Friends

2013 is off to a wonderful start!  We returned home, from time in Arizona with family, and jumped straight in to celebrating one of my favorite days of the year: Theophany. Do you love Theophany too? All the water, and the splashing, and the rejoicing with creation?

In Santa Barbara, we bundle off to the beach each year and sing, and the little ones splash into the waves after the cross. It’s always a day of joy! And sandwiches.

This year there was a downpour, so the crowd was a bit thinner, but I came prepared, wrapped in my Irish wool cape, complete with hood. (A definite Saint Brigid moment…) My husband found a neighboring umbrella, and my little one licked the raindrops off his lips. Lots of people were getting soaked. And then the Gospel was read–and the clouds parted–and the sun came out–and the rain stopped! No joke. The photographer for our local newspaper caught the moment as we all laughed and marveled.

Sandwiches came next, and to my delight I was then presented a gift. Several friends had been conspiring over the holidays and they stood around and told me to open the gift–right then.

First the card

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Which was so sweet. Then the wrapped box, which revealed this! A beautiful cast iron, prosphoron baking pan!

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(And only the day before I had opened another card and gift, from another very special friend.

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I do feel loved. )

So now I have a very special baking pan for the communion bread I make for the church. Do you remember when I mentioned this a while back when I posted my recipe for prosphoron?

But more than a pan, I have confirmation in how love travels, person to person. Whatever it is you are giving, whether it’s bread, or a baking pan, or a trip to the moon, what matters most is the friend.

Thank you, my dear friends…

Kate, Seraphima, Joanne, Judy, Carla, Obadiah, Sara, Kristi, Father Nicholas, and Kh Tammy…

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.

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!

Prosphora–All Gift

Recently I posted an open letter to prosphora bakers, asking for their help in uncovering some of the secrets of making the perfect loaf of bread for church. The discussion ran from the original post, to a stream of comments on Facebook, to a final landing place of photos on my own Facebook page. All of this was amidst a whole day of trial baking–nine loaves in all–four batches of bread–and the hopes that I might continue my learning and better my baking.

And I think what I learned most didn’t have to do with baking at all. It’s what I already knew–what I’ll always know. This kind of work, this kind of act–something destined not only for myself, but for others too, is ALL a gift. The mixing, the kneading, the prayers, the way the house fills with smells from the oven, the way the bread travels with me, from my home, to the church, to the altar…  Christ makes his home in that bread, just as he makes his home in our hearts–and that eucharistic bread is changed for us–a holy gift to us, reaching from mouth, to stomach, to our hearts.

All gift. So who cares if a few of the loaves split on the sides? Who cares if a few even split across the top?  Three good ones, that’s all Father Nicholas really needs, and the rest, if it comes out well, is simply bonus bread.

All gift. If you bake prosphora, I encourage you to enjoy each and every moment of that process. If a loaf or two come out lame, God doesn’t care, and chances are, your priest won’t either. You offer what you can and leave it at that–proceed from the kitchen to then love those around you, and leave a little more learning for the next time.

(And by the way, the batch I made with using only a sourdough starter, instead of a commercial yeast, came out the best. I’ll be fiddling more with that in the future.)

All gift.

Cheers, my friends…

 

Holy Week=Loaves and Loaves

Prosphora–six loaves

Mixed: 10:15

Molded: 11:15

Baked: 11:45

We have so many prosphoron bakers at our church that my name has never been added to the official list. But this Holy Week, with services every day, liturgy almost every morning, I had a feeling that a few extra loaves would be welcome. So when I posed the question to Father Nicholas Monday evening, he said that three loaves, or five even, would be VERY welcome.

If you’ve ever read my children’s book, The Woman and the Wheat, then you’ve certainly read my sentiments about how to spend a day baking. But the book really isn’t about baking and bread at all, it’s about Christ, and the miracle and love and joy that we find in that cup that is offered to us each and every liturgy. And that’s what Holy Week is all about, and what Pascha is all about, and what baking prosphoron in all about. Love, and joy and Christ.

I’ll be blogging, in the next few months, about my adventures with prosphora. Basically, you need to reverse your bread-baking instincts and focus on one thing–the seal. I’ve got a few tips for you, and look forward to putting together that series of posts.

Meanwhile, it’s still Lent and I’ve got some forgiveness giving to do. This morning, once the stores open, I’m off on my hardest task–to take a loaf of pumpkin bread to a crabby business owner. I asked my husband if he might enjoy taking it to her in my stead, but he gave me one of those you-can-be-brave looks. In just an hour, I’ll be off!

Hoping you’re having a beautiful, lovely spring day.

More soon!