Within the Stable Cave

Be prepared, O Bethlehem; Eden opens now to all;

O Ephratha, ready make; for within the stable cave

from the Virgin Mary pure, the tree of life has blossomed forth.

For her womb is shown to be paradise in spirit

in which is the plant divine, from which having truly fed;

We will  live forevermore, and not die as Adam did.

Christ the Lord is born to raise the image that had fallen long before.

–troparion of the pre-feast of the nativity

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Christmas is here and we have settled into the slow moments of being together–right here. Our little home is tidied, the presents are wrapped, and my husband is smiling in the kitchen. The kids are filled with anticipation, and off to church tonight we go!

We’ve been fasting for 40 days and ready for a change.

Here’s what’s coming off the stove, and out of the oven tomorrow!

Breakfast: Green tea, hot coffee, orange juice whipped with a bit of cream. Chocolate chip scones and Scottish eggs.

Dinner: Beef tenderloin with pepper and parsley crust, ginger braised red cabbage, Brussel sprouts in brown butter and lemon, truffle cheese no-knead bread, polenta with pancetta, sweet and sour cippoline onions, with a bottle of Ridge/Lytton Springs 2008 Zinfandel.

Holy feasting!

Sending you all love, from our house to yours. May this season of love, peace, and giving fill your hearts with joy and thanksgiving.

And my prayers continue to speed toward those who are bathed in sorrow. May the light that shines from that stable cave, bring comfort and mercy…

Cheered by the Giving

Over baked.

That’s how I felt yesterday afternoon when I came home from a first grade class party and realized I had dough that needed tending. There it stood, looking gorgeous, looking needy and ready for some heat. After two other baking events already that day, I wanted to flee to the hills!

I am just about through with my Christmas giving; the stack of bread bags is getting very short, and good thing! I’m tired of slipping my hands in and out of oven mitts.

Somehow, after grumbling, I mustered the energy to roll out the dough. I heated the oven. I scored and baked those rolls. My husband laughed at me. And armed with rosemary rolls and pumpkin bread,

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I hit the streets!

But no one was home.

And this is where things got good. With no one specific to give to I drove toward people and prayed for guidance. I spotted a woman alone at a bus stop. I pulled in and greeted her; she was all wrapped in scarves and a coat, huddled against the cold. I have extra bread, I said. My friends aren’t home and I want someone to enjoy it while it’s fresh. Pumpkin bread or rosemary rolls? I smiled as convincingly as I could. She took the warm rolls and said in her thick accent: Thank you bery, bery much! Merry Christmas!

And the pumpkin bread traveled home with the guy ringing his Red Cross bell outside the post office. Another connection made, and Christmas cheer exchanged. He was wearing cowboy boots…

The giving was the cure to my grumpiness. Giving seems to be a wonderful cure to many ills and ailments, even for over baked suspects like myself, and I am thankful to be learning these good lessons still.

And today is a new day. For the moment I have resigned from oven mitt duty. Just one day off so I can gather steam and get ready for the Sunday grand finale, when I will fill up the last of my bread bags with goodies and pass out as much good cheer as I am able.

I pray you are finding the balance between sanity and shopping. And if all else fails, just find a way to share something, or your time, or your smile with someone, and all the rest will fall swiftly into its right and perfect place.

Cheers, friends. Cheers!

 

Recipe :: Prosphora

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After many batches of prosphora, some passable, and some not, after split tops, and broken seals, and a stubborn dedication to continue to improve, I am finally passing along this recipe in the wake of the horrible shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I’m not sure how else to respond, except to try to continue to commit to giving, to finding and creating beauty, and to pursuing love right here, where I am… And prosphoron is all about giving, beauty, and love. It’s about dying, and resurrection, too, and that’s the kind of light that is needed right now.

Please feel free to comment with your prosphora thoughts below. This recipe is a work in progress!

Time Commitment and (lots of) notes: I usually set aside about three hours to make two batches, which equals six loaves of 8-inch prosphora. I mix and mold and bake one batch right after the other, finding that it’s easier to handle two mixes of five cups of flour, as opposed to manhandling a big mix of ten cups of flour! That’s a lot of dough to knead at one time for a little person like me… I make six loaves of bread, instead of five, because I often have a loaf or two that turn out worse than the others. I take all the loaves to church and allow my priest to decide what to use. If all the loaves are passable then he simply freezes the extra loaf for back up.

Also, I typically put a bit of my sourdough starter in my prosphoron mix for added loveliness. Flavor, connection to my family, natural yeasties–they are all reasons to include some. I have a blessing from my priest to do this. My starter is only flour, water, and yeast–unlike some starters that may have fruit juice, honey, rye flour or other additives. Every now and then I bake the prosphora strictly with my starter, using no commercial yeast, but this takes about 20 hours of waiting so I have to be in a particularly patient and planning-ahead mood!

