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Humbled By A Tiny Loaf Of Bread

12-11-06 update to this entry:  See my Prosphora baking tutorial in the wiki

imageWhen it comes to cooking and baking I’m pretty confident in my abilities. I’ll give just about anything a try except if its too fancy, requires a lot of detail or many steps to complete. You won’t find me making braided breads or complex sauces; I’m just not that patient or precise. A friend who is an accomplished baker once told me that cooking is an art but baking is science, understanding and controlling the chemical and physical properties of the ingredients is vital to a satisfactory result.

When I volunteered to make prosphora for our small mission parish I had anything but science in mind. What could be hard about making a small loaf of bread I thought. For the non-Orthodox reader,prophora is a loaf of leavened bread, ranging in size from 2-3 inches in diameter.  Prosphora means “offering” in Greek and is used as the Lamb (the bread which will become the Body of Christ) in the Divine Liturgy and will be used to commune the faithful. During the Proskomedia service prior to the beginning of Liturgy the priest uses several (in Russian practice) prosphora removing portions to commemorate the Mother of God, the Holy Angels, John the Baptist, and others according to the rubrics of the Church. Individual parishioners can also “offer"prosphora for the service along with prayers for family members and other Orthodox during the Proskomedia service.  The priest says a short prayer and removes two small wedges from the loaf and places it on the diskos to be later added to the consecrated Gifts.  After the service the prosphora is taken home and a small piece consumed every morning with a sip of Holy Water to “break the fast” ( you know the true origin of the word “breakfast”). My job was to make prosphora for this purpose.

As I said, I was pretty cocky about my ability to easily handle this. I’ve made lots of bread over the years, I regularly bake bagels and scones among other things, I’ll be cranking these out in no time was my attitude. Baking prosphora is not like baking muffins or any other type of bread; as with everything in the Orthodox world it is a serious matter requiring a prayerful attitude. After a short prayer and blessing of all ingredients the process begins. The ingredients are basic: unbleached white flour, yeast and water (in some recipes salt)... nothing else. This apparent simplicity is deceptive, the perfect loaf is dense, but not tough, springy but not airy. Comprised of two separate pieces of dough in layers, the top is impressed with a seal of the Cross, and in the four sections the Greek letters of “Jesus Christ,“IC XC, and the Greek word NIKA, which mean “Jesus Christ conquers.” 

I found a recipe at Prosphora.org called “the foolproof recipe”, now what could go wrong with that ... plenty! There are many variables in baking, even when only a few ingredients are involved. Every brand of flour is different, the same flour can vary seasonally and can change in moisture content from day to day, all effect the process. image
The HolyProsphora Bakers
The flour I use is a wonderful high gluten product out of a mill in Portland, Oregon, I use it for everything. The so called “foolproof recipe” is not so foolproof for this fool, it required tweaking and considerable trial and error to work with this flour.

With the recipe’s suggested amount of yeast, the loaves were too airy and light.  Airy and light doesn’t hold the impressed letters, they disappear as the dough rises. It also makes it hard for the priest to cut out wedges because the bread tends to form a light domed crust that collapses when cut. For casual eating this is fine but not for prosphora.  With no sugar to feed the yeast the dough rises slowly and can not be rushed, nor should it be allowed to rise too much before baking or put in prematurely to rise too much in the oven.  Humm ..what was that I said about details? Where breads with many ingredients like sugar, salt, and oils are more forgiving, with a greater margin for error, prosphora has to be done just right relying on exact measurements and timings to achieve the proper result. Unfortunately I’ve discovered this all the hard way! After making prosphora that ranged from hockey pucks to flying saucer look-a-likes I’m finally closing in on the right balance of ingredients and timings. 

The primary unlisted ingredient for the real “foolproof ” prosphora recipe ... HUMILITY!  Anyone need a hockey puck for breakfast?