Saturday, March 11, 2006
I've dallied over this post for weeks now, adding a little now and then but mostly leaving it to sit for days on end as a draft. It's long past time to send it on its way, so off you go little post!
Part of my reluctance has been due to some uncertainty that this would be of interest to anyone. Maybe it won't... but when I look at the question the other way... would I be interested in a post on this subject or, more broadly, on the subject of religious traditions involving food, I am confident in the answer - yes! The other cause for delay was that I hoped to include some historical background, but had some difficulty coming up with much of anything.
Every two months or so it is my turn to bake communion bread for my church. It's a simple recipe for unleavened bread consisting of just whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, and water. The ingredients are stirred together, kneaded, and then allowed to rest for a few minutes. They are then shaped, cut and baked.
My tools are simple: a couple of biscuit cutters and a bench scraper. The first time I made the bread (which was a number of years back), I didn't have a biscuit cutter that was the appropriate size for the inner-most circular cut. As I so often do, I had left the bread-making until the last possible moment, so I had to quickly improvise. I had a plastic coffee measure that was the right size, so I hacked at the handle with some scissors, pulled and twisted it until it finally came off. I tried my new cutter and it cut beautifully, the only problem was it created such a suction that it was difficult to pull away from the dough. I again dipped into my kitchen toolbox and found a sharp, two-pronged fork which I plunged (with some difficulty) into the closed end of my cutter creating some "breathing holes". Problem solved! My trusty little green cutter served me well for many years and even though it is now retired, I can't bear to throw it away.
The recipe makes eight loaves and each loaf is cut into forty pieces. Most of the time while I'm making the bread, I don't really think about its significance, but when I come to cutting it, particularly when I make the two long cuts - like a cross - I will silently give it a little blessing.
The baked bread has a nutty sweetness that is very good. Of course, I've never eaten more than one small piece at a time.
When I was very young, the only type of communion "bread" I knew were those thin white wafers. At some point (the mid seventies?), homemade communion bread similar to that above was used on occasion. At the church a attend these days, the homemade bread is used routinely and those little white wafers are used only when and if the bread runs out. Anyway, I was wondering how it came to be that those wafers were used for communion. I'm not sure there is a definitive answer to that question. This fascinating history of wafers and waffles says that "The introduction of the ritual wafer into the West cannot be accurately dated, although in the form taken over by Christians, it may have arrived in connection with the cult of Osiris once found throughout the Roman Empire." The other interesting fact I was previously unaware of, is that the eastern Christian church uses leavened bread for communion, apparently believing it to be symbolic of Christ's resurrection.
So that's my story... and guess what? It's taken me so long to write this, that it's my turn to make bread again next week!
Update: I've had several requests for the recipe, so here it is...
4 1/2 cups whole wheat flour (540g)
1 1/3 cups all purpose flour (170g)
2 1/4 cups warm water
Preheat the oven to 450 F.
Mix flours together, then add water all at once. Stir until flour is moistened and begins to "clean" the sides of the bowl. When I make the bread I find there's still quite a bit of flour that is not incorporated into the dough at this stage - that's fine. Dump the whole mess out onto the counter or a board and begin kneading. Knead for 5 minutes or until smooth - you may need to add a little flour as you go if it becomes sticky (use whole wheat flour). When done kneading, cover the dough and let it rest for 5 minutes (I just leave it on the counter and turn the bowl upside down to cover it).
Divide the dough into 8 parts (I find a kitchen scale is very helpful here). Roll each piece into a ball then press into a circle about half an inch thick (it should be about 3 1/4 inches in diameter). Score each loaf into 40 pieces (see the photos above) - cut the smallest circle first, then the larger circle, then cut two straight lines at right angles all the way across the circle, then cut each quarter of the two outer circles into thirds (two cuts in each quarter), then cut each section in the outermost circle in two. When making cuts, cut all the way through or nearly so.
Place loaves on cookie sheets lined with parchment or lightly oiled. Bake bread for 15 to 18 minutes until the center is firm and loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. Cool on a rack.