Oh, and I shape my loaves by hand instead of cutting them with a large round tin, or baking them in a baking pan. Though they can at times be a bit misshapen from my hand-molding, I prefer working with the dough this way. The key is learning how to shape the dough into a ball before flattening.

And another thing! This mix is fairly wet, because I don’t like a super dry crumb that makes a huge mess all over the church floor. Don’t be afraid of sticky-ish dough. Don’t add and add and add flour to a mix because it sticks to your hands. Practice will help show you how to adjust the ratio of flour to water–and it’s true that my five cups of flour to your five cups may absorb water at a different rate.

Tools you need:
  • 2 large mixing bowls (glass or ceramic) with cover
  • an oven :)
  • cloth for first and second risings
  • wooden spoon
  • prosphora stamp
  • optional–dough cutter

Ingredients: (Mix for ONE batch of prosphora–three loaves–about 8″ diameter each)

  • 5 cups all purpose flour (I use Trader Joe’s unbleached flour in the blue bag)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast or instant yeast (can use cake yeast, just need to double it)
  • 2 cups cool water
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt (I like sea salt)
  • optional–1/4 cup sourdough starter
What to do:

Step One: Combine flour, salt and yeast (and starter) in a large glass or ceramic bowl–mix with wooden spoon. (Hang on! If you aren’t sure that your yeast is lively –for example, if you buy it in a packet from the grocers and don’t bake often–then proof the yeast by putting it in the mixing bowl first and add some water to it. Wait five minutes to make sure the yeast begins to bubble. If it doesn’t activate, then go find some live yeasties!) Add water. Stir until mix begins to come together. Turn out onto flat surface and knead by hand for ten minutes, or mix with dough hook in electric mixer. Pray while you knead! Say the Jesus Prayer to the rhythmic movements of hand kneading…

Step Two: Transfer dough to a clean, floured bowl. Allow to rise until doubled. Around 90 minutes. Go and hug your kids, or find some kids to hug!

Step Three: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Then divide dough equally into six pieces. Roll into balls (here is a video), then gently flatten tops and set aside for 10-15 minutes, covered by a cloth. This step is crucial, allowing the dough to relax before stamping. (If the dough is firm from just being worked, and you stamp it, it will rise right out of the stamp.)

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Step Four: Take two of the rounds, flatten them with your hand or lightly with a rolling pin, then glue them together with water. Wet the top of one piece and the bottom of another with drops of water, or a spray bottle, then flatten them together. Set aside and do the others until you have three, two-tiered rounds of dough ready to stamp. (Some priests will want these two-tiered loaves, and others won’t. Just ask what your priest prefers. I’ve found that the layering actually helps keep large air bubbles from occurring, and minimizes splitting…)

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Step Five: Flour the top of one of the rounds, press the stamp firmly into the dough. Pull the stamp up out of the dough slowly. Set aside, and stamp the other two rounds. Cover the three stamped dough rounds and allow to rise for another 10 or so minutes.

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Step Six: With a toothpick, skewer, or other pointed object, poke holes around the outside of the lamb (that’s the seal in the center of the stamp) in the form of a cross, then poke 8-12 holes around the outer edge of the seal to allow the steam to escape while baking. The holes help keep the loaves from splitting. Make sure you poke the holes clear through the dough.

Step Seven: Carefully transfer the dough to the oven. I bake them at 350 degrees for 30 minutes on a pizza stone in the middle of my oven, transferring them in and out with my hands and my dough cutter or my spatula. (I’ve baked them successfully on a cookie sheet.) Bake until just beginning to have a golden color.

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Step Eight: Allow to fully cool. Make sure you include your prayer list when you take your lovely offering to church. Many churches like you to put the prosphoron in a plastic bag to ensure moisture retention.

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Here are some additional websites to help you in your prosphoron baking!

  • Father George’s www.prosphora.org where you can find stamps and loads of information on baking prosphora.
  • A really cool baking pan with the stamp imprinted in it. Someday I might have to get me one of these!
  • A recipe by Peter Serko that includes lots of photos and good advice, plus some added links.

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And on her lips were prayers of all sorts: for the rain, and the sun, and the moon, and the wheat – and the bread that was to come.

Advent Bread Bags

There are several dimensions to this giving thing.

  1. First you have to be inspired.
  2. Then you have to carve out some time.
  3. Next you have to actually do the work–you mix, and mold, and patiently wait, then bake.
  4. And then you consider the recipient.
  5. Next to last you wrap up your goodies.
  6. And finally you walk, or drive or hop over to do the giving.

Phew. It’s a wonder what the human being can do in a single day! By far, I struggle most with the whole “wrap up your goodies” part. My beautiful bread usually ends up in a paper bag, sometimes an already used one that I saved from before.

Well, this season I am spending some extra effort on phase five! I do love fabric, and though I’m a horrible seamstress, I’m also a gutsy happenmaker, so mistakes don’t really deter me. Here’s my Advent bread giving bag, folks. What do you think? (I know, it looks like there’s a lump of coal in there, but really, in person it’s kind of cute!)

