Mundane miracle

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I write with good news of great joy! Not only did ‘the season’ see us celebrate a Saviour, but it also marked my first sourdough success! Partially irreverent* comments aside, in the last few weeks I have baked four loaves of bread based on a starter a friend at college gave me (confession: a batch bakes two). Edible, toastable, very-passable bread – it kind of does seem to me a sort of mundane miracle! The starter managed to survive last semester sans close loving attention and now, having sourced my electric scales from home, it has been rendered productive! Eddie gave me the starter and a very prescriptive (gram measurement inclusive) recipe and, following every line, I can bake sourdough bread! I’m both delighted and grateful and wanted to share!

*NB: They are only partially irreverent because after a lecture on Luther the other week – I can affirm that it is right we celebrate our ‘calling’ to everyday life (bread baking included). I was delighted to be reminded again to do a way with dualistic secular/sacred thinking whenever it tries to creep into our lives, worlds and values. Christians are called, not like monks to a life away and set aside, but to serve God where they are – in their families, in their jobs, in civic life. God uses our work in these places as a means of blessing the world, which in turn dignifies our ‘ordinary’ work and gives meaning to our everyday lives. So sourdough is worth celebrating … while recognizing just how vitally good the news was in those dark fields that first Christmas night too!

Gifts given

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“… What do you have that you did not receive? … ” (1 Corinthians 4:7b)

Not much really! I have been musing about the idea of sacrament, ceremony and celebration recently. Thinking about the way that God made a good world, full of good things that should remind us to turn our gaze to Him in gratitude. About formalising our thanks in ceremony. About expressing and sharing our thanks in celebration.

I have been thinking about creation and Eucharist, about feasting and joy, about thankfulness. About a good world, about bread. About cake and friends to share it with. About delight and welcome. These are the threads I am beginning to trace as I learn God’s word. I am beginning to see the story about a world made in love, about good gifts given. About a King and a feast, about coming home to dinner. About fullness of life, about joy, not fear. Oh, I want to be able to tell that story. I want to tell it with loaves of bread baked in precious new pots. I want to tell it with Funfetti cake topped with butter cream frosting and sprinkles.  I want to tell it slowly and carefully and with great joy.

The psalmist tells us that “He withholds no good thing …” Psalm 84:11 and I know it to be true. Sometimes the gifts are extra special though. This last week I was given a beautiful blue le Creuset pot, heavy with the hope of bread to break and dinners to share. Newly arrived in Vancouver, only few months ago, I had also been given an preloved Kitchenaid mixer and then, last week, the bowl finally arrived. Talk about stuff being sacred – my heart and my kitchen are full! So I baked in thanks. I baked basic-bread and a party-cake. The stuff of life and the stuff of celebration. I think we need both. We need the reminder that our earthy bodies are nourished both by the earth, and by the One who offers us Himself, the true Bread of Life. And once we have remembered, we need to gather and celebrate His Goodness and His abundant welcome.

Piece of cake, anyone?!

Ambivalent Consumer

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Sometimes I feel it when I am talking with a sensitive friend, sometimes when I am having a fragile moment myself. The uneasy recognition that each one of us, as complex physical, emotional and spiritual beings, exists in time and space. That by nature of our existence we use up time (as well as other resources) and take up space. In one of my favourite musicals, Sussical, the Who’s from Whoville sing out “We are here, we are here, we are here” to let the creatures in the large world know that they are real. For some of us the tension between this necessary cry of existence and deep reticence in acknowledging our very stuff-ness (and therefore stuff-dependance) can begin to break us.

There is a reconciliation I find myself fighting for on several fronts.

In moments of fear and mis-placed disgust, I long to be smaller, to take up less space, to find more room in my clothes. In corresponding moments of dogged self-talk I begin my schpeil; my body houses my bones, muscles and organs – growth and maintenance is heavily dependant on my genetic code. Isolated, no particular section of me is wildly photogenic or smooth or blemish free. But together, I am a human being, a creature, a body-and-soul matrix with real biological systems that process real organic molecules, animated by solar energy and the very breath of God. Discussions about fasting aside, regular food is necessary for my ongoing survival. Fats, carbohydrates and proteins – all necessary to keep me enlivened, alive. Sometimes I do wish that the whole could be smaller, that there was less of me, that I took up less room. I know that there is much that could be said on the topic. But, in truth, I do not want to be a small person or live a small life. All that remains is to live out of the body I’ve been given; thankful and ready to use it for joy.

Not only do I take up space myself (more than I would like when pressed for the uncomfortable truth), but my stuff does too. My very physicality (yours too) demands food (fairly regularly, ask my husband just how civilised I can be prior to dinner), water, air, clothes, some place safe to rest in, to live in, tools to do my work, toys to share in play. The list goes on. For most of us, where these things can be enhanced with beauty, they seem to answer our needs even more truly. The somewhat obvious and, at times disconcerting reality, is that providing for these very real and tangible cries requires considerable time and money.

