Like so many others, I have a soul-deep love for The Great British Bake-Off. The artistry, the structure, the kindness even in the face of competition — I can’t get enough. On my umpteenth rewatch, I found myself wondering how hard it would be to recreate the different bakes I saw on the show, especially the different types of bread. I’ve always liked to bake, but never seemed to make time for it other than the occasional easy batch of cookies. I realized my half-hearted aspiration to become a bread master wouldn’t come to fruition unless I made a plan. And so my winter baking project was born.
I made a list of a dozen different breads and other bakes I wanted to try, and I set out to knock one out every weekend over the cold, dreary months that usually left me feeling listless, claustrophobic, and uninspired. This was a strategic move: I wanted my project to scratch a creative itch and keep the winter blues at bay.
We’re on the other side of winter now, and I’m proud to report that I stuck to it. I baked something new pretty much every weekend. Of course, I learned a lot about baking in general and delighted my colleagues and friends by sharing my surplus treats. But this project turned into something much bigger than just baking and taught me a few other things that I didn’t expect:
1. Starting is the hardest part.
Hardly a new revelation, but it’s the truest one I know. I spent weeks compiling my list of bakes, formatting my spreadsheet, and adding links to different recipes I could choose from. But one day, winter began, and I couldn’t justify puttering around in Google Sheets anymore. I had to pick a recipe and get started. At the time, I was nearing the lending limit on a cookbook I’d borrowed from my parents and would have to return it soon. Two of the breads on my list came from that book, so the natural choice was for me to start with those. There was no ceremony to it. No fanfare. I just put my biggest bowl on the counter, and my project had begun.
Starting is rarely exciting. In fact, starting is often deeply anticlimactic and unaccompanied by the rewarding satisfaction of finishing. The first dollar in your savings account, the first painful run of your 5K or even marathon training plan, the first word of your novel. It’s up to you to make peace with the mundanity and discomfort of this first step, shake off the paralysis of facing the hugeness of the task before you, and select the utterly commonplace moment when your starting line begins.
2. It’s amazing how much you can accomplish just by scheduling small steps.
Between mid-December and mid-March, I made bagels, donuts, Irish soda bread, a chocolate braided babka knot, barmbrack, challah, carrot cake, a cinnamon swirl bread, Oreos, pretzel bread, a poolish-based sesame oat bread, gulab jamun, and Paul Hollywood’s eight-strand plaited loaf. It’s still a little astonishing to me that I turned out so many new bakes in just three months, but this is the power of a plan (and perhaps a spreadsheet). I went into this project with a road map and a strategy: Every week, I picked a bake from my list, blocked off a half day, picked up ingredients on the way home from work on Friday, and knocked it out. I stuck to this week after week, and I made massive headway as a result.
This truth could apply to a personal goal, side hustle, or really any project that needs ongoing attention. Putting just a few dollars from every paycheck into a savings account makes it balloon with astonishing swiftness. Sitting down to write for 10 minutes every day turns a blank screen into pages upon pages of material. Consistently investing a little bit at a time is incredibly powerful regardless of context, and planning ahead makes it much easier.
3. It might not be as hard as you think it’s going to be.
The eight-strand plaited loaf was the real Everest on my list. The loaf had flustered bakers far more experienced than me on Great British Bake-Off, so I wanted to prepare myself as well as possible. I rewatched the Masterclass segment on the eight-strand plaited loaf at least three times and taped a copy of the braiding pattern to the cupboard above my workspace before I got started. I took several deep breaths before starting the “seven under six over one” dance. And then I dove in. Several slow and careful minutes later, there was an absolutely beautiful plait sitting on my countertop. Less than an hour after that, it came out of the oven looking like a dream come true. Paul Hollywood didn’t comment on the photo I tweeted to him, but I like to think he’d compliment the even, tidy plaiting and perfectly golden bake.
Our days are so full of little tasks that it’s easy to get discouraged when something requires a little more effort, especially if it’s something we’ve never done before. And it’s certainly true that some tasks are just as hard as, if not harder than, we expect them to be. But sometimes just taking a deep breath, reading the instructions again, or reviewing what we know, and giving it a focused, careful shot is all it takes. I put off opening a Roth IRA for probably a year because I thought it would be a huge pain, but it was shockingly easy when I finally got around to it.
Assuming the barrier to entry is higher than it is can lead to a lot of missed opportunities. That loaf was a turning point for me. If I could figure that out, I could figure anything out. And on that note…
4. Confidence is transferable.
The eight-strand plaited loaf was one of several more intimidating bakes on my original list, and I picked the easier loaves in the beginning. But my confidence grew quickly. When it came time to approach the tougher bakes, I jumped in with gusto. I didn’t even bother with the beginner shaping technique when I made my first babka: I went straight for the braided knot after seeing it on Reddit. My internal monologue slowly evolved from “Well, I guess I’ll try it” to “I can do that.”
This newfound confidence trickled into my other kitchen activities first. I made bagels again, tweaking the technique based on what I’d read, and successfully turned them into pretzel bagels for a coworker’s birthday. After years as a by-the-letter cookbook devotee, I started tinkering with recipes and creating new meal ideas, something I’d always been afraid to try before. Toward the end of the project, I was in a position to ask my boss for some new responsibilities and goals, and now I’m more fulfilled at work than ever. I adjusted my investment portfolio to better suit my financial goals (after careful and thorough research). Bottom line: If you can do one hard thing, you can do more hard things, and there is great satisfaction to be had in chasing these milestones.
5. Sharing is caring.
I’ll admit this one is kind of a gimme, but it’s another of those obvious yet powerful truths. I had dozens of fun conversations with my colleagues over the fresh-baked loaves I brought to work almost every Monday and never tired of unveiling something delicious at a friend’s house. Food has endless power to make people happy, and harnessing that power week after week brought me joy all winter long.
Of course, generosity doesn’t have to be carbohydrate-based to bring people together. My friend and I regularly care for each other’s cats when one of us is traveling. Another pal recently spent an evening teaching me about HSAs. A dear coworker has spent hours at the local makerspace with me, teaching me about woodworking and helping me with an ambitious building project. Sharing comes in many forms, and even the smallest act of loving generosity has incredible power to strengthen relationships or even just shine a little light on a hard day.
I set off on this challenge to become a better baker and make the long winter months feel a little less brutal. Investing in this project yielded payoff far beyond a few loaves of challah. I’m now a firm believer: Everyone should set a kitchen goal, embrace the process, and see where it leads them.
Maggie Olson is a marketing professional living in northeast Ohio, who went from knowing nothing about money to being the kind of personal finance nerd who texts her friends about IPOs and Roth IRAs. She is a voracious reader, an amateur artisan bread hobbyist, and a hiker/biker/runner/kayaker. You can find her on twitter at @maggiebolson.
Image via Unsplash