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.
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.
This past spring, the brass group of our community built us an amazing outdoor kitchen and wood fire oven inspired by the one we have at Villa Via Sacra, our mission house in Barga, Italy. All summer long and even now into the colder months of fall, we’ve been able to fire up the oven and make one of our favorite foods, amongst other things, pizza!
When I served at Villa Via Sacra, I invented a Tuscan pizza of gorgonzola and prosciutto with fig jam that we had made from our gorgeous fig tree. It was delicious – almost like dessert – and we quickly adopted it as one of our “house pizzas”. This past weekend, we hosted a men’s retreat at our community, so I thought it might be fun to make some adaptions to this recipe and really perfect it – once and for all. I am so happy with the results! Thin crust pizza with a mixture of sweet and salty ingredients topped with a salad of crisp nutty arugula that’s been tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette. Heaven begins here! It doesn’t get much better than this! Now that figs are readily available in the market (get green fresh ones, not dried) and certainly are a treat to many, you just might want to fire up your oven and give this a try.
Prosciutto, Fig and Gorgonzola Pizza with Arugula Salad
- Place ¼ cup very warm water in a small bowl and sprinkle with the yeast. Let sit for 5 minutes or until yeast is hydrated and creamy (This will allow the yeast to be quickly absorbed by the flour).
- Place flour, salt, yeast mixture, and remaining water in mixer bowl fitted with a dough hook.
- Mix on low speed for 2 minutes to combine. If the dough appears too wet and sticky and is not combining, add flour 1 tablespoon at a time while mixing until dough takes on a “shaggy” appearance.
- Drizzle with oil and mix for 2 minutes more. Dough should form a smooth ball and clear the sides of the bowl.
- Turn mixer off, cover top of bowl with plastic wrap, and let rest for 20 minutes.
- Resume mixing on medium low speed for 3 minutes, or until dough forms a smooth ball, clearing sides of bowl.
- Place in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap.
- Let sit at room temperature for 2 ½ hours. It will double in size. Dough may be used immediately.
Instructions for Assembly:
- Preheat oven to 500 degrees or highest setting
- Cut dough into 4 – 8 oz. balls
- Dust both sides of dough with flour and roll out to make a thin crust
- Drizzle with Olive oil
- Sprinkle generously with Gorgonzola
- Place into a wood fire oven (or regular preheated oven – preferably on a pizza stone)until the crust is starting to golden
- Remove from oven and quickly distribute on top of the pizza: sliced fresh figs, cover with slices of prosciutto and dot with fig jam and mascarpone cheese – don’t get too heavy on any one ingredient or your end result will be soggy and the individual flavors will be lost.
- Drizzle with olive oil
- Place back into oven for about another minute – watch carefully
- Meanwhile, dress a bunch of fresh arugula with an aged balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper
- Once out of oven, top with the dressed arugula, slice and enjoy!
I never cease to be amazed at the number of Sisters who love to bake bread or want to learn how. It always results in a most satisfying experience for all, both those who make it and those who eat it. So we bake and serve a wide variety of breads for the convent and for our guests. But like every other category of foods, there are always some that have more appeal than others and become old standbys. This is the case with our SAVORY dill bread , which is a favorite all year round, but especially at this time of year when fresh dill is flourishing in our herb garden.
This is a flavorful soft textured dough that can be formed into loaves for slicing or various shaped rolls to accompany salads or dinners. Whatever shape they are baked into they are sure to please.
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Dissolve yeast in warm water; add milk, sugar, onion, dill, salt, eggs, shortening or margarine, and 6 cups of flour. Mix well.
- Add enough of the remaining flour to make a soft dough. Knead until smooth and elastic.
- Place in a greased bowl, cover and let rise until doubled in bulk (about 1 hour).
- Punch down and form into rolls or loaves. Place on a greased pan and let rise until doubled in bulk.
- Bake for 12 to 15 minutes for rolls or 20-25 minutes for loaves.