Freshly baked loaf of sour dough

It’s the principle of the thing

By Rebecca Barnett

Over the past 8 months, I have accidentally started running a test baking kitchen. I blame Instagram. After evading the clutches of the algorithm for many years, the beast finally bested me and started feeding me enticing videos of people preparing baked goods. Danger Will Robinson!

I started bookmarking recipes. It was clearly only a matter of time before the bookmarking gave way to actual baking. And it’s only through a supreme effort of will that I have narrowly avoided opening a micro bakery, like the 477,137 insta influencers who were supercharging my dopamine fix with seductive images of home-baked goodness.

Not half-baked

Baking is in my blood. It’s a decades-long passion that I’ve always attributed to my Hungarian heritage. Breathing in the sweet smell of fresh baking on the streets of Budapest is an unforgettable experience that links me, bittersweetly, to a complex heritage of persecution and cultural pride. But that’s a story for another blog.

Even with decades of experience, things can go wrong in the kitchen. If it’s sour dough, then weather conditions can be the hard-to-control 4th ingredient that can really mess you up. Absentmindedness can lead you to make a brownie without flour. (Trust me. It’s awful). Or bung digital scales can leave you kneading an over-dry gingerbread dough for an eternity, wondering why it’s so impossible to handle.

Enter stage left – the Tangzhong

Having worked with yeast doughs for more decades than I care to admit to, I felt confident that I knew all the basic principles. I understand a thing or two about how gluten behaves. I know that the reason you work scone dough with a knife is because you’re not so much mixing the dough as wetting the flour, so you don’t over-activate the gluten, turning light and fluffy deliciousness into chewy rock cakes. But enough of this nerdery.

When Instagram presented me with a recipe for a yeasted chocolate hazelnut scroll that required making something I had never heard of – a tangzhong – I came very close to ignoring that seemingly extraneous, fussy step and ploughing on with my by-rote approach to yeasted doughs. After all, I knew what I was doing, right?

But something piqued my curiosity and stopped me from reverting to routine. There must be some reason why a clearly competent baker would faff around with making what was essentially a milk and flour roux to mix into the dough. I looked up “tangzhong” on the google machine and, well, it was revelatory.

I had discovered a whole new freakin’ baking thing! How was this even possible? You might guess where I am heading with this.

In short, a tangzhong is used to enhance the capacity of the gluten in flour to absorb moisture. The result is a baked good that is softer and moister and retains its freshness for longer. I can attest to this. My spouse left one of those choc hazelnut scrolls in a microwave and then promptly forgot about it. Three weeks later, he returned to the scene of the crime, expecting the worst. Guess what? No signs of mould.

This is not just a blog post about the joys and wonders of lifelong learning

This blog is partly about the unexpected and joyous voyage of discovery that personal and professional development can take you on, no matter how experienced you are or how much you’ve mastered the craft. But it’s more than that.

Just one more tangent before I get to the point. I promise.

I learned music from an early age. That also means learning lots of fabulous Italian terms for things like speeding up, slowing down, or creating a particular kind of mood. As you can see here, Italians have 31 ways to notate the tempo of music. My favourite is “andante”, which means at an easy walking pace. But if you add all the nuanced Italian terms for volume and mood, you can see how the available interpretive options on a music score quickly become infinite.

At its heart, there’s only a tiny number of options for what you can do musically in any given moment: you can change the note, change the tempo and/or change the volume. And yet, when you add a few other basic elements like harmony and instrumentation, you end up with an endless range of possibilities and musical styles, including those yet to be invented and appreciated.

The 5 basic massage strokes

There’s a nice, brief piece on the history of Swedish massage here that I encourage you to read. Might as well bust the myth that Peter Henry Ling invented Swedish massage while we’re on this tangential path. And why do these basic Swedish strokes have French names? French was the international language of diplomacy at the time Swedish/French massage was developed. Apparently, we’ve been confused about naming conventions since the beginning.

But if we think about those 5 basic strokes as notes in a scale and then add some Italian nomenclature for pace, intensity or depth and mood/intent … suddenly you have the birth of a million modalities of massage from a very small number of basic elements, including Swedish/French/Italian massothérapie which I have only just invented.

Dress them up and brand them however you like, but every single massage modality that has ever been invented or will be invented is essentially based on those 5 strokes, regardless of whether you slap a TM after their name. And it doesn’t matter where you completed your basic training, you learned those 5 basic strokes in term 1. Yes, there is massive amounts of nuance and technical information in some massage modalities – plenty of those Italian musical terms to learn and master, if you will, to encompass the complexity of particular presentations and conditions.

Back to the tangzhong

I’ve never taken a formal course in baking but I learned all the basic techniques over a few years as a kid. Essentially, there are baking equivalents to effleurage, petrissage, tapotement, frictions and vibrations.

But is there a massage therapy equivalent to a tangzhong? Some brilliant principle or principles that we just haven’t stumbled across yet even after decades of massaging? Are there, perhaps, treatment principles to be learned and applied that were never covered in your basic training or the last modality-based professional development you attended? Something that is waiting to motivate and excite you with its potential?

There’s no single answer to these questions because the journey of discovery is principally personal. I expect there’s people yelling at the screen at this very moment  “I can’t believe you’d never heard of a tangzhong”.

But I do think some of the answer may partially lie in this excellent AMT conference presentation by Dan Wonnocott.  All massage therapists should watch it.

For me, one of the biggest “aha” principle moments was understanding that pain is generated in the brain. It sounds so incredibly obvious to me now but it had profound consequences for the way I practised 20 years ago. The current cohort of massage therapy students are blessed to have this embedded in their initial training now.

But there have been lots of other incremental and profound moments along the path that helped me uncouple my practice from reductively biomechanical thinking. It was a massive relief when I could stop pathologising people’s posture based on a meaningless ideal.

None of these revelations came from learning a new modality though. They came from exposure to a principle. Over my career, I have come to see how much more bang for the buck a principle gives to your practice than two or three take home tools. (Not that there’s anything wrong with those take-home tools – there’s specific techniques I have learned that I have an enduring love affair with.)


In last week’s blog post I spoke about seeking novelty in professional development as an antidote to PD burnout. Although this blog has taken a circuitous, metaphor-laden path, I’d like to suggest that there’s gold in them thar principle hills. Learn 5 basic strokes and a bit of Italian and you can potentially save yourself thousands in modality trainings. Seek to understand new principles and you can invent 5000 new modalities in your own clinic.

Better still, new principles can help you understand why you might have a bad day at the clinic or a rough time helping a particular client. Let’s just say I’ve made some pretty average scones in my time even though I know how to wield a butter knife.

One of the simplest ways to begin such a journey of discovery is to join AMT’s Facebook group and start reading some of the excellent material and discussions posted there. But there’s also loads of interesting blogs and podcasts that unpack principles and treatment philosophy. Perhaps a few journeymen can post some suggestions in the comments.

Anyone fancy a fresh chocolate hazelnut scroll?  

About the author

During her time at uni, Rebecca was fortunate to attend lectures presented by a genuine original, Professor Howard Felperin. His lectures were meandering affairs, with story after story drawn from disparate sources, told with a matchless entertaining flair. It was often hard to see the point until the last 5 minutes when every single weird and seemingly pointless story was woven into a compelling conclusion. She wishes she was half that clever but acknowledges the undeniable influence.

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  1. Fred Lederer
    06/05/2024 - 7:58 pm

    As always I love to read what you write. And I’m glad you now smile in the photo. Thank you Rebecca.

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