Procrastibaking is a thing: Baking to avoid work

Erin Gardner, a professional cake decorator, “used to beat myself up" for indulging in procrastibaking — the practice of baking something unnecessary in order to avoid “real” work — but now considers it part of her creative process.
Erin Gardner, a professional cake decorator, “used to beat myself up" for indulging in procrastibaking — the practice of baking something unnecessary in order to avoid “real” work — but now considers it part of her creative process.PHOTOS: NYTIMES
Mia Hopkins, a romance novelist, baking a pie in Los Angeles on May 3, 2018. She has sometimes turned to procrastibaking — the practice of baking something unnecessary in order to avoid “real” work — as a way to overcome writer's block.
Mia Hopkins, a romance novelist, baking a pie in Los Angeles on May 3, 2018. She has sometimes turned to procrastibaking — the practice of baking something unnecessary in order to avoid “real” work — as a way to overcome writer's block. PHOTOS: NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) - All procrastibakers do not bake alike.

Procrastibaking – the practice of baking something completely unnecessary, with the intention of avoiding “real” work – is a surprisingly common habit that has only recently acquired a name.

Medical students, romance writers, freelance Web designers: Almost anyone who works at home and has a cookie sheet in the cupboard can try it.

“I started procrastibaking in college as a way to feel productive while also avoiding my schoolwork,” said Mr Wesley Straton, a graduate student in New York City. “Baking feels like a low-stakes artistic outlet.”

Some procrastibakers like to make long, slow recipes that break up the entire day, returning to their spreadsheets or study guides in between steps like proofing, chilling and rising.

Those who use baking as a transition into a creative state of mind are more likely to stir up a quick banana bread or pan of brownies.

“My personal favorite time suck is baking macarons,” said author Jessica Cale. “Not only does it take quite a lot of time and patience to figure out how to get them right, but it can take up to three days to complete the process.”

Procrastibaking is also a thriving hashtag on Instagram, where #procrastibaking posts seem to proliferate just before annual rituals of anxiety like examination weeks, Tax Day and Election Day. And on any given day, baking photos are popular on Instagram, whether they are of plain chocolate chip cookies or a pastel rainbow-stripe cake.

It is clear that for many cooks, today’s telecommuting jobs, combined with the comforting rituals of the kitchen and the lure of Instagram “likes,” have made procrastibaking irresistible.

“I should admit that I find many ways to procrastinate, but most of them, like weeding out the sock drawer for singletons, are just not as Instagrammable,” said Allison Adato, an editor at People magazine.

Rachel Courville, a veterinary student at the University of Missouri in Columbia, has baking sessions alongside study sessions “to prepare for hell weeks where we just have an inhumane amount of tests", she said. “To decide what to make, I just think, ‘What will make my future, super-stressed-out self a little happier?’” The answer, she said, is usually cake.

Psychology professor Tim Pychyl at Carleton University in Ottawa says that procrastination is one of few situations in which people consistently make choices that are demonstrably bad.

“We make an emotional, irrational decision to do what feels good right now,” instead of doing what is necessary, he said. “Present self feels better, but future self gets jerked around.”

Procrastibaking, he added, like procrasticleaning, is an unconsciously deployed strategy that makes us feel skilled, nurturing and virtuous in the present while distracting us from the future.

“The kitchen gets a mighty workout in March and April,” said Renee Kohlman, a freelance writer in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Canadian income tax filings are due on April 30. “I know I should be at my desk, calculating how much I spent on Internet, groceries and gas, but somehow I find myself at the counter, measuring out yeast and flour to make cinnamon buns.”

Best practices for procrastibaking are still being established.

“The ‘fun’ component is essential to procrastibaking, so the content of your product should not be something that you need to make in order to meet your daily nutritional needs,” Amy Sentementes wrote in an e-mail.

Sentementes, a PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, writes a blog about eating well as a graduate student. Baking sweet potatoes until they caramelise is a great project, she said, but it is not procrastibaking. 

Also, any recipe that requires leaving the house to buy ingredients is not in the spirit of procrastibaking. The procrastibaker must believe that it is possible to be simultaneously working on a document, buttering pans and separating eggs. A shopping trip to buy cocoa powder destroys the fantasy that the baking is not really an interruption of the work. That’s why recipes like “kitchen sink” cookies, which use whatever ingredients are on hand, are ideal. 

Many writers say that procrastibaking is actually part of their work, allowing them to enter a “flow state” that is conducive to creative thinking. 

Mia Hopkins, a Los Angeles writer of racy romance novels, came to procrastibaking late. “When I was schoolteacher, I used to procrastinate by reading and writing romances,” she said. “When I started writing romance full time, I had to find a new way to procrastinate.”

