Christ is Born!

It’s Christmas Eve. And Christ is almost born!

Yesterday I baked five loaves of bread, and headed out in the car to do a little elvish delivering. What fun. At each home I had the opportunity to stop and chat with friends who make our lives so much richer through their love. That kind of giving is so easy…

Today I decided to bake, but not to have a giving plan. I made three loaves of bread and once they were finished pondered the possibilities. I pondered while I cleaned the dishes, and pondered while I wrote a Christmas card or two…

And then came a knock at the door. Lucy and her daddy stopped by to deliver a plate of goodies. Lucy was so curious with this and that, we practically had a play date. We bounced from one room to the next, talking about everything. She’s five.

So, off went the first loaf of bread. With Lucy and her daddy.

The second loaf of bread (and the biggest)

headed straight up the hill to the fire station. John Ronan is particularly interested in making sure our firemen are happy and well fed, but I had to make the trip alone, since he is holed up in bed with a fever. We love to spoil our firemen. They’ve earned more than their keep saving homes in all the fires we’ve had these past five years here in Santa Barbara. I just love that they put wreaths on their fire trucks.

One loaf left. I thought about heading to one of the poorer neighborhoods to see what I might see. But on the way I drove by a friend’s house–a friend who is soon moving to Australia. I parked, and looked up at the door. I know she’s been out of town, and wasn’t sure if the house had been rented yet, so I tiptoed up the walk and rang the bell. I knew no one would answer; there were packages waiting on the stoop for someone to come home to. I glanced at the names on the packages and they were for my sweet friend, so surmised that she must be celebrating Christmas here… Yay. I left the loaf of bread by the door, without a note. I wonder if she’ll figure out that it’s from me. 🙂

So, that’s it.

Oh, that’s not it at all! With all my Christmas shopping done, and my husband tending the babe, I took a relaxing walk through the rose garden and down a few neighboring streets to show you what’s blooming here in December. We have flowers when you have snow.

Leptospermum, Mexican sage, poinsettias gone wild, birds of paradise, vinca, and roses framing the Mission. These are just some of the gifts that nature gives us in December here in Santa Barbara.

And here are few things blooming in our yard…

Pink and white camellias out front, one nasturtium trying to hide under the plum tree, new blossoms on the loquat, a fresh stem of kangaroo paws, one lone calla, and bright and forever blooming strawflowers. Gifts!

And speaking of gifts. The greatest gift of all came in the form of a baby. Christ, born for our salvation, brought peace and love to all mankind. And tonight we head to church, to sing and pray and greet one another with a holy kiss. And to partake of the holiest bread of all–Christ’s body, broken for us.

Merry Christmas Everyone…

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Christmas is Coming

Being an Orthodox Christian family, we fast and feast and celebrate various events all throughout the year. Right now we are nearing the end of Advent, a period of fasting and preparation before Christmas when we celebrate with fervor the coming of Christ to our world. Fasting in the midst of a season which is known for buttery cookies and holiday hams is a little bit tricky, but we manage. We manage by eating sourdough bread and vegetable soups. We manage by spending more time reading, and praying, and being at home. This season of busyness can be paired with introspection and abstention, and the fasting helps create a very real sense of anticipation, and wow does the feasting come with added force when the actual day of Christmas arrives!

And don’t think we won’t be enjoying all those holiday wonders. The Twelve Days of Christmas is not a myth, it’s a very real tradition, and here are just a few things I’m looking forward to baking between December 25th and January 5th:

Up until now it’s been bread without butter. The sourdough and French and molasses loaves are year-round favorites and very fast-friendly, and so satisfying when it’s winter and you’re hungry… but soon the milk and butter will be back on the menu! I’m looking forward to trying a few new breads–

  • a Maine Pumpkin Bread,
  • loaves of Finnish Pulla,
  • and maybe even trying my hands at Stollen in the form of a braided wreath.
  • Oh… and some Russian Tea Cakes made with butter and walnuts!

But in the meantime, there’s plenty to do (including lots of baking and giving away of bread) with Christmas just days away! Here’s some of how we’ve been spending our time.

