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.
Cape Cod faced an historic winter storm this week. As I was leaving work at Paraclete Press on Monday night, one of my customers emailed me and said, “Sister, don’t forget to stop and get your bread and water on the way home! Be safe in the storm!” I chuckled to myself because, little did she know, we were planning to bake fresh bread that night!
The recipe here has become one of our staples for the Convent. It’s a lovely light whole wheat bread that we have been making for years. Shortly after it comes out of the oven, I always expect to see one of the Sisters sheepishly cutting a heel off one of the loaves and slathering it with butter and honey. I imagine you might too!
Bethany Whole Wheat Bread
- Pour water into a large mixing bowl equipped with a dough hook, sprinkle yeast over and add sugar. Wait at least 5 min until bubbles form on the surface and the yeast is active.
- Add the honey and the oil and mix well on low speed.
- Add the white flour and salt and continue mixing
- Add the whole wheat flour, a cup at a time, just until it starts pulling away from the sides of the bowl. You may not need all the flour listed here, or you may need more depending on the humidity of the day.
- Dough will be barely sticky when it is ready - press your finger into it and see if it springs back
- Divide the dough into 4 equal pieces. Knead the dough, shape into an oblong loaf and place in well-greased bread pans.
- Let rise in a warm, draft-free place for about 15 min. or until the dough is about 1 ½ to 2 inches above the pans.
- Bake in a 375 degree oven for 30-40 min. The bread should pull away from the sides of the pan and sound hollow when you tap on it.
- Transfer to a wire rack to cool … or slice and slather with fresh butter and jam!
Our Monastic Bake Shop opens for Advent, just in time for people to select delicious home-baked goods for their Christmas table. One of the favorite sweet breads that people return for is the lovely St. Lucia Bread. A rich, dense dough filled with citron, saffron and almonds, and decorated like a wreath, has been a long-standing tradition for our Bakeshop, started by one of our own Sisters, Sr. Lucia.
Traditionally, when we make our first profession as Sisters, we also take on a new name – symbolizing our new life wedded to Christ. Sr. Lucia became a novice in early December. When she was preparing to take her vows, she prayed about what her new name should be. One of the Sisters told her that she had an idea of a name for her. The Sister next to her said, “Now don’t overwhelm our new novice with another big decision!” But she couldn’t bear the suspense, and she told her the name: Lucia. A bit later, a different Sister mentioned that she had received a name for her, and it was the same one! She decided to learn more about who St Lucia was, only to discover that her feast day was celebrated on December 13th — the exact day that the name had been suggested to her! She couldn’t deny that God was speaking. It turns out that her middle name had been Lucille after her maternal grandmother, and years later it was discovered that her actual given name had been Lucia!
- In a large mixer, soften the yeast in the warm water
- Heat the milk until warm. Add the oil and sugar and stir to dissolve.
- Add this mixture to the yeast mixture in the mixer
- Add salt and saffron
- Add the 3 slightly beaten eggs and mix with dough hook.
- Add the lemon zest, citron and almonds and continue mixing
- One cup at a time, add the flour and mix well after each addition. Stop adding the flour when the dough starts pulling away from the side of the bowl. Adding more flour if necessary.
- Turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead for 5 min, or until dough becomes smooth and elastic; adding flour as necessary.
- Place the dough in a greased bowl, cover, and let rise in a warm place until almost doubled in size, about 1 hr. (At this point, you can refrigerate the dough, if you want to work with it later).
- Divide the dough into six equal balls and roll into large ropes and then braid three together, making two braids.
- Pinch the two ends together and tuck under, forming two circular loaves.
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line two sheet pans with baking paper, or grease, and put a braided loaf on each pan.
- Cover and let rise in a warm place, until doubled.
- Combine the remaining egg with a tablespoon of water to make an egg wash, and brush on the braids.
- Bake for about 20-25 min or until the loaf feels firm to the touch. If you would like to use a thermometer, the internal temperature should read about 190 degrees.
- While the bread is baking, prepare your frosting, mixing all ingredients until smooth and on the thicker side. Cut your cherries in half.
- Remove bread from the oven and cool slightly, then decorate, using the green cherries as leaves, and the red as berries.