In a weak moment we despair at the grocery bill, regret the rent, mourn the price of a new skirt – no matter how thoughtfully the shopping list was put together, how economically our decisions about where to live were made or how careful the purchase of an attractive, up-cycled charity-shop outfit for work was. In this frame of mind, justifying the occasional ‘this-is-beautiful-and-I-really-love-it-purchase’ can be even more difficult. Add to these daily reminders of your reliance on stuff, physical things, the double ups that come from moving to a new place – having left old things behind because moving ‘stuff’ costs. Packing stuff in and out of moving boxes and suitcases has become a recent but reoccurring theme of my life. While previously my stable geography meant that my collection of stuff moved only small distances and made itself less known, now no longer.  As the distances became longer and the cost higher, moving stuff became a more difficult issue for me. Deciding what to take and what to leave when moving away is difficult enough without adding the now-near-existential-regret-come-fear of mine – if I leave it behind I’ll need to buy a new one when I get there!

This summer ‘stuff’ weighed me down; an overseas move, study of Creation care and environmental brokeness followed with further international travel meant (a lot of) real luggage toting. It also meant grappling with my unwieldy emotional baggage. I do not in anyway find myself facing Fall all the ends tied up neat and tidy, but I have had to try and lay the issue down for a spell. It was getting too heavy for me.

We took this course together, Asher and I, in the summer. A course about ‘stuff’. Natural ‘stuff’ and human-made ‘stuff’. Creation in its outstanding diversity and the complex labyrinth of human production, technology and objects. We wondered how to negotiate the two realms, we read scripture and other wise writers. We worried about human failings in ecology. We rowed boats and explored marine environments. We sang and prayed together. We shared bread and wine and remembered the One who’s body was broken because of our destruction. And I think that is where the answers begin.

Our God made and loves this physical world. He made the ‘stuff’! The epitome of a good designer, He made the world both useful and beautiful. He made us as part of His creation to love and appreciate it, to use and work within it, and, as Schmeman would say, to offer it back to Him in praise and worship. God is not only just okay with a real, physical creation, He wanted it that way. He even sent His Son to become part of it. Incredible. God made flesh, bone, body. He knows what it feels to live in skin. His death and (bodily) resurrection answers so many questions, articulated and otherwise, but for my purposes here today, it at least says that our messy, uncomfortable, physical lives, our stuff, our home planet, all matter to Him deeply. He took on the great joy and incredible brokenness of life under the sun – and then some – because He loves His creation. His double affirmation of the ‘stuff’ of this world comes in the way He asks us to remember why He came, bread and wine are to be our mnemonics. We remember God dwelling among us as we eat a meal, a meal that speaks of sacrifice, life given for life and welcome.  Grapes, yeast, wheat, water. The very ‘stuff of life’ tells us the story of heaven meeting earth and welcoming her home, over and over, as often as we drink it.

This is not a full discussion of the spiritual importance of ‘stuff’, but for me, weary from the compromise of trying to do right within a broken system, arms heavy from carrying my ‘stuff’, I’m glad to sit down at the table. Eyes forced to the Head, praise and thankfulness the only right response to the Giver of all good gifts. Will you sit by me?

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4:4-8

Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1963.

The Flour Chronicles : 2

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“Sourdough is the original, truly natural bread. We are talking biblical stuff here …” Jamie Oliver, Happy Days with the Naked Chef (p256)

Perhaps Jamie isn’t aware just how right he is, but for me, a long love of good bread, an appreciation of the benefits of traditional baking methods and a growing theological appreciation for bread’s role as symbol and metaphor were enough motivations to undergo a weeklong experiment. A week and a two loaves after my last post, I thought I would fill you in on my third, almost-beginning-to-be-considered-successful attempt at baking sourdough bread.

Monday – I mixed the 500g of rye flour through some water, enough to make a soft, but still moldable, dough. The dough enjoyed a spot of afternoon sunshine outside to soak up some natural yeasts.

Tuesday – it hadn’t started to bubble (it was meant to) so rather than leave it alone (I was mean to), I added some more water to moisten the dough. Rather than the pliable texture of Monday’s dough, it more closely resembled sticky, greyish mud.

Wednesday – as I had not used organic flour (I was meant to do that too!) I began to worry I might have put the whole dough in jeopardy, but to my great surprise and delight, I discovered bubbles in my dough on Wednesday!

Thursday – now I was about a day behind, I did the Wednesday ‘step’ on Thursday, ‘better late than never!’. I fed and watered the starter, adding a couple of handfuls of wheat flour and enough water to return the dough to the consistency of it’s remedied-Tuesday-texture.