Enjoy these last days of Advent my friends!

Bread in Brown Paper

Two loaves of no-knead sourdough

Mixed: 9:15 pm

Molded: 10:30 am next day

Baked: 12:30 pm

Gave away to staff at my son’s school

I’m enjoying being a bread elf. Several years ago I actually gave out dishwashing soap for Christmas presents, so bread is definitely a step up. (Long story!!!) Several weeks ago I posed a question, trying to find the best way to wrap bread… . I don’t want it terribly fancied up, but I also don’t want folks to think that it’s been handled and jostled and isn’t sanitary.

So, I fiddled with two options today since between now and Christmas I’ll be baking and giving daily. First, I thought it’d be great to use some of the fabric I have stored away, and tie it up with a lovely ribbon. Once I dove into it, and began cutting, I realized I’d run through my stash of fabric quickly–plus, it looked… not as elegant as I’d anticipated–although the photo really makes it look quite passable… (Must be that excellent camera of mine again playing tricks on me)

Then, I got the brilliant idea of using paper shopping bags. I have several of them stored for various projects, so I got to work folding and ribboning, and actually like the brown-bag look.

Then I saw a post on another blog using antique tea towels sewn in half, becoming a really lovely bread bag to use throughout the year. Anyone know where to find antique tea towels?

Tomorrow maybe I’ll be in the mood for something different. Lots of bread still to bake and give. If you have any ideas–I’d love to hear them!

Sourdough Recipe

Growing up in a family of bread bakers who specialize in sourdough I can tell you two things. I recognize the look, taste and smell of a perfectly made loaf, AND I have been completely intimidated by that living yeast to tackle this style of bread baking, until now. You know, I’m not getting any younger. I’ve decided on many fronts that I’d rather continue to try new things and fail instead of living in a little bubble spinning in the same circles. Sourdough is a good challenge–and I’ve made several batches now of really delicious bread!

Sourdough is made with the simplest of ingredients. Flour, water, salt and that wonderful mixture of sour sponge. (Sourdough starter–or sponge– is flour and water and many little living yeasties that are kept alive by consistent feeding. It’s like having a little puppy in the house–a puppy who lives in the cupboard. Here’s a recipe for making starter from scratch that explains the process well.) Because making a starter takes quite a bit of time, ask around to see if there’s someone you know who might be willing to share theirs. I’ve given away many small batches of starter already this year to neighbors and friends…

Note: I don’t give any firm times in this recipe for when to mold the dough and when to bake. This is not a loaf of bread for beginners because you’ll need to be familiar with the way dough looks when it’s ready at each stage. Much will depend on the temperature and moisture in your kitchen, and the liveliness of the sponge. That said, go ahead and give it a whirl–there’s nothing like learning by doing–and you can always make croutons if it doesn’t come out quite right!

Time Commitment: Between 20 and 24 hours, depending on the conditions in your kitchen. You’ll need to activate your starter before you begin, so think about that as you’re planning…

Tools you need:
  • Cookie sheets or bread peel
  • Large mixing bowl
  • an oven :)
  • Wooden spoon
  • Other tools I use, but that aren’t imperative: spray bottle, parchment paper, dough scrapers, baking stone,

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups all purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup bread flour
  • 1/2 cup sourdough starter
  • 10-12 ounces of cool or lukewarm water
  • 2 teaspoons salt (I like sea salt)
  • rice flour or corn meal for dusting
What to do:

Step One: Activate the starter. If your starter hasn’t been used in a few days, then it could do with a bit of refreshing before you begin. Add a little flour and water into your starter several hours before you want to mix your dough.

Step Two: Combine all dry ingredients in a bowl and mix with a wooden spoon. Add the starter, mix some more, then add the water. (I keep my starter fairly liquid, so I have to adjust my water accordingly.)  Stir, then get your hands into the dough and mix.

Turn it out onto a clean surface and begin kneading. Knead for about 8-10 minutes. Pray while you knead… Sing some Sourdough Slim ballads such as You Are My Sunshine while you knead, maybe even do a little yodeling :).