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I first thought of this idea after studying a fabric knapsack-style lunch sack I bought in Japantown a few years ago. Japanese are known for their amazing wrappings, and this simple fabric lunch sack was something that one could use again and again. And wash! Here’s a webpage that gives lots of information on different styles and ideas of furoshiki

I sort of thought about trying to take photos and help you sew one yourself. But!!! I am certain I would forget a step, or steer you wrong in some way. I once sewed the sweetest skirt for my daughter and the fabric on the back was upside down. And I left it that way. That explains a lot, I think.

In words, this is what I did. I cut a piece of rectangular fabric–about 11×33 inches. Hemmed all the edges with the machine. Did a bit of fancy folding, and just the right-side sewing, and then there are there these triangles to sew in the corners. Flip things around a bit and do it again, then it’s done! See, I’d be a bad pattern maker. Here is a pattern site that has a bag just like mine…

Anyway, what I love most about these Advent giving bags are the little cards I had made at Tiny Prints. I used one of my bread photos, and included a Celtic blessing on the back.

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So let the giving begin! I’ve sent out three wrapped loaves already–two molasses (one to a mama with a sad heart, one as a thank you, and one to someone under the weather). Here are my supplies:

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And here is the end result, in the hands of a little one, ready to go out the door.

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Advent Alms

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The weather has turned and all of my plants have been drinking in the moisture of the clouds. Rain is always a blessing here in Santa Barbara.

This weather makes me look inward–toward books and tea, toward the oven and the warmth. It’s a good season to plan, to prepare, and to give, isn’t it?

Recent Giving–Story Number One

Right before Thanksgiving I spent the afternoon baking and doing laundry, and working in the wet yard. My husband had taken the whole week off of work, so there were two extra hands on deck. With bread baked by noon, we had lots of time to give before dinnertime rolled around; that’s when we call it a day and sink into being together and try to ward off all thoughts (and happenings!) of carpooling and the such.

Anyway, off my husband walked to gather something from the grocers. Green beans, maybe, or pearl onions. I can’t remember. And with him went a lovely loaf of sourdough–a gift.

But the man standing on the corner–someone we had seen with a sign earlier that day–wasn’t there. He had moved on, so my husband went on a search. And he found a man next to the post office, hanging around, wanting to chat. So they chatted, and the bread was given, and my husband came home with a small and simple, yet significant story to tell. A story of a man by the post office, who was happy to receive a warm loaf of bread.

Story Number Two

Our church serves food to the homeless on a regular basis. This year we have made teams, and I am the Baker (!!!) for Team San Roque. Awesome. It was Monday, and it was cold, and the yeast was moving at its own, it’s-pretty-chilly-so-don’t-rush-me pace. I was patient, but with dinner across town at 4:15 and the final two loaves coming out of the oven at 4pm…. Well, there were folks lined up and ready to eat when I arrived. We quickly sliced up the molasses bread (the best bread ever for these types of events because of it’s full of taste and nutrition), and the hungry ate.

When I tried to take a photo of the event from a far off vantage point a homeless man chastised me and told me that I should get permission from anyone I might capture in the picture. I asked his forgiveness, but then told him that I only had the intention of taking a photo of people’s backs–that I understood that everyone was entitled to their privacy. He still eyed me with suspicion. And I agree. Having a camera at an event like that doesn’t promote an environment of one person connecting to another–it creates distance between people and can even invite harsh or frightened reactions. Next time the camera stays home.

Story Number Three

It was raining–again!!!–we love the rain here– and I went a bit nutty, mixing up double the fun with four loaves of bread rising, waiting, baking. At around dinnertime, with the pain de campagne cooling, I sent my daughter and her boyfriend off to deliver bread to some school acquaintances under an enormous golf umbrella. They walked three blocks there and three blocks back and came home to Asparagus soup.

Advent

We are in the midst of an Advent quest of preparing our hearts for the wonderful coming of Christ.  We are giving lots of bread this season, so I hope you don’t tire of me. Yesterday I finally spent some time gathering greens for our Advent wreath. A bit late, but never too late, is it? I raided my parent’s garden, clipping Acacia and pyracantha, and purchased a new wooden candlestick as a centerpiece.

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Two years ago I spent a bit more time, and created a wreath from our bay tree, pine needles from our Canary Island Pine, and used the berries from our nandina. You can see the post of that Advent wreath here.

But I’d love to hear what you are doing to prepare, and how you’ve been inspired to give. Please share. Please 🙂

And in leaving I give you this–a hymn from the Orthodox nativity service that tumbled across my work desk the other day. It’s even more beautiful when you say it aloud…

What shall we offer You, O Christ,
Who for our sake has appeared on earth as a man?
Every creature which You have made offers You thanks.
The angels offer you a song.
The heavens, their star.
The wise men, their gifts.
The shepherds, their wonder.
The earth, its cave.
The wilderness, the manger.
And we offer You a Virgin Mother.
O Pre-eternal God, have mercy on us!