(Scroll to the end of the post to print your copy of Praying & Making Biscuits including my favorite recipe and a spiritual exercise!)
I peered into the kitchen on the way to my bedroom. I watched my mother glide the rolling pin over a batch of sugar cookie dough. It was December and today was a baking day.. I enjoyed the smells in the kitchen. After baking the cookies, my mother would layer them with wax paper to be stored inside a five-pound coffee can. The cans, eighteen of them, would line the wooden shelf in the cold garage, waiting to be delivered to friends, neighbors, work colleagues, and teachers at the school my brother and I attended.
I wanted to be part of it. I longed to enter my mother's world and learn how to bake the cookies everyone looked forward to receiving. I wanted to reach out to my mom so she would reach out to me, a longing that had been in my heart for many years. I yearned to learn family secrets that were delicious and comforting instead of those that were horrid and traumatic. By the time I turned twelve, I resigned myself to the reality that I was there only to witness experiences, but not to participate in them.
Some of the cookies were simple to prepare, like snickerdoodles, others time-consuming to decorate such as holiday wreaths covered with green icing and small pieces of red citron for berries. My favorite were the chocolate balls. My mother also made peanut butter cookies dipped in chocolate and nuts as well as sugar cookies cut in various shapes - a tree, Santa’s face, a bell, a star, and an angel. My father stepped in to perfectly decorate each cookie using sprinkles, tiny silver candy balls, and coconut for Santa’s beard.
Aside from my father’s help with decorating the cookies, the kitchen was my mother’s domain. She kept everyone else out of the kitchen when she baked Christmas cookies or any type of cake or pastry. She kept her eyes on her work, mixing, rolling, setting the timer, putting the cookie sheet into the oven and taking it out. I knew my place. From previous rejections, too many to count, I learned that I wasn’t to bother her or even ask to be part of what she was doing. I missed out on the opportunity to learn recipes for ethnic dishes and pastries from my mother’s Russian heritage as well as techniques to make the abundant number of cookies she baked at Christmas. But now I realize she too missed out on passing down these recipes and time spent bonding with me over cracking eggs, stirring, naming ingredients, and rolling out cookie dough.
As with so many repressed interests when I was growing up, I resolved to teach myself to bake when I got older.
Shortly after I married, I learned to bake bread. For our wedding we received a set of nesting bowls, the largest a perfect size to hold a rising ball of dough. My mother didn’t bake bread, so I was carving out my own identity in the kitchen.
I quickly learned the preciseness of bread baking. Making sure the temperature of the milk was right, not so hot that it would kill the yeast or so cold that the yeast didn’t rise, was central to preparing the dough. I depended on a thermometer for those early years of baking, but in time, I was able to calculate the temperature by putting a half stick of butter in the milk and watching it melt. I knew when the melting butter formed a rectangular ring, the temperature was perfect.
I continued to bake our bread for many years after we were married. We welcomed the wonderful smell of the kitchen when the dough was baking. We enjoyed sinking our teeth into the crusty top and the soft middle. A slice of fresh bread right out of the oven with butter melting into the holes of the bread was the perfect treat.
At Mike’s first church appointment following seminary, a middle-aged couple invited us to dinner. They served biscuits with the meal. I never had a biscuit before and was intrigued with the circular bread. I asked lots of questions about baking biscuits.
“Here is an old biscuit cutter and my recipe,” the hostess said as we left for home, “Let me know how your first batch turns out! I love baking biscuits.“
I was touched by her kindness and desire to help me learn to bake something new. What a contrast to my mother, who didn’t want me anywhere near the kitchen.
As I made biscuits, I held the sticky dough in my hands gauging carefully how much flour to add to make the dough smooth and easy to mold.
With the addition of a second child eleven years after we were married, I was too busy to make bread. I also worked part-time and had very few extra moments to bake.However, I could still bake biscuits regularly. They took less time, did not involve dough rising twice, and I could easily get them made with the assistance of a daughter.
I loved having my children in the kitchen helping me. With a child standing on a chair close by, we stirred and added ingredients, talking as we worked together. Baking cookies or biscuits or bread with my two daughters was a great way to teach language using descriptive words. Color, texture, mixing, rolling, and kneading. Learning the names of kitchen utensils like bowls, biscuit and cookie cutter, rolling pin, measuring cups, and spoons. Naming ingredients like flour, eggs, milk, and cooking oil. Action words like cracking the egg, stirring the butter, chopping the nuts, rolling the dough. These made each baking project a learning experience.
I can still hear them dragging a chair across the kitchen floor to a spot next to me at the kitchen counter. Standing on the chair gave them a few extra inches to see what was going on in the bowl. I found each child relaxed as we prepared and rolled the dough. We talked about whatever was on their mind: school, friendships, being part of a group, after-school activities, special interests. Working together side-by-side created an intimacy and closeness for discussion. They were not witnesses, but meaningful participants in kitchen preparations.