Step Three: In a large, clean mixing bowl, either dust the bottom of your bowl with flour, or oil it. Place your dough in the bowl and cover it with a moist, clean cloth. Allow to rise until double in bulk. I typically mix my sourdough in the early evening or late afternoon. The first rise will take around 12-15 hours. Sleeping during this rise makes the most sense!

Step Four: Time to prepare my pans for baking. First, I take out a sheet of parchment paper and place it on a cookie sheet. I sprinkle the paper with rice flour (you can also use corn meal) in order to easily remove the bread when it’s baked. Another method I use is to dust rice flour on my husband’s favorite wooden pizza peel and allow the bread to rise there…

Mold your dough. I like to shape my sourdough into round boules. Once your loaves are molded, cover them again with a damp cloth.

Step Five: Allow the dough to again double in size. This rise takes less time than the first, usually about 5-8 hours. About 30 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 500 degrees.

Step Six: Your loaves are ready to bake and the oven is HOT. Score the loaves with a sharp knife or razor blade. I use a small, serrated pairing knife. Place your cookie sheet onto the baking stone in the center of the oven, or peel off your bread directly onto the stone. Take a spray bottle and spray in your oven, (I like to spray below the bread, but be careful of the heating elements…) to create steam. I typically do this twice during the first 10 minutes of baking.  Bake for 10 minutes.

Reduce the heat of the oven to 425 degrees. Sometimes I will remove the cookie sheet at this point and allow the bread to bake directly on the baking stone for the rest of the time. Bake another 20-24 minutes, depending on the shape of your loaves (rolls require a shorter bake) and the true heat of your oven.

Remove the bread, and cool on a rack, unbothered, for at least 30 minutes. Then, the best part.

Give one loaf to a neighbor and eat the other:)

Christmas Cheer

Two rounds of bread baking in one day…

It’s oven season and mine is humming along (now that I have my new and improved relay board installed!). I’ve been sticking to my experiment, to always bake double of what we need and give half away. Recently I baked two pans of a lenten carrot cake, taking the second pan to church to share with friends. Then I went on a sourdough bread extravaganza, mixing up an enormous batch, which turned out to be a mighty flop. How can you give flopped bread away? It’s hard.

Backing up. I know some of you still don’t believe that last week’s ugly batch of bread was really all that ugly. I told you, the photo just didn’t show all the hideousness. I truly would have offended someone if I’d offered it as a gift.

Well, I did it again. My sourdough loaves came out ghastly.

This is hard for me–to accept that after all these years I can still make such beginner baking mistakes. But being humbled is good. I placed the bread in a beautiful wooden bowl which is the color the bread really should be. And I brought it out into the natural light so that you could really see the pale, icky crust. And I know what I did wrong–I simply had too much water in the mix. My husband thinks the second loaf resembles a portabello mushroom. Here are the photos. Feel free to gasp and be horrified!

I may be many things, but I’m not a quitter. As soon as the ugly sourdough came out of the oven, I mixed up a new batch of French bread, making sure the dough was on the dry side. How pleased I was, several hours later, when those golden loaves greeted me as the oven timer dinged…

Of course, when you’re baking two batches of bread in one day, this all takes time. Time to mix, time to rise, time to bake. Not to mention all the other time-related things I do like reading with John Ronan, cleaning the very dusty living room, washing loads of laundry, algebra with Madeleine and running to the store for hummus…

So, when the second batch of bread came out of the oven at 6:30 pm I wasn’t sure where to take it. Most meals are planned and half way eaten by 6:30 in our neighborhood, but you just have to trust in the Law of Giving.

As we prayed for our own dinner, then sat to enjoy the simple meal my husband had cooked, we discussed who to give the warm (and gorgeous) French bread to.

As I lit the candles around our Advent wreath I was inspired. How about to the only neighbor on our block who has donned her house with Christmas cheer? How about Ashley?

The two littlest and I dashed across the street–and wouldn’t you know? Ashley hadn’t eaten yet, was thrilled to have some warm bread in her hands, plus, John Ronan got to talk to her all about the making of our Advent wreath (and many other things…).

What to do with all that ugly sourdough?

