolate flowers or meringue kisses, immersing myself in it.’ Julie started posting her stunning creations on her Instagram account — cinnamon rolls, harvest loaves, a tri-coloured apple pie — sharing her mother’s story alongside the pictures and gaining an impressive following of over 39,000 people.

A publisher saw her work and the idea for Soulful Baker was born, with her mother woven into every page.

Even now, Julie’s baking still gives her mum simple pleasure.

‘My mother is now bedridden but she’s developed a really sweet tooth with the dementia and I always take in my bakes to the care home. Her favourite is custard tart — I can tell from the sparkle in her eyes how much she enjoys it,’ says Julie.

‘She’s going through a very calm and content stage at the moment, and while most of the time she doesn’t seem to know me and hates any form of touch, the other week she grabbed my hand and said, “I love you”.

‘I was completely overwhelmed. It was so wonderful to hear those words and yet it kills me to think she’s in there, trapped inside her brain. She also recently allowed me to stroke her face and kept saying, “you’re lovely”. I even think I heard the word “daughter”, which made me cry.’ Julie is currently on her book tour, signing copies at bookshops and she always takes along a carrot cake for the customers.

‘It’s my mother’s recipe and it is the best carrot cake ever. It just feels like she’s in the room with me,’ she says.

‘After all, this book is hers; I could never have done it without her.’

Recipes that spark so many memories 

CLASSIC VICTORIA SPONGE

A classic Victoria sponge was the first cake Joyce taught Julie to make 

A classic Victoria sponge was the first cake Joyce taught Julie to make 

A classic Victoria sponge was the first cake Joyce taught Julie to make 

Julie says: ‘This was the first cake my mum ever taught me to make, and the first bake we did together when she was ill. I remember being amazed at how calm she was, and how instinctively she did the folding and mixing. I bake and cook a lot with my kids now, because I want them to learn from me in the same way as I learnt from her.’

Serves 6

  • 200g butter, softened
  • 200g caster sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 200g self-raising flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tbsp milk

For the strawberry compote

  • 250g strawberries, washed, hulled and quartered
  • tbsp caster sugar
  • 1 point of a star anise (optional)
  • Few drops lemon juice

To finish

  • 200ml double cream
  • 50g icing sugar, plus extra for dusting
  • 1 tsp vanilla bean paste
  • 4 small strawberries, quartered
  • Crushed freeze-dried strawberries (optional)
  • Crystallised flowers, such as violet or rose (optional)

Preheat the oven to 200c/180c fan/gas 6. Grease and line two 16cm cake tins with non-stick baking paper.

Place the strawberries in a bowl with 1 tbsp sugar, stirring to coat, then leave to one side. Now for the sponge. Cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy in a large bowl. Beat the eggs in a separate bowl then add them in a little at a time. Sieve together the flour and baking powder, then sieve the mixture again as you add it to the mix. Pour in the milk, and beat until all is combined.

Split the mixture between the tins and bake for 40 minutes. Test that it is done by poking a skewer into the middle of the sponge, if it comes out clean the cake is done. Turn out, remove the baking paper and cool on a wire rack. Meanwhile, make the compote by tipping the macerated strawberries into a small pan. Add the water and star anise and simmer for ten minutes. Add a few drops of lemon juice, then leave to cool.

Whip the cream, icing sugar and vanilla together until the mixture forms soft peaks. Now finely slice the top off each cake to make them even, then spoon strawberry compote over one. Top with the whipped cream and place the other cake on top. Dot with cream, add a sprinkling of freeze-dried berries and decorate with fresh strawberry pieces and crystallised flowers.

BUTTERED CRUMPETS

She says after baking sessions with her mother they would enjoy them together peacefully in the kitchen 

She says after baking sessions with her mother they would enjoy them together peacefully in the kitchen 

She says after baking sessions with her mother they would enjoy them together peacefully in the kitchen 

Julie says: ‘If I had to describe crumpets in a sentence, it would be “butter’s best friend”. My mother instilled a love of butter in me and would slather it on almost everything! I do the same now, although my husband raises an eyebrow.

When we made crumpets, I’d weigh all the ingredients out, and my mother helped to whisk in the flour with the raising agent. As they cooked, we watched the bubbles rise then pop, which causes those lovely holes on the surface. Then we ate the crumpets dripping in butter with a cup of tea.

