Baking Your Way Through a Creative Rut

Cooking and advertising have many similarities

As creatives, we're paid to unleash our creativity and tell beautiful stories. But a job is a job is a job. We're not immune to work stress putting us in a rut. Side projects help—they can be a way to recapture our magic and stave off burnout. 

While it may not be the most obvious creative outlet for a creative director to step into, baking—more specifically, co-authoring a cookbook: Mind Over Batter: 75 Recipes for Baking as Therapy—saved me from spontaneously combusting. 

With its reliance on precise measurements, cooking temperatures, times and step-by-step instructions, it might be difficult to see what baking and advertising have in common. But they're actually more similar than people might realize. 

Like bakers, creatives have their go-to ingredients that aid in their creative development. I definitely have mine. But for this project, I was challenged to try something new. I'm not a writer by trade; my creative direction has mostly been centered in art, not copy. Co-writing this cookbook taught me a thing or two about breaking—or in this case, baking—my way out of a creative rut.

Stay true to the reci… brief.

I concepted the idea for the cookbook with my friend Jack Hazan, a licensed psychotherapist and baker, in 2020, before the pandemic was raging and it seemed everyone was baking banana bread. 

We knew bakers of all ages would benefit from the book's therapeutic techniques on their mental health (and the recipes). But we questioned if people wanted yet another "self-help" book. The goal, something our publishers did a good job of reminding us, was to write a cookbook first. Then fold the baking techniques and therapy in. 

The publishers' words, the "brief,"kept me focused throughout the entire process.

Writing the narrative—recipes, therapy, and Jack's story—was a balancing act. The same goes for baking. There's a recipe to follow, a brief for creating a delicious treat. While you can get original, like adding orange blossom water to homemade whipped cream for a more citrusy note, there are some things you cannot mess with. Just ask Jack about the time he accidentally used salt instead of sugar for a family dessert.

So let the full recipe—the brief—guide you. And take some creative liberties when it makes sense.

Draw on your own experiences and influences.

Translating a brand's story to the masses is one of the biggest tasks we have as creatives. We can't please everyone, just like people and their food choices. 

As Syrian Jews, Jack and I come from a rich community and culture full of family stories centered around food. Our book had to have more mass appeal than where we came from. Still, we wanted to draw on our shared heritage and experiences, and in doing so, open readers up to new recipes. 

Syrian food often incorporates flavors that aren't considered traditional in modern-day America. Take Jack's favorite childhood dessert, "Grandma Peggy's Kanafeh" (page 112): a rich, shredded phyllo dessert with rosewater. Rosewater's robust flavor may not be for everyone. However, it could become a new favorite for someone who's never tasted it before.

We were also inspired to offer up a new twist on classic childhood treats. I'm a sucker for s'mores; the perfect blend of graham cracker, gooey chocolate and roasted marshmallow. But as two city dwellers, we wanted to bring that summertime feeling to any time of year (plus they're a bit more fireproof). Enter "Want S'mores Cookies?" (page 215).

Embracing our experiences can help inform ideas and how to tell a brand's story. Don't be afraid to tap into it or give it a new angle.

Where the hands meet the dough.

I start the Mindfulness chapter with the aphorism, "A full mind cannot be mindful." Sometimes, to really get out of a creative rut, you have to busy yourself in other ways that don't rely on your overworked brain. 

Don't force ideas to happen. Give your full mind a break from the task in front of you. Baking is perfect for that. It requires you to be present by engaging your senses and different parts of your body. Baking's actions—kneading, whisking, etc.—are meditative and therapeutic. Giving dough a good slap helps activate the yeast, but in reality, it's a positive outlet to let out a little frustration. Taking a break from the normal routine can break you free from what's holding you down. 

The ultimate reward is the finished baked treat. Or in advertising, it's seeing work finally go live. Whether it's been minutes or hours, a day, or months, I know that even if it wasn't a smooth journey, my actions and my ability to create paid off. 

You never know where an outlet will take you creatively. It all comes back to getting out of your own head, finding new ways to understand and connect to other people, and remembering to find joy in the process, not just the end product.

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Michael Harari
Michael Harari is a freelance creative director.

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