Croutons!

It’s the season of giving. Cheers to you all!

The Mailman, the Advent Wreath and the Ugly Bread

Two loaves of no-knead sourdough

Mixed: 9:30 pm

Molded: 11 am next day

Baked: 12:30 pm

The bread was warm and it was only a little after midday. I love giving away bread right out of the oven–it’s like an extra gift–handing over something warm, something that speaks of right now, the heat making one conscious of that very moment.

I galloped down the walk, thinking I’d find Hector at the mail truck. Hector was one of my first fans–I gave him a copy of Hands Across the Moon right after its release in 2003 and he left me the sweetest handwritten thank you card in my mailbox (the book was for his daughter :)).  But Hector wasn’t at the mail truck, it was a new postman, PJ. I introduced myself and he took the bag, dipping his nose to smell the bread. “I worked in a bakery in Germany for 12 years!” he exclaimed. “You like to bake?” he asked, looking a bit perplexed. I nodded. “This looks like real bread.”

I smiled, pleased that that particular batch of bread came out well…

We chatted for quite a long time, my husband coming to the curb to join us, and John Ronan hurling greetings and exclamations from afar into the conversation. This was a good giving day for me…

And I needed a good giving day, because… just a few days ago I made the ugliest batch of bread ever. So ugly that I refused to pack it up and send it along, even to neighbors who love me. Just look…

Don’t EVEN try to respond and say that it doesn’t look that bad. Please. The photo doesn’t even do the ugliness justice. These three pale loaves looked sickly and forlorn. We ate two–but the third loaf still sits sadly in a bowl near the sink. I thought of cutting it up and making croutons, but truthfully, I don’t even want to bother…

All is well though. I redeemed my baking skills and even got crafty to prove that I’m capable of a wee bit of beauty. I’ve been wanting to make an Advent wreath for the house, to help mark the time as we approach Christmas. Typically, an Advent wreath in an Orthodox home should be ready to light on November 15th, but I was running–hardly breathing–when the first day of Advent hit back in November. I decided not to feel guilty, but to shoot for getting one ready as most Westerners do–on December 1st.

I also decided I would not run around town trying to find supplies. That I’d build the wreath as much as possible from the greens and such in our yard. Here’s how it went:

First, I plucked bay leaves from our potted tree out back. The tree is quite big now, about six feet tall, so it won’t miss a few leaves. I don’t know much about being crafty, so I winged this whole project. I pulled out my needle and thread, and individually sewed each leaf to an extra metal wreath frame I had in the garage. The sewing took quite a while, maybe a half hour, but it was relaxing, especially as I pierced each leaf and that sweet bay scent floated around me…

Then, I gathered pine needles from the ground out back, and sewed those in bundles to the frame as well.

We have three billion extra pine needles in our yard, so if you EVER need any, please come by. In fact, here’s a bonus photo of just one small pile back in September…

Next, I added pinecones (yes, plenty of those, too!) and some nandina berries from one of our shrubs out front. I placed the whole thing on a plate and smiled. The hard work was done–I just needed some candles to finish it off…

So, the following day I picked up several votives in just the right colors to sit inside the wreath, along with a raised votive to hold the center, white candle. (And… I popped into our neighborhood florist and bought from them one sprig of baby’s breath.)  I like the way it turned out. Here it is in the natural light of our backyard.

So, since we’re a bit behind, we lit the first three candles to catch up. Here’s the symbolism for the lighting of each candle. (I’ve seen variations on the colors and even the themes of the candles, but this is what we’re going with this year.)

Week One–green. Faith. For God’s promise to send the Messiah

Week Two–blue. Hope. Christ, born of a virgin, came in the form of a man and brings us hope

Week Three–gold. Love. For God so loved the world that He gave us His only son

Week Four–white. Peace. For the angels said to the shepherds, “peace on earth, good will toward men.”

Week Five–purple. Repentance. Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand

Week Six–red. Holy communion. For Christ comes to us through his body and blood

Week Seven–white. Christ. For unto us a child is born, pure and wonderful and who brings us light.

And here’s our home, dark, except for the three Advent candles, glowing.