Friday – I feared that disaster had struck when I found slightly frosted, cloudy bubbles on the top of the starter. I imagined these indicated an undesirable mouldy growth. Closer examination revealed that the surface had just dried out. I mixed the ‘crust’ through and the bubbles kept forming. Due to my lack of foresight, the poor starter had to survive a trip to Brisbane in my hand luggage, sealed in a glass container with a plastic lid. It survived nicely and continued to give contended signs of life.

Saturday – my dough happily adjusted to the warm Brisbane temperatures, I went ahead with the next step of kneading in 1kg of wheat flour and enough water to ensure a smooth, elastic dough. At this point I was meant to rest the bread for 14 hours before baking. Several issues became apparent. Namely, my lack of careful reading and addition skills. 14 hours from 1pm was 3am … not an ideal time to bake. I had hastily added the flour (and the salt, meant to be added after some of the dough was removed and reserved to become the starter for the next loaf, grrr), concerned to ensure the bread would have time to rise and bake before my 6pm Sunday flight. My joint fear of airport tardiness and difficulty in slowing down to do the maths both conspired against my need for sleep. However, it was not a concern in the end because the bread rose much faster than expected. In fact, only a few hours later I decided I had better punch the dough down and make two loaves. Even so, by the time we left in the evening for dinner (4 – 4 1/2 hours later), the bread seemed to have exhausted it’s rising power. The structure had begun to collapse. Our tickets to Wicked prevented us from attempting any sort of dough resuscitation at that point and when we returned much, much later the dough had slumped down into the loaf pan. Similarly fatigued, I left it alone till morning.

Sunday – the next morning I reshaped my worn out dough into two small loaves; one in a tin and one on a tray. Although I did give them one last chance to rise again, their efforts the day before had sapped their strength and both remained quite small. After the promising start and long journey (both physical and metaphorical!), it seemed a pity not to bake-and-see. After an hour in the oven at 190oC the loaves were golden and very acceptably bread-shaped. No sooner was it out of the oven and photographed than the bread knife emerged and slices were toasted, buttered and taste tested. Dense and chewy, the sour flavour was present but not unappealing. Ideally my loaves would have been home to a few more air bubbles but this batch was my best and most edible success to date!

Final notes:
– Jamie Oliver is writing from an English context and I imagine his raising times would be based on English ambient temperatures, not northern Australian ones … an important consideration for future loaves.
– the sour dough starter returned with me from Brisbane, it still has a few bubbles, not as many as last week, but I did add that salt too early so what can you do? I’ll just keep an eye on it and see how it grows. Maybe I’ll give it another afternoon of fresh air and sunshine and see what happens!

 

The Flour Chronicles : 1

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There is a delightful scene in the movie Stranger than Fiction where Will Ferrell’s character, Harold Crick, woos the lovely cook Ana Pascal (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) by bringing her flowers, flours that is. Flowers, flour, baking, sharing, giving – love in brown paper packages. This my friends, is the way to a baker’s heart, or perhaps at least this hopelessly romantic baker’s heart! Asher took the cue, my gushing over this particular moment in the movie, and gave me basket of flours this year on the 14th of February. Now it appears imperative that I run a series of baking experiments to try out all the different flours! The flour kitty includes;
– besan (chickpea)
– rye
– gluten
– coconut
– barley and
– millet flour.

To start with I thought I would use the rye flour to resume my long neglected attempts at making sourdough. About a year ago Asher and I visited a very out of the way second-hand bookshop with a surprisingly extensive cookbook range. I found and bought Jamie Oliver’s Happy Days with the Naked Chef particularly for its bread recipes. The sourdough recipe looked straightforward enough and I was keen to graduate from yeasted breads. In the end, after baking a loaf that could have substituted for a doorstop and throwing away the rest of the mouldy starter, I gave up and returned to the Basic Bread Recipe a few pages earlier. Simple and more predictable than sourdough, I baked nearly all our toast-and-sandwich-bread for the rest of the year with this recipe as my guide. The consistent warmth that had upset the finely tuned balance of sourdough starter microorganisms made proving the yeasted dough a dream. It seemed our hot little shed in Geraldton was just not the place to raise a sourdough starter. Now we are living somewhere cooler and more effectively insulated I thought I would try again!

Yesterday was Monday and so, following Jamie’s Sourdough Bread recipe (p256), I began my week long experiment by mixing 500g of rye flour with enough water to make a soft dough. You then let it sit outside for about an hour – presumably to pick up some interesting yeast spores – before coving it with cling wrap and bringing it back inside.

So far, so good. Stay tuned; maybe this time we’ll be lucky!

