It begins the same way each time. I’m awake. I know, even without looking at the clock, that it’s about 3 a.m.

Mount St. Joseph News


Samantha Jones, Ph.D., worked on “Dateline” from 1991 to 1994 as writer, associate editor and editor. She has taught English at St. Ursula Academy in Cincinnati for 20 years.


It begins the same way each time. I’m awake. I know, even without looking at the clock, that it’s about 3 a.m. I lie in bed, very still. I remember all the techniques. I breathe in deeply and slowly. I scan my body and check how I’m feeling. I put unhelpful thoughts in a balloon and let them float away. (I am not kidding.) I tense and relax my muscles from head to toe. But nothing works. My eyes pop open. And there I am. In the dark. Awake. Wide awake. Hours earlier than I need to be. Thoughts looping and racing and doubling back: “What about… What if… He’s going to… Do I have… It’s the downfall of… Is she alright…”


I sigh and slide out of bed. Even before the pandemic began, I often had trouble sleeping, but since March, it’s become so much worse. And so much more often.


I grab my phone from my nightstand, but only to use as a flashlight to find my way downstairs without waking the rest of my family. I know from experience that endless doomscrolling isn’t going to do anything positive for my state of mind right now.


I carefully and very slowly walk downstairs in the dark, hanging onto the bannister as I go. I step over a cat in the hallway, and I make it to my destination: the kitchen. It’s time for insomnia baking.


Insomnia baking is a very special subgenre of stress baking. I’ve been a stress baker for years now, ever since I discovered that there was something therapeutic for me about the baking process. There’s nothing as soothing for my busy brain as working through a recipe, starting with choosing a project, then checking that I have all the ingredients and tools, walking through the steps in my head, setting up all the ingredients in their proper amounts, and then following through with the method. It helps me turn off whatever other thoughts I’m having and tune into where I am, right then. The smell of the spices, the feeling of my cold metal measuring cups and spoons, the sound of the Kitchen Aid mixer whirring and the solid thump of my favorite cookbook hitting the countertop. All of these help keep me here instead of somewhere else.


Now insomnia baking, though, that takes it to the next level. It’s like an Olympic gymnast sticking the landing with an injured ankle or deftly steering your car over a patch of ice. Can I pull this off, I wonder, every time I start a recipe at 2, 3, 4 in the morning. And inevitably, I say, suuuuuuure, no problem. When I bake without enough sleep, I take big chances, risks I would never take when my brain is working properly. Everything is on the table. Nothing is impossible. All the recipes are doable. You got this. You go, girl. Etc.


Insomnia baking began largely because I needed that stress baking soothing one late night/early morning. I was too rattled to read a book. Let me repeat that for emphasis. I was too rattled to read a book. This had never happened to me before, and it was incredibly alarming. All my life I have slipped into books with ease, disappeared between pages for hours, lost days at a time to a story. Yet this past spring, my mind was so troubled, I was so worried and so exhausted from anxiety, my books were closed to me.


I was too agitated to try to sleep again. I could feel myself vibrating with pent-up energy. I had to do something. Watching something on tv might have been what a normal person would have done, but it didn’t even enter my mind. I’m going to bake something, I decided, and I marched right to the kitchen and pulled down my favorite cookbook. Baking will make me feel better, I thought, because it does.


Now no one, frankly, is more surprised than me that this is true. I was brought up in a house where cooking was a terrible chore, something to be avoided if at all possible, with the occasional exception of a fancy Saturday pancake breakfast, and baking was as rare as a unicorn sighting. My mother found cooking of any sort oppressive, demanding, unrewarding. The only baking I really remember from my youth is making Christmas cookies. I can still see our old Betty Crocker cookbook, splattered with dough spots on some pages. I loved making the dough with all the different parts coming together to make something new. I loved using the wooden rolling pin to roll out the dough on the kitchen counter. I loved carefully decorating each cookie with icing, colored sugar, those little silver balls that will break a filling, and red hots for Rudolph’s nose.  I wish I’d gotten to bake more as a little kid. On one hand, chalk that up to another childhood disappointment. On the other hand, I sort of understood where my mom was coming from. Why waste time in the kitchen when there were books to be read?