She said that procrastibaking is her way out of writer’s block – especially pie, because it is more stimulating to the senses than other recipes. “You can bake an entire cake without touching anything,” she said. “With a pie, you squeeze the dough, you slice the fruit, you crimp the crust.”

Baking helps her get out of the tangle of words in her head and into the physical world, she said, which helps with her particular line of work.  

Juicy Orange Cake

INGREDIENTS

For the cake

225g unsalted butter (2 sticks), at room temperature, plus more for the pan

3 oranges, preferably organic

1 Tbs fresh lemon juice

375g all-purpose flour

½ tsp baking soda

½ tsp salt

400g sugar

3 eggs, at room temperature

235ml buttermilk

For the glaze

120ml fresh orange juice

1 Tbs fresh lemon juice

66g sugar

METHOD

1. Bake the cake: Butter a deep, 22cm round cake pan and line the bottom with parchment or wax paper. Heat the oven to 160 deg C. 

2. Finely grate the zest of the oranges into a bowl. Squeeze 3 Tbs of juice from the oranges and add it to the zest. (Reserve remaining oranges for making glaze.) Stir in lemon juice and set aside. 

3. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, baking soda and salt. 

4. In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter at medium speed until fluffy and light for two to three minutes. Add the sugar and beat to combine. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing after each addition. 

5. At low speed, add a third of the dry ingredients and a third of the buttermilk, mixing until the batter is just combined. Repeat with remaining dry ingredients and buttermilk, adding in batches and mixing until just combined. Add the orange zest mixture and combine. 

6. Pour batter into the prepared pan. Bake until just firm in the centre and a tester inserted into the centre comes out clean (a few crumbs are okay), about 1 to 1¼ hours. Start testing after an hour. 

7. Meanwhile, make the glaze: Stir the juices and sugar together until sugar dissolves. 

8. When the cake is done, let cool in the pan for 15 minutes (it will still be warm). Turn out onto a wire rack set on a sheet pan with sides (run a knife around the edges if it sticks at first). 

9. Peel off the paper and use a baster or brush to spread a few spoonfuls of the glaze over the top. Let soak in before adding more. Continue until all the glaze is absorbed by the cake, including any that drips through onto the sheet pan. Use your brush to pick it up from the pan and transfer back to the top of the cake.

10. Let cool at room temperature. Eat immediately or wrap well in plastic and refrigerate. Serve at room temperature or cold, in thin slices. 

Serves 10

Kitchen Sink Cookies

INGREDIENTS

For the toffee (optional)

57g unsalted butter (½ stick)

100g sugar

½ tsp kosher salt

110g toasted nuts or seeds (optional)

For the cookies

280g all-purpose flour

1 tsp kosher salt, more for tossing

1 tsp baking soda

170g unsalted butter (1½ sticks), slightly softened at room temperature

220g light or dark brown sugar

100g sugar

1 egg, at room temperature

1 tsp vanilla extract

170g salty mix-ins, such as nuts, broken mini pretzels, corn chips or potato chips

170g sweet mix-ins, such as toffee bits (brickle), chocolate chips or chunks, M&M’s, cutup candy bars or dried fruit

METHOD

1. Make the toffee, if you’d like: Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper or a non-stick baking mat. 

2. In a small saucepan, combine butter, sugar and salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat and let bubble, whisking occasionally, until light golden brown for five to seven minutes.

3. Turn off heat and, if using, stir in nuts or seeds. Pour onto the prepared pan and let the mixture run towards the edges. If necessary, use a rubber spatula to spread mixture; it should not be more than 0.6cm thick. Set aside to harden completely. (If weather is very hot and humid, chill in refrigerator.) Break or chop into small, 1.2cm chunks.

4. Make the cookies: In a bowl, whisk dry ingredients together. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars together at medium speed until fluffy and smooth for about two minutes. Mix in egg, then vanilla. In three batches, add the dry ingredients, mixing to combine each time.

5. In a bowl, combine the sweet and salty mix-ins and toss them with ½ tsp salt. Add mix-ins to dough and stir until evenly distributed.

6. Roll dough into a log about 5cm in diameter, wrap and chill at least one hour or up to two days.

7. Heat oven to 160 deg C. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper or non-stick baking mats. 

8. Slice the dough log into approximately 0.6cm-thick slices and arrange on cookie sheets, leaving 5cm between cookies. Don’t worry if the slices are slightly broken or misshapen; these cookies should be bumpy and rough. 

9. Bake until golden, about 20 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through. When done, the edges should be just browning and the tops should feel soft. Let cool on the pans for five minutes, then transfer to wire racks to finish cooling.  

Makes about 18 large cookies