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.
Old Fashioned Creamy Rice Pudding
- 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!
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.
Saturdays in the Community call for a lot of physical participation, especially for our band members — 20 of which are sisters. Morning Beehive, the weekly time when all Community members gather to work together on whatever jobs need most to be done, starts at 8 am and continues until noon, with a half hour coffee break at 10 am.
Following lunch our convent band sisters pack up and take off with the rest of the band for a full afternoon of serious rehearsal often requiring considerable concentration as well as physical activity.
Everyone knows that when the band comes home they will come home very hungry and be looking forward to a substantial dinner. That’s why we always plan a hearty meal for that evening for all of us.
This week’s Saturday night dinner cook chose to do pork ribs with creamy polenta, chard, yellow squash and salad, but instead of grilling the ribs as we often do she surprised everyone by choosing to braise them…and…the result? Not a rib leftover and she has now been branded “Best Saturday night convent dinner cook!”
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Pat the ribs dry and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat and brown the ribs on all sides, working in batches if needed. Remove the ribs and set aside. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil to the Dutch oven and reduce the heat to medium. Add the carrots, celery, onions and some salt and pepper and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, to remove the raw flavor, about 3 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the vinegar and wine, and then add the red pepper flakes and bay leaves.
- Add the ribs back to the pan and add enough stock to reach halfway up the sides of the ribs. Bring the pan to a simmer, cover and place in the oven. Braise until the meat is tender, about 1 1/2 hours. During the last half hour, uncover to allow the liquid to reduce and the pork to brown. Remove ½ of the veggies and blend to a thick puree- return to pan juices to thicken the sauce.
- Serve the ribs with Creamy Polenta, spooning the sauce on top, and garnishing with parsley.
- Spray the insert of a slow cooker with cooking spray (for easier clean up) and preheat on high.
- In a medium saucepan, add 1 cup of the half-and-half, the milk, 1 tablespoon of the butter and the polenta. Season with salt and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking constantly to keep the mixture lump-free. Boil for 2 to 3 minutes. Pour the mixture into the slow cooker and cook on high for 2 hours, stirring once or twice per hour.
- Once you are ready to serve, open the slow cooker and whisk in the remaining 1 tablespoon butter, the remaining 1/3 cup half-and-half and the Parmesan. Salt and pepper conservatively since the polenta will be served with a robustly salted dish.
Every year after school is out, our young community teenage girls have a 3-week “summer camp” with several of our Sisters. This year they went to New Hampshire for the event.
They were very excited and eagerly looking forward to the many activities ahead of them: lots of time out of doors, hiking, swimming, boating and gardening. I knew that nature crafts would be a part of their learning experiences, and also that there would be indoor activities such as housekeeping and of course, some cooking. I made them promise me that they would surprise me by making something new and different from any of their old standbys. They did not let me down, but kept their promise and came up with this scrumptious, raspberry peach upside down cake, inspired by a raspberry picking event that none of us knew would be happening before they went to camp. I could not have been more pleased!
Raspberry Peach Upside-down Cake
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Slice peaches. Sift together flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt and set aside.
- Place 6 tablespoons butter in a 10-inch cast iron skillet over medium heat until melted then add brown sugar and cook until both are combined and melted, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon. Approximately 8-10 minutes. Turn off the heat.
- Arrange peach slices in a circular pattern (overlapping if needed) in skillet on top of sugar. Add raspberries in areas not covered with peaches. Set aside.
- Cream together vanilla, 6 tablespoons butter and 1 cup sugar until creamy. Add eggs and beat until the yellow disappears. Add sour cream and blend.
- On low speed, add flour mixture and beat just until combined stopping to scrape the sides a few times. Pour batter onto peaches and smooth out to the edges.
- Bake 40-45 minutes. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes.
- Run a knife around the edges to release and invert onto a cake plate allowing the cake to cool another 10 minutes.
Serve with fresh whipped cream.