After baking sessions, we would always sit and enjoy whatever we made, enjoying the calm, peaceful atmosphere in the kitchen.’

makes 6 crumpets

  • 150ml milk
  • 150ml water
  • 200g strong white bread flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp caster sugar
  • ½ tsp Easy Bake dried yeast

Gently warm the milk and water together in a pan. Sieve the flour, then add the salt, bicarbonate of soda and sugar. Make a well in the centre, add the yeast to it, then slowly pour in the warmed milk, whisking as you do so, drawing in the flour until it has all been combined.

Cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave to prove for at least an hour or until bubbles appear.

Set a non-stick mini frying pan over a very low heat. Spoon in some of the batter and dry fry gently for a few minutes, until holes appear and the top sets. Remove from the pan, and repeat. Once the crumpets have been cooked, they can be toasted.

HOT CROSS ‘HEARTS AND KISSES’ BUNS

Julie recalls her mother saying she could only drink tea with something to eat

Julie recalls her mother saying she could only drink tea with something to eat

Julie recalls her mother saying she could only drink tea with something to eat

Julie says: ‘I had the dough ready when Mum arrived, as I couldn’t expect her to sit and wait for it to rise. I asked her to roll it out, which she did so naturally, and then we made the crossing batter together and she piped on the crosses. We ate the buns with cups of tea as soon as they came out of the oven. “I can only have a cup of tea if I’ve got something to eat with it,” she’d always say.’

Makes 9 buns

  • 50g unsalted butter, melted
  • 350g strong white bread flour
  • Pinch of salt
  • 35g caster sugar
  • 1 tsp ground allspice
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • 7g sachet of Easy Bake yeast
  • 140ml tepid water
  • 1 egg
  • 100g dried fruits: golden raisins, cranberries and blueberries, for example
  • Oil, for greasing

For the spiced glaze syrup

  • 100ml water
  • 2 tsp caster sugar 
  • Pinch of allspice

For the crossing batter

  • 50g strong bread flour
  • Pinch of salt
  • 20g unsalted butter, melted
  • 80ml water

Grease and line a 21cm square high-sided baking tin, then melt the butter and set aside. Place the flour, salt, sugar, spices in your mixer bowl — making a well in which to place the yeast. With the mixer running, pour in the water, egg and melted butter. Mix for 8-10 minutes. Add the fruit and knead for a further minute or two. Lightly oil a large bowl, place the dough in it and cover with clingfilm. Leave to rise in a warm place until doubled in size — this will take at least 1½ hours, sometimes longer.

Once the dough has risen, ease it out onto a lightly floured surface and split into 9 equal pieces. Use a cupped hand to roll each piece into a ball. Place each bun into the baking tin, cover lightly with clingfilm and leave to double in size until the buns are touching and filling the tin – about an hour. In the meantime, make the spiced glaze by heating everything in a saucepan until simmering. Preheat the oven to 220c/210c fan/gas 7.

Make the crossing batter by whisking everything together until lump free — it will be very thick. Place this into a piping bag, and once the buns are ready for the oven, pipe hearts, crosses and kisses over each bun. Bake for about 15 minutes, until plump and golden. Immediately brush over the spiced glaze, then take them out of the tin, peel off the baking paper and cool on a wire rack.

BANANA BREAD

Julie says: ‘We made this for Gerry, my mother’s husband and my stepdad, for Valentine’s Day. I had some old bananas left and I don’t like to waste anything — another lesson from her — so I said, ‘Come on, let’s make something for Valentine’s Day for Gerry’.

I’m not sure if she got the point, but I always assume she can understand me. We decorated the top with a cut-out heart and dusted it with icing sugar, and Gerry was so chuffed.’

Serves 6-8

  • 2 very ripe bananas
  • 125g softened unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
  • 150g caster sugar
  • 2 medium eggs
  • 150g self-raising flour
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 2 tbsp milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla bean paste (optional)

Preheat the oven to 200c/180c fan/gas 6. Prepare a 2Ib loaf tin by greasing and lining with baking paper. Mash the bananas until pulpy, then beat together the butter and the sugar until fluffy — about 5 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time. Sieve together the flour, baking powder and cinnamon then re-sieve directly into the eggy mixture. Add the milk, vanilla paste (if using) and then the mashed banana. Beat together just until combined and pour into the tin. Bake for 30 minutes, cool for a couple of minutes then turn out of the tin. Remove the baking paper and cool on a wire rack.

Soulful Baker, published by Quarto Publishing PLC, is available in bookshops for £20.

Find more recipes and updates from Julie on Instagram: @julie_jonesuk

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