Pretzels

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This recipe is a variation on the soft pretzels made at a little European style bakery not far from where I used to live. I did an assignment on food production in Year 11 at school – on pretzels. The bakers were generous to let me join them to watch and learn so Dad and I went along at 4:30 or so in the morning one Saturday and learnt the art of Bavarian pretzel making. This recipe is the modified-okay-to-bake-in-the-kitchen-at-home version and results, not in dark shiny pretzels exactly like the shop (this would require a much more alkaline ‘bath’ instead of the vinegar used here), but in a yummy, doughy, slightly salty treat great for lunches or snacks. I did a little tiny bit of researching – apparently early pretzels were modeled with scraps of dough into treats that mimicked the folded arms of a child praying. I’d have to find out whether my sources are accurate but it is certainly a cute story. These pretzels are certainly worth being thankful for – hope you enjoy them!

Ingredients
500g Bakers Flour
1 ½ tsp sugar
1 ½ tsp table salt
2 tsp active dry yeast
3 tsp butter
3 ½ tsp gluten flour
300mL warm water

Wash
500mL water
500mL vinegar
¼ cup rock salt

1.     Combine all dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.
2.     Rub the butter through the dry ingredients till it is dispersed.
3.     Gradually add the water into the dry ingredients, mixing till combined.
4.     Knead the dough for about 10 minutes, until smooth and regular.
5.     Divide into 8 segments.
6.     Take one segment, roll it out into a flat circle about 2 mm thick. Then roll the circle into a sausage shape (the cross section would be a spiral). Roll the sausage into a long rope that is thicker in the middle.
7.     Twist the ends together then fold the twisted section into the loop formed and place the ends on the opposite side of the loop – the thickest part of the dough rope.
8. Combine the water, vinegar and salt to make the wash and dip the pretzel into it.
9. Place on a greased oven tray, slash the thick part of the pretzel and sprinkle with salt.
10. Bake at 180oC for about 20 minutes, turning the trays after the pretzels have begun to colour so they are brown all over.
11. Serve and enjoy that day.

… with many thanks to Arthur and Billy, without whose generosity this recipe and post would not have been possible! 

and so, (late) Easter bread

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Storied food was on my mind and after finally putting pen to paper (so to speak) I posted yesterday’s blog post. Now, an example. A recipe I’ve been cooking with classes to celebrate Easter for a few years now … in the place of Hot Cross buns that promise to take far too long (when you only get a double period to cook in time is really of the essence!). This recipe is from About.com and I’ve adapted it a little. This year, instead of making dolls, I also made ‘Trinity Easter Breads’ to share with my family holidaying at Easter. A buttery sweet bread, it is all that post-Lent celebration breads should be – rich and delicious!

1 cup milk
½ package of dried yeast (half a 10g pkt)
½ vitamin C tablet
3 cups flour
6 hard boiled eggs (they form part of the bread roll and are traditionally dyed red, as in the manner of Greek Easter bread, I have yet to commit to doing this and they still look pretty!)
¼ cup sugar (55g)
¼ cup butter (60g)
½ tsp salt
1 egg
1 Tbs water

Method
1. Preheat oven to 190oC.
2. Crush the Vitamin C tablet using a mortar and pestle.
3. Add the yeast and Vitamin C to the milk, sprinkle with flour and leave in a warm area.
4. Beat the sugar, salt and butter with electric mixer till blended.
5. When the yeast/milk mixture has begun to bubble add to the sugar/butter mixture, with half the flour, mix till combined.
6. Continue adding the flour and mixing to form a smooth, soft dough (you may not use all the flour or you may require more).
7. Dust clean bench with flour. Remove dough from bowl and knead for 5 minutes.
8. Place in a lightly greased bowl, leave bowl in a moist warm area till dough doubles in size.
9. Divide mixture into 3 even pieces, and then divide those 3 pieces into two even pieces – there will be 6 dolls.
10. Roll out the dough making one end thinner and longer and leaving the other thicker. The thicker end should be sliced in half, with each ‘leg’ rolled so they are as thin as the opposite end of the whole piece (kind of making a ‘Y’ shape).
11. Place one of the dyed eggs at the centre, wrapping the single leg (base of the ‘Y’) around it so that it then joins the other two legs and these can be ‘plaited’ together, pressing the dough together at the end.
12. Beat remaining egg in a small bowl with 1 Tbs water, use a pastry brush to glaze the mixture.
13. Place ‘doll’ on a baking tray lined with baking paper and let rest for 5 minutes.
14. Place trays in a hot oven (190oC) and bake for about 20 minutes or till golden brown.

Note: alternatively, you can have a go at making three plats and curving these round, as in the manner of the image above – my ‘Trinity Easter Bread’. The eggs are held in place with a small ring of dough.