This week took me back to serving at Villa Via Sacra, the home of the Mount Tabor Center for Art and Spirituality in Barga, Italy. What a blessing to be back in this verdant and beautiful area of Tuscany. This is the peak of Tuscany’s summer season when tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, peaches and nectarines are all in abundance. After a busy summer of offering hospitality to various groups, the villa household has quieted down for a wee bit. August 15th is a national holiday for the Feast of the Assumption. We felt it was only right to celebrate this special day in true Italian style, which means pack a picnic and head for the cooler air of the mountains! We did just that: a simple meal of homemade bread, cheese (pecorino stagione, ricotta and parmigiano), meats (mortadella, sopressata and prosciutto cotto), some garden vegetables of cucumbers, tomatoes and olives, a bottle of red wine and a fresh fruit salad.
We enjoyed this fresh French bread with our picnic. Delightful to eat with cheese and meats or just a little olive oil, it requires little rising time, so it’s a wonderful go-to bread recipe that you can make and bake within an hour.
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees
- Activate your yeast by sprinkling it over the hot water in a bowl and whisk with a fork until dissolved and add 1 Tbsp of the sugar - let sit until foamy - about 5 min.
- Add the remaining sugar (3 Tbsp) and then the flour a cup at a time, mixing in as you go (you can use a stand mixer with a dough hook for this step, if you'd like). Add the salt at some point along the way. Stop adding the flour if your dough is no longer sticky.
- When the dough no longer sticks to the side of the bowl, turn the dough out onto your counter and divide into two balls.
- Using the palm of your hand to kneed out any air bubbles, roll the dough into two long loaves.
- Let rise slightly (about 10 min.) and brush with the egg-wash.
- Bake for 25-30 min, or until golden or reaches an internal temperature of 190 degrees.
- This recipe can also be used to make nice breadsticks.
One of my favorite breakfast recipes is a special Swedish crepe called Plattar. I asked Sr.Madeleine, who is currently studying lace making in Brugge, Belgium, how this came to be one of their family recipes, a recipe she makes for her two daughter’s birthdays every year. This is what she wrote me.
“Swedish Plattar is a recipe from a collection of Swedish recipes celebrating the seasons of the year. The author of the recipe remembers her mother preparing these recipes to remind her family of the goodness of God. Personally, when I was young I had not learned to cook or bake; I too, like the writer, wanted to both cook for my young family and to emphasize the love of God and His goodness. Swedish plattar was by far the biggest hit! I made it regularly every Saturday morning for my family, standing patiently beside the electric frying pan (popular in those days) until many Swedish Plattar were made and the the hungry mouths of all were filled. Swedish Plattar takes time to fry, so the making is a labor of love (due to the sheer volume of the batter, and the number you need to fill someone up!). The smudges and dribbles on the page make the recipe easy to find in the cookbook, and also attest to its perennial popularity. My daughters and I are all three nuns now and they as well as I continue the practice of making Swedish plattar for celebrations of God and His goodness.”
- Beat the eggs add the milk, then the flour and whisk well. Add the melted butter, sugar, salt and vanilla and whisk.
- Let the batter stand for two hours or overnight
- Preheat a griddle to 325 degrees and brush with butter
- When the skillet is hot, drop in two - three tablespoons of batter for each pancake – about 4” in diameter
- Cook until golden on one side, and then flip to the other side (about 2 min. on each side)
- When golden, fold into thirds and remove to a plate and continue with the rest of the batter.
- The pancakes can be kept warm in a low oven. One recipe makes 30 - 4” pancakes.
Serve with the jam and a sprinkling of powdered sugar. Fresh fruit on the side makes a lovely presentation.
I have always found bread baking to be an intensely spiritual and creative act. You mix, you knead, you wait. It is prayer.
In our Convent during Lent, we always make an effort to serve a traditional Lenten meal, most often with candlelight and readings. A simple sampling of hard boiled eggs, cheese, some dried fruits, and nuts, is always accompanied by a smorgasbord of beautiful homemade breads. Tonight is no exception. With 65 Sisters in our Convent, we start early with our bread baking and continue through the day.
I am partial to this recipe, one that my grandmother passed on to me, and I am blessed to pass it on to you. It is wonderful sliced and toasted with a big smear of butter and jam. Don’t be daunted by making bread—there is really no fear to be had here! Bake and break bread with your family this Lent and see what God can do.
Convent English Muffin Bread
- Lightly grease two 8” loaf pans with Crisco and sprinkle the cornmeal over the bottom of the pans. Set aside
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees
- Sprinkle your yeast over the very warm water, mix with a fork and leave for about 5 min. until bubbles form and your yeast is “active”. (If your yeast doesn’t do anything at this stage, throw it out and begin again!)
- Microwave your milk until it is very warm to the touch, but not so much that you can’t stick your finger in it, about 125 degrees
- Add your warm milk to your active yeast mixture in a large bowl and sprinkle the sugar over. Mix with a wooden spoon.
- Add the flour, one cup at a time, stirring the dough as you go. After adding about 2 cups of flour, add your salt and baking soda, then add the remainder of your flour.
- The dough will look quite dry and stiff at this point, so remove the dough onto a counter and knead the rest of the flour into the dough until it is a smooth dough.
- Divide the dough in half, form two oblong loaves and press these into the prepared pans.
- Put the dough in a warm place to rise, covered with a tea towel, for about 45 min. The dough should be doubled in size.
- Bake in a 400 degree oven until golden brown and cooked through, about 25 min.
- Remove from the pans immediately onto a cooling rack and let cool.
Recently four of our young sisters were invited to a neighbor’s house in our community for a special dinner. The next day when I asked, “So how was the dinner?”
the response was, “Phenomenal!” That didn’t surprise me knowing that the menu had featured a choice tenderloin of beef, which they all liked and
we rarely have at the Convent. What did surprise and amuse me was that each of them individually wanted to tell me about one special dish
that had put the meal “over the top” and sent it “out of the park.”
This was a savory bread pudding that included leeks, fresh mushrooms, Gruyere cheese, pancetta, and sherry. Well then, why wouldn’t that
impress anyone as a phenomenal dish? And because our brave leeks are still holding their own out in the garden, why shouldn’t we give
it a try here at home? Well, we did, and sure enough it scored a home run with the whole sisterhood. Why not try it yourself and see
what kind of a rating it gets at your house?
Phenomenal Savory Bread Pudding
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
- Spread the bread cubes on a sheet pan and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until lightly browned. Set aside.
- Meanwhile, heat the oil and butter in a large (12-inch) sauté pan over medium heat.
- Add the pancetta and cook for 5 minutes, until starting to brown. Stir in the leeks and cook over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, until the leeks are tender.
- Stir in the mushrooms, sherry, 1 tablespoon onion salt and 11/2 teaspoons pepper and cook for 10 to 12 minutes, until most of the liquid evaporates, stirring occasionally. Off the heat, stir in the parsley.
- In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, chicken stock and 1 cup of the Gruyere.
- Add the bread cubes and mushroom mixture, stirring well to combine. Set aside at room temperature for 30 minutes to allow the bread to absorb the liquid.
- Stir well and pour into a 2 1/2-to-3-quart gratin dish (13 x 9 x 2 inches). Sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 cup Gruyere and bake for 45 to 50 minutes, until the top is browned and the custard is set. Serve hot.