Every November, when Mike was pastor of Center United Methodist Church on the southside of Indianapolis, the church would hold an annual action at a chicken and noodle dinner. Once, I decided to auction a year of biscuits at the event, one batch a month. When it came time for the bidding several people were interested. I listened with excitement wondering how much my biscuits would bring. My donation eventually brought $30.00 to the top bidder, a retired couple.
Baking biscuits for the year was so much fun. I couldn’t believe someone would donate thirty dollars to the church for what I made in the kitchen. Each month I delivered the biscuits I was greeted with joy and gratitude.
“You make the best homemade biscuits,” the couple said. “We like to cut the biscuit in half, put cheese in the middle and melt in the microwave. Sometimes we put honey on the biscuit. However, we eat them, we enjoy them so much. We are glad we won your donation.”
Every time I left their house after a delivery I felt gratified knowing I provided something they found meaningful. Their appreciation warmed my heart.
When we lived in Vincennes, 1989-1996, my reputation for baking biscuits spread quickly as I shared batches with friends and neighbors for birthdays or as Christmas gifts. I could barter any favor from a friend, including childcare, as long as a batch of biscuits was involved.
Baking biscuits was woven into my daily routine just like brushing my teeth or washing my hair or swimming laps.
When Mike was assigned a church in Fishers, Indiana, I had no idea how my participation in programs and morning events at a local Catholic retreat center would deepen my faith and affect my biscuit baking. Moving to a larger city opened many opportunities for spiritual growth. My soul was thirsty to grow and deepen in God’s presence, but living in smaller towns, I had trouble finding resources to help with the spiritual growth I was seeking.
One day, I was exploring the different names listed in the Bible for Jesus, wanting to name my image of God’s Son - shepherd, morning star, counselor, etc. When I read “bread of life,” I paused. With my history of baking bread and biscuits, I was drawn to the image of Jesus as the bread of life. Taking the communion bread, I experienced Jesus tangibly. I never saw shepherds or the morning star, but I did bake biscuits, and bread was a familiar way for me to relate to Jesus.
Thinking about Jesus as the ‘bread of life’ helped me experience baking biscuits in new ways.
Before I started, I lit a candle, a reminder that God was with me, God’s presence filled my kitchen. I blessed my hands recognizing God is in my hands, in all parts of my body and my life. My hands were doing holy work. I put all of the ingredients on the table, ready to gather each one prayerfully to put in the bowl.
The simplicity of ingredients for biscuits – milk, flour, baking powder, and baking soda – reminded me that Jesus was a simple person, unencumbered by possessions or wealth. Jesus noted the power of small things: yeast, seeds, a pearl, and a mustard seed. I wanted to be more like Jesus. I thought about how I could simplify my life. Maybe I could eliminate a few magazines I was receiving. Did we really need a new couch? I was thankful my job made a new requirement for all employees to wear scrubs not street clothes. I could surely save money and effort by simplifying my wardrobe.
Stirring the ingredients helped me to ponder how God was stirring my soul. What new thoughts surfaced about God? How was my prayer life changing? I realized that saying a lot of words before God could be superfluous, and quietly resting in God’s presence became a new way to pray. Where could I make connections in the body of Christ to spread God’s love?
I felt connected to the body of Christ while kneading the sticky dough, blending in more flour to make the dough smooth. In time my hands listened to the dough. I could feel how much flour the dough required without even looking. If I was giving the biscuits to someone, I prayed for that person or a circumstance they were facing. Love and prayer were kneaded into the dough.
While the biscuits baked I smelled the aroma coming from the oven. God was with me each step of the baking process. I was co-creating with God, preparing bread in the presence of the Bread of Life.. After nine minutes in the oven, the biscuit tops took on a golden hue. I rubbed margarine over the top of each one noting how baking biscuits is a tangible venture from creation in Genesis to the transformation of the resurrection.
While the biscuits cooled, I tore a piece of paper into the shape of a biscuit. Tearing rather than cutting represents the unpredictability, the uneven edges and unknowns in life. Sometimes I would write a sentence, prayer, reflection, or blessing expressing how I felt during my mini retreat making biscuits. When giving the biscuits to someone else, I would include the paper so they might sense holiness in this tangible expression of the body of Christ.
Gathering the pans, bowls and measuring cups to wash, I thanked God for being with me, for speaking to me while I baked.
Inspired by my personal experience of God’s presence in the kitchen, I even put together a day-long retreat, “Praying with Bread,” which I presented to several church groups. I explored passages in the Bible mentioning bread. Participants drew around their hands on a piece of paper and thought about ways we used our hands in everyday life. We would discuss reflection questions for each topic, and after lunch, the group made a batch of biscuits, spending time in silence while the biscuits were baking in order to reflect on their experience that day. When the biscuits were done, each person shared what the day had meant personally. Each participant took home a couple of biscuits and reflection questions to conclude the time.
