At our Convent and Community each year, it is tradition for us to celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas. Advent is a time of waiting and the twelve days that follow Christmas allows time for us to reflect and live the “Incarnation of Christ” as we journey towards our yearly profession of Vows on Epiphany. It’s a time of Enclosure for us when we can withdraw from the busyness of our daily lives and set aside time of quiet for Christ and community.
This Christmas, each of us cooks decided we’d make one special gift for the sisters over each of the twelve days. I chose Monday the 26th and couldn’t wait to make this decadent candy. We have lots of chocolate lovers in the Sisterhood, so I thought it might just be ‘the bomb’ and it was! With just a couple tweaks, it is now going to become my favorite holiday indulgence. I had to quadruple the recipe in order to make enough for 65 Sisters and have some extra for gifting, so it will multiply out well. This recipe is just too special to make for just “any” time of year, so save it for a special occasion.
In a large, deep heavy-bottom saucepan, melt the butter.
Stir in the salt, sugar, water, and corn syrup, and bring the mixture to a boil. Boil gently over medium heat, without stirring, until the mixture reaches hard-crack stage (300°F on an instant-read or candy thermometer). The syrup will bubble without seeming to change much for awhile, but be patient; all of a sudden it will darken, and at that point you need to take its temperature and see if it's ready, about 10 to 12 minutes. Pay attention; too long on the heat, and the syrup will burn.
While the sugar mixture is gently bubbling, spread half of the toasted nuts (1 cup), in a fairly closely packed, even single layer, on a lightly greased baking sheet or 1/2 sheet pan.
Top with half the chocolate chips (1 1/3 cups).
When the syrup is ready, pour it quickly and evenly over the nuts and chocolate. Immediately top with the remaining chocolate (1 1/3 cups).
Wait several minutes for the chips to melt, then gently, using the back of a spatula, spread the chocolate evenly and top with the remaining toasted nuts (1 cup).
Allow to cool at room temperature and the chocolate will harden. When cool, break it into uneven chunks.
Store cooled candy tightly wrapped; it'll stay fresh for a couple of weeks at room temperature. Freeze for longer storage.
I’ve heard it said that the sense of smell is the earliest and strongest to develop in humans. I remember once at a restaurant there was a special on oysters that came from the town where I grew up. I splurged and ordered them just for fun. When they arrived and the fresh, salty smell wafted up to me, tears came to my eyes along with so many wonderful memories of my childhood there on the water.
I think it’s the same for many of us at Christmas. There are certain scents that transport you directly into this season of celebration and joy. Take ginger for instance! I love baking days here at the Community — as you cross the common, in addition to the beautiful lights and wreaths and garland, the smells drifting from the kitchen put smiles on everyone’s faces. It actually seems like another way to spread the good news: Christmas is coming! Jesus is on his way, and we’re getting ready — with Ginger Cake!
Start with your ingredients at room temperature. Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease a 9" springform pan or a cake pan that's at least 2½ inches deep.
In a small mixing bowl, combine the melted butter and brown sugar; mix well and pour the mixture into the prepared pan. Tilt the pan a little from side to side to help the mixture spread all the way to the edge.
Arrange the sliced pears side-by-side over this brown sugar mixture, making sure that they cover the entire bottom of the pan. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the dry ingredients and mix well with a whisk until airy and fully combined. Set aside.
In the bowl of your stand mixer equipped with the paddle attachment, beat the the butter and brown sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
Add the eggs and beat again until pale and airy.
Incorporate the apple sauce and molasses, mix until well combined, and then add the dry ingredients and mix on low speed until just incorporated, no more.
Pour over the pears and spread all the way to the edge.
Place a piece of aluminium foil under or around your pan to catch any eventual leakage and bake for 60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Let the cake cool for 10 to 15 minutes or until it's cool enough to be handled safely then flip it onto a rimmed cake plate.
Serve warm, garnished with vanilla ice cream, chopped nuts and a drizzle of honey or caramel sauce, if desired.
As we enjoy these cool crisp days, my taste buds long for a creamy soup to warm my body. This soup is a treasure. The smell of it is a potpourri to scent your entire house! It has become our favorite soup for the season. Recently, we served this as the first course to the luncheon we hosted pre-performance for Elements Theater Company’s performance of “All My Sons”. We received so many recipe requests, we thought we should share it. We are filled with gratitude for each of you. Happy Thanksgiving and a blessed Advent!
Melt the butter in a large pot. Add the onions and cook over medium-low heat until soft and translucent.
Add the butternut squash, sweet potatoes, chicken broth, salt and pepper to pot. Turn the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until vegetables are very tender, about 15 minutes or more.
Turn off the heat. Add the diced apple and purée the soup with a handheld immersion blender until very smooth and creamy. Pour the blended soup into a clean pot.
Add the honey, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg and heavy cream and stir. Bring to a simmer. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. If you like a sweeter soup, add more honey.
Note: This soup thickens as it cools. If necessary, add a bit of cream to thin it back to desired consistency.
With thanks to Once Upon a Chef for inspiration of this recipe!
Our Convent bakers are always thinking ahead and experimenting — their thoughts and ideas are often very innovative! This week they were totally into Thanksgiving and enjoying it thoroughly. They assured me that I would be pleased with the final outcome of their efforts and how right they were! I had heard pumpkin being mentioned so I was expecting a pumpkin dessert of some sort. Instead they produced the tastiest dinner rolls which could not have pleased me more — whimsical little pumpkin-shaped creations, each complete with its own stem. I can’t wait to see the smiles on every person as they gather around the table this year.
In a bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Sprinkle with sugar; let stand for 5 minutes. Add milk, brown sugar, pumpkin, butter, salt, spices and 2 cups flour; beat until smooth. Stir in enough remaining flour to form a soft dough. Turn onto a floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic, about 6-8 minutes. Place in a greased bowl, turning once to grease top. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour. Punch dough down.
Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Divide into 24 evenly-sized pieces. Working a few at a time, roll each piece of dough into a 12-inch rope on an un-floured surface. Before shaping, lightly dust ropes with flour, and then, with floured hands, turn each one into a pumpkin.
Create a small loop in the rope with a long tail on one side and a short tail on the other. Wrap the long tail around the edge of the loop 2-to-3 times. Hold the remaining end of the long tail on the bottom-side of the loop with a finger to keep it from unraveling as you continue to work. Wrap the other tail around the edge of the loop, tucking it through the center of the loop.
Pinch both of the ends together where they meet on the bottom side of the loop. If you’re not happy with the look of any of the rolls, simply set them aside for about 10 to 15 minutes and reshape. Place finished rolls on parchment lined baking sheets. Cover rolls loosely with plastic wrap and let rise for about 10 minutes.
Just before baking, brush rolls with an egg wash for a shiny look or butter for a matte finish. Insert a sliced pecan into the center of each roll, pressing so the pecan touches the pan. In an oven preheated to 400° F, bake rolls for 12 to 15 minutes, rotating halfway through baking time. Rolls should be golden brown and gently firm to the touch. If not serving right away, shorten the baking time by several minutes and finish baking right before eating.
Waking up on these cold, crisp fall mornings with frost on the ground, my alarm clock begs to be put on snooze for those last 5 minutes of shut-eye. But in Convent life, that’s not what we’re called to; instead, a quick prayer of thanks to God, and our feet hit the cool ground as we dress for Lauds. I sometimes imagine God smiling at our groans, the creaks in our bones, and the selfish moments we want to steal for ourselves before spending time with Him. I’ve recently experienced the transparent love that God has for me and I think these waking moments are no different! After Lauds, we have a silent breakfast together in our refectory. Silence is essential to our spiritual life because it allows us time to listen to God’s voice preparing us for the day, and not our own. I have to admit that I battle doing my own mental checklist during this time; fragile as we are, God smiles!
The change of season also brings its own collection of recipes, both old and new. Warm custards and puddings, soups and stews, root vegetables, apples and pears. I particularly love rice pudding, and this old fashioned recipe (so similar to the one that my grandmother used to make) is lovely to enjoy warm for breakfast or with whipped cream for a cold evening’s dessert.
Preheat the oven to 300 F and grease a 9x13" glass pyrex pan or 8 cup ovenproof dish with butter.
Rinse the rice under cold water and place in the dish.
Place the cream, milk, sugar, and a generous grating (or 1 tsp) of nutmeg in a medium saucepan. Scrape the seeds of the vanilla beans into the milk mixture (if using) or add the vanilla.
Heat gently until almost simmering, then remove from the heat and pour over the rice, stirring well.
Dot the butter over the top and place in the oven for 1 1/2 hrs, stirring after the first 30 min. At this stage, you can add an extra grating of nutmeg if you like.
If the pudding still seems very runny, return to the oven, checking every 10 min., until it is loosely creamy but not runny (the rice should be cooked, but the liquid will continue to be absorbed once you take it out of the oven).
When the pudding is golden brown on top and has a soft,creamy texture, remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10 min. before serving.
I’ve had the great joy of working side-by-side with an Italian chef over these last few weeks. The other Sisters who have lived and worked at Via Sacra have also had the tremendous privilege of learning from her. Chef Laura has been so generous with her time and energy as we try to absorb all that we can about Italian cooking. Below is one of her recipes that she taught me this past week and I went home and made it for the villa. These crepes are so delicious and light! Chef Laura serves this as a first course at her restaurant, but we enjoyed it as a light supper served with a fruit salad and a tossed green salad on the side.
All Chef Laura’s recipes are in her head, so I tried to reproduce it here by just observing her. If the quantities seem a little off, just adjust them to your liking! We can still get squash blossoms in the market this time of year in Italy. If you have any zucchini plants in your garden, just pluck the blossoms off and you are all set!
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Crepes filled with Zucchini Puree and Topped with Squash Blossoms
Make the filling: Over low heat, melt your butter in a saucepan and add the zucchini and red onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, until both vegetables are very soft. Continue cooking until most all of the moisture is removed (the zucchini will let off a lot of water while it cooks). While the zucchini mixture is cooking, prepare the crepes.
Make the crepes: In a blender, combine all the crepe ingredients above and blend until smooth. Let rest about 5 min.
Heat a lightly oiled Teflon frying pan (omelet size pan) over medium heat. Pour or ladle the batter into the pan, using approximately 1/4 cup for each crepe. Tilt the pan with a circular motion so that the batter coats the surface evenly. Cook the crepe for about 2 minutes, until the bottom is light brown. Loosen with a spatula, turn and cook the other side for 1 minute. Remove to a plate, put a square of wax paper on top and repeat until all the batter is used up. This recipe should make 8 crepes.
Remove the filling from the heat and mash with a potato masher. Let cool slightly and add the cream cheese and stir until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste. This mixture should be the consistency of pesto or a little thicker.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. (or broiler)
To assemble, in one quadrant of your crepe place a heaping tablespoon of the filling and spread to fill that quadrant. Fold the crepe into quarters and place into oblong serving ramekins (2 per person) or a casserole dish. Repeat, until all the crepes are filled.
Dot each crepe with butter and lay the squash blossoms over them to cover the crepes. Again, dot butter over the squash blossoms and sprinkle the grated cheese over the entire crepe.
Place the crepes in the oven and bake until the cheese is melted and golden, about 5 min. If you prefer, you can also broil them at this step.
Remove from the oven and serve.