Prosphora 101: The Beginning

For several years I’ve wanted to post about making prosphoron, the bread Orthodox Christians bake for communion in church. From the theology to the how to’s, I could write a thousand posts and not run out of subject matter. But so many failures on the baking side of things have left me unmotivated, afraid I might pass on more bad advice than good! Who wants to learn how to bake prosphoron from someone whose loaves consistently split and look like alien beings? And how humbling is it that I wrote a whole children’s book about this very subject?!!!

However…I’ve hurdled over some important obstacles recently and several consistent batches, one after the next after the next, have fed my courage. Glory to God!

So here are the very basics–the details will come as I continue to please my priest–and granted they keep me on the baking rotation at church. 🙂

Who: People who bake prosphora are awesome! They are sometimes priests, sometimes monks or nuns, and often they are lay people. They boldly mix and mold and press in that seal. They hover over their ovens, and say prayers all the while. They don’t mind flour in their hair and sometimes they even speak Greek! (Wish I did, but Italian is close.)

What: Prosphoron is singular for the Greek, Prosphora. It literally means offering. Some traditions call for the baking of five loaves of bread as the offering, while others bake just one very large loaf (and some others make lots of tiny little loaves…). The bread is leavened and only wheat flour, water, salt and yeast are used. When it’s my turn to bake, I make six loaves just in case one isn’t usable. If they are all usable then my priest simply freezes the extra loaf in case he needs emergency backup! The seal that I most often use is resin, and made by Father George, who has a website all about prosphora, complete with recipes and historical information.

Where: Baked in an oven; of course! I’d love to have a community wood-fired oven, wouldn’t that be amazing? I should put that request in our church’s comments box!

When: Prosphora is baked for every Divine Liturgy, any time the faithful are taking communion. At our church that means every Sunday, plus every feast day (there are 12 feasts throughout the year), plus every Wednesday during fast seasons, and at a few various other times. Orthodox need a lot of prosphora throughout the year.

How: Baked with love, and prayers. I’ll post a recipe soon–that will be my very next task. Right now I’m using an adapted recipe from Sacred Meals, written by Father John Finley. It has a second short rise, which I find important for hand-shaped loaves. I haven’t yet tried baking in pans, nor in pans that have a seal directly imprinted in them.

Why: Because offering something to the church community that we’ve labored over is lovely. Because being a community means everyone contributes–something. Plus baking bread is like participating in a miracle, and I just love those little, everyday miracles.

Questions: If you have any specific questions that you want me to address sooner rather than later, please leave them in the comment section!

Distracted by Fire

Driving home from the morning run to school I recognized the familiar plume of smoke that shouts Fire. Here in Santa Barbara we’ve become all too familiar with the symptoms and realities of forest fires.

I returned home, had breakfast, opened up my computer and there was the emergency email from the County, providing a bevy of details. Emails came about every half hour and were full of specifics–how many engines were headed up the mountain, how many helicopters and air tankers, how many men on the ground. They were going to throw all their resources at this blaze to catch it now–on maybe the hottest and most dangerous day in October. I said a quick prayer for friends who live in that exact place.

But here at my home, with the fire several miles away and the winds calm, I went about my day.

And that meant bread baking. I knew things were off in my head when I discovered I was almost out of flour but decided to bake anyway! The rest of the white flour went into the mix, then some garbanzo bean flour, a little honey and milk, some yeast, grind up some kamut, and, OH!!!, why not grind some oats while you’re at it! Was I crazy?

I was crazy.

Back to email. Back to fire updates and fiddling with stories, and sweeping up pine needles.

Before I knew it the dough had risen risen risen, risen way too long and the shaped rolls were looking desperate and wrinkled and forgotten. Into the oven anyway!

And again, lost in some other time zone I forgot the oven was hot, and that the rolls were done. Over baked; it was just one of those days.

To save it all, despite the bizarre concoction of grains and what not, John Ronan came home from school wanting toast with fig jam. Of course! I said. And rhubarb jam, he said. Of course! I said again. I was thrilled–the child doesn’t even like figs or rhubarb.

And believe it or not, the whole dinner gang loved the bread, wrinkles and all. Distractions don’t always make something turn out lovely, but I suppose it doesn’t mean they can’t at least be tasty!

So, here’s to all of you who get distracted from time to time like I do. Part of life, part of being human. But forgive me for not sharing the bread. I just couldn’t. Look at it–would you have shared?

And the fire is close to containment. Thank you for your prayers! No excuses of that sort today. Time to get back to baking (with not quite so many ingredients…).

Cheers, friends.

Rhythm and Blues

You know… the DMV is an interesting place to park yourself. It really is one of the great equalizers in this world. Everyone who drives–every adult–has to cart him or herself down to the department of motor vehicles at one time or another. It’d be a fascinating place to work (for a week of research!).

So there I was, camped out at the DMV, waiting for paperwork to be approved. The concrete bench was in the shade, so I sat next to a fellow also doing a bit of waiting. It’s amazing what you can learn about someone in just a matter of minutes.

Seven kids, three grandkids, works for the state on a road crew, grew up in the San Fernando Valley, likes rhythm and blues, has to wait until he’s 70 to retire–twelve more years, he said. He sat there, chatting, with his ipod perched on his shoulder, next to his ear. He hummed in between our intermittent conversations, so happy that he wasn’t doing asphalt in Palm Springs where it’s currently 116 degrees, all the while listening to his Jill Scott Pandora station.

And so I gave him that extra loaf of bread I happened to have lugged downtown. A still warm loaf of French bread that I’d baked earlier that day.

I especially like these moments of giving–when someone just crosses your path and the bread is there–a gift–helping to strengthen a small connection between one person and another. I never did get his name, but just the sharing of our worlds on a concrete bench at the DMV adds more good to the air, more beauty than may have been there before. I pray so, anyway…

Cheers, friends.