Although it’s been a few years since I gave the retreat, baking biscuits is always a holy time for me. I continue the practice of lighting a candle and blessing my hands, pondering the stirrings of my heart with each step. If I am baking biscuits to give to someone I pray for them, kneading prayer and love into the dough.
One day, I sensed God leading me to express the joy I felt baking bread and biscuits. I got a sheet of white paper and two pens, the blue one for my right hand and the red one for my left hand. I started at the top of the paper and drew a sketch of myself wearing an apron with a bowl filled with rising dough resting on a table in front of me. A star on the apron bib represented Jesus as the morning star. I’ve learned that the morning star is the brightest one in the sky. Even though clouds may cover the light, I know that the morning star is still there, giving me the comfort of knowing Jesus is always with me. Combining the two names for Jesus, morning star and bread of life, in one drawing took me deeper into God’s presence. (See drawing at beginning of this post.)
I also sketched a bowl of rising dough and wrote a poem about feeling like a warm loaf of bread, expressing my need for comfort and containment. (See drawing below.)
“I want to be
The loaf of bread
Wrapped in cloth
Warm and resting
On a table
By the fire.”
When I was growing up, the kitchen was not a place where I was welcome. When I started cooking for myself, after finishing graduate school and starting my first job, I was an awkward and uncomfortable cook, relying on hot dogs and pre-prepared meals for dinner. However, after I got married, the kitchen became a place of exploration and creativity, putting ingredients together, following a recipe or venturing out on my own with self-made dishes. When I began to make bread, a whole new world opened. Can you imagine that learning about biscuits in the mid-70’s paved the way for my spiritual growth?
All work is holy work. Acknowledging the holiness of ordinary tasks keeps us aware and closely connected to God in our everyday life.
I am reminded of Brother Lawrence, a 17th century Carmelite monk. Brother Lawrence was known for “the practice of the presence of God.” Assigned to work in the monastery kitchen, he peeled potatoes, prepared meals, mopped floors, scraped burned bowls, and all other tasks to keep the kitchen clean and functioning. Brother Lawrence said, “The most effective way for communicating with God is to simply do ordinary work with a pure love of God. Our actions should unite us with God when we are involved in our daily activities, just as our prayers unite us with him in our quiet devotions.” Brother Lawrence was equally prayerful cutting carrots in the kitchen as he was attending chapel services several times a day.
After reading about Brother Lawrence many years ago, I applied his practice of the presence of God to ironing Mike’s shirts, my blouses, and the cotton clothes the children wore. I did not like to iron, and approached the pile of clothes begrudgingly. However, praying for my family while I ironed brought God into an ordinary task, added my love to their garment, and helped me feel refreshed and renewed when I finished.
A few years ago, I read an article in “O” magazine, March, 2004, “What They Did for Bliss.” Journalist Sara Davidson visited the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. There, nuns live on 450 acres of land where they grow their own food and make cheese. The religious community is unique because the forty women in the Benedictine order had attained success in the world before becoming nuns. A few of the nuns have been married with children. They pray in Latin, sing Gregorian chants eight times a day, and take vows of chastity and obedience.
During the author’s visit, she helped in the cheese-making process. One of the sisters, Mother Mary Margaret Georgina explained, “The cheese, if created with love and tenderness, ‘will speak.’ Everything we make that goes out of here speaks. That’s one way contemplatives speak to the world.”
Sara spent several days at the abbey, following the sisters doing their work and participating in worship. Preparing to leave, she read a sign in her room asking guests to change their linens. She found the clean sheets in a cupboard and began yanking and tugging at the antique bed. Frustrated, trying to hurry and get the job done, she suddenly paused.
“The nuns put love into the cheese, the flowers and fruit they grow, the animals they care for, the shawls they weave. Why not put love into the linens for the next guest who may arrive feeling shy, uncertain and expectant like me?” She slowed down and smoothed the pillows gently, and tenderly as Mother Margaret Georgina had suggested handling the cheese. She imagined the material would hold, even remember, the love she offered as she made the bed, silently welcoming the next guest.
When we approach menial tasks with an awareness of God’s presence, love is transferred into all we do: ironing clothes, cooking, scrubbing pots and pans, making a bed, or kneading dough.
What elements of your daily life might have room for prayer?
How can you increase your awareness and welcome God, who is already present, into what you are doing?
When I was growing up, the kitchen felt like my mother’s domain, but it really was God’s domain. As the psalmist says, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” Through the years, whether baking biscuits with my daughters or alone with God there was a sense of community in the process: the community of God, and the ingredients in my hands as I worked the dough and prayed over church members and friends.
Brother Lawrence quotes are taken from the book, “The Practice of the Presence of God.”