When it’s time for insomnia baking, I turn to my very favorite cookbook, “The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion.” It’s a James Beard Award winner, which means it’s a Very Important, Very Good cookbook. It’s 640 pages. I have never once made a bad recipe from this cookbook, and that’s saying something given my own limited baking experience. I came across this cookbook after marrying into a family that bakes a lot--and bakes well. My mother-in-law, my sister-in-law, my new aunts, my new cousins, each of them brought such delicious treats to our family parties. I wanted to play, too. And that’s how I began to see baking. As fun. As play. As a way to care for myself and the people around me. It was only oppressive if I thought it was. So I decided it wasn’t, and I bought the big red book with the flour knight on the cover and the medieval literature scholar in me was very, very happy.


When I started insomnia baking, I began with bagels. Why bagels? For one, I wanted bagels. I love bagels, they are delicious, and I had zero bagels in my house. Hence, bagels. Also I’d never tried to make bagels before. So why not? Three a.m. logic said, you have the ingredients, so let’s do this! I had never made yeast bread before. The recipe itself was several pages long. There was something called a water bath. Sounds fun! It’s fine.


I cannot emphasize enough that this is not my actual personality. In real life my backup plan has a backup plan. I do not fly by the seat of my pants; I actually don’t fly that often to begin with. I like fun, just quiet, regular fun that I help plan.


Can I just say, dear reader, that those bagels were delicious? Even that first batch. I did not mess them up. And there were plenty of opportunities to mess up. Part of the instructions requires you to divide the dough in small rounds (of course, because you’re making bagels), but then to make the hole in the bagel, you are asked to twirl the small round dough ball on your index finger until a hole appears. Huh? Well, okay, cookbook, it’s real early/late, but you’re the boss. I did it, and it worked, and it was both fine and (eventually) fun! It is impossible to worry about the state of the world at the same time you’re worrying about ruining the bagels you’ve spent hours making. Try it. You’ll see. And the water bath? Well, I misread the directions the first time (maybe it was the two hours of sleep) and used a pan that was too shallow instead of one of my giant stock pans, so that first batch got more of a water dip, but they still had a lovely sheen to them and than unmistakable bagel chewy, crunchy crust. (Which, because I’m a nerd, I had to look it up: Why is there a water bath anyway? To make that nice crust. And originally to make the bagel last longer than regular bread. And now I have a book about the history of bagels on my endless to-read list.)


That first batch was a little flatter than I’d hoped, but wow, were they edible. I even posted them proudly on social media, like I’d been making bagels all my life. And they awakened in me a taste for homemade bagels. No more store-bought bagels ever! Really. (At least so far.) Now every few weeks I actually set aside the three hours (Seriously. It takes three hours.) in the middle of a Saturday or Sunday afternoon to make myself homemade bagels and pop the extras in the freezer for later. I’ve decided that bagels are my thing, the recipe I’m going to perfect, and I keep going back to adjust and make it better. I’m buying King Arthur bread flour and SAF instant yeast. I bought a strainer to move the bagels more easily from the water bath to the parchment-paper lined baking sheets. Who am I now?


Since I started insomnia baking, I’ve made recipes new and old. I’ve branched out from King Arthur and found recipes in both expected and surprising places. I pulled out my old Betty Crocker cookbook and made a chocolate silk pie. I’ve made classic Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies and the Vanishing Oatmeal cookies with the recipe from the inside of a Quaker Oats container. I made baked donuts with a chocolate glaze, and I learned that you want to double that glaze to have enough chocolate to suit me. I’ve made several different varieties of banana bread and muffins because who can keep up with eating bananas before they go bad? I’ve made brownies from scratch, and again, regrettably, found them so delicious that I won’t ever use a mix again. I made homemade Reese’s peanut butter cups, and I’m a little horrified to learn that I now have the power in my own home to make something that is so delicious (it made me feel like Victor Frankenstein--just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.). 


I haven’t really had a massive baking fail, although it would make for a great story. “Remember that one time when I tried to make croissants and I caught the stove on fire?” Nope, nothing that dire yet. I’m sure there will be some kind of botched batch because what are the odds that I’m some kind of baking genius. I’m just an English teacher who can’t sleep.