Thursday, February 26, 2009

Kitchen Christian

Keep the Feast is giving up booze for Lent. So on Fridays, I'll offer a recipe for good homemade bread instead of a cocktail. Bread and wine share a common element-- yeast-- critical for fermentation that allows alcohol to develop in wine and airy pockets in bread. This Lent, we'll devote Fridays to bread instead of wine-- keeping the fast instead of the feast until Easter. Additionally, we'll focus on soup every Monday because the simmering soup pot of my winter home kitchen helps me cultivate a simpler, more prayerful, monastery mindset. Bread and soup are two foods that foster meditative, intentional practices with an ascetic edge, perfect for Lent.

I've been baking bread for years but only recently feel I've become any good at it. When I started baking bread, I had some early successes-- white sandwich bread from my 1964 edition of the Joy of Cooking is a recipe I remember baking with, well, joy-- which helped me gain the confidence which carried me through the occasional frustrations that came later. Bread is simple: flour, yeast, water, and salt. But it is the conditions, not the ingredients, that matter most-- time, temperature, texture, and human touch. Bread, like life, is the careful balance and attention to the particularities of environment.

When I was a graduate student in New Haven, I threw away pounds and pounds of bread dough that never rose. I'd wait hours and hours, even overnight, for the dough to rise, but it never did. I tried fresh yeast and organic flour, but it couldn't create even a little bubble. I was studying Eucharistic theology for the first time and I so deeply wanted to create a beautiful loaf of bread in my own hearth with my own little dinner table altar, but it could not be done. I was expecting something out of a cartoon: the anthropomorphized dough pushing the lid off the bowl ready to be wrangled into the oven, but my dough was more bashful. I created mounds of terrible unrisen playdough. Finally, unexpectedly, grace came to me, and I realized the problem was the tapwater, which was too alkaline for the yeast to live. Without water, there is no life. So I made bread with bottled water for three years and I test the water every time I move.

My love affair with bread started before I ever baked a loaf myself. For two years in college I worked the counter at Wild Grains Bakery in Madison, Wisconsin. I remember it as the best tasting, and best smelling, bread I've ever had-- crispy French boules and baguettes, spongy honey whole wheat, deep sweet rye, and airy and addictive ciabatta. I remember Mikael, who communicated with me through the language of warm buttery brioche rolls and gigantic Russian smiles. (Who needed English?) Every Friday, families from the local Jewish community would line up for fresh challah and I, a Catholic philosophy student, learned about their rituals through their stories and gratitude for our beautiful braided loaves. During those years, I learned about the mysterious centrality of nourishment as a dominant theme of all religious experience.

In the bakery and in my own kitchen, I've learned that yeast is a miracle and the stuff of sacramental mystery. These Friday bread recipes will be like a pilgrimage through my holy loaves and breads I have loved and shared in communion with friends. Even though Lenten prayers focus on the long walk to Calvary, the resurrection is not far away. The bread of life has life, breathing yeasty air in bubbles and growing as it rises along with our Lenten intentions and, eventually, with Christ out of the tomb and back into life. But during Lent, we wait for the rise.