A convert to Catholicism, Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, restaurant critic, and cookbook author, who is passionate about every aspect of the food world—from interviewing chefs to supporting local farmers and to making the connection between food and faith
Charming, thoroughly Catholic, and a skilled baker, Father Dominic Garramone has become something of a celebrity with a following of adoring fans. Living in the St. Bede Abbey in Peru, Illinois, Father Dominic has hosted his own PBS baking show, traveled around the country doing baking demonstrations, and has written 10 baking cookbooks. No wonder he has earned the nickname The Bread Monk.
Father Dominic gives heartfelt thanks to his mother — "my mom was a good cook and an excellent baker,” he said — and attributes his early-on kitchen knowledge to her support. “My mom never said get out,” he said. “She used the kitchen as a classroom, and I always could come in an help.” She would have him count the number of eggs in a recipe, learn how to double fractions into whole numbers, and how to tell time by keeping track of baking times. “We were always in the kitchen cooking,” he said. “And baking was the normal thing to do.”
He remembers his fifth-grade French class when students were assigned to bring in a dish of French country food. Her response was probably the key turning point in his baking life: let’s make French bread. “So I made French bread for the assignment,” he said. “I did all the mixing, kneading and shaping. I took it to school and it was completely devoured. I remember the empty bread board with nothing but crumbs, the martyred pound of butter, and the messy jar half full of preserves.”
From then on, Father Dominic started baking regularly. He did bake cookies, but by high school, bread was his main focus. He remembers baking authentic Jewish challah bread for the cast party after a production of Fiddler on the Roof. Later in drama school, the staff did not serve Sunday supper, so Father Dominic took over the dorm's kitchenette and baked. He told his fellow students he was baking homemade bread, so people would come into his room with ham, cheese, and other fillings, and they ended up having an impromptu feast.
When he entered the monastery, he baked occasionally. Often fellow monks left family recipes in his mailbox, asking if he would make that for Christmas or other special days. “That led to other projects,” he said. “I started writing about baking because there was an herb garden there.” He wrote the editor of an herbal newsletter asking for more herb-filled bread recipes. She ended up asking him to write a column. “My column was titled ‘Notes from the Abbey Kitchen’ and I wrote about all aspects of cooking and baking with herbs,” he said.
Today, Father Dominic bakes twice a week or maybe more, adding that with 10 bachelors on hand, they all go through a lot of bread. “I also bake for our boarding school… and send bread over to them.” he said. “Sometimes I will drop off a pan of cinnamon rolls at a local police station or for nurses in the ER. I bake enough so they can share.”
But locals — and others too — are fortunate to get a session with Father Dominic, as he gives talks, baking classes, writes cookbooks, has had his own TV show, and even recently gave a talk at a master gardeners conference down south.
“I am not at risk for boredom,” he said. “I have had good cooperation from the abbot keeping me grounded,” adding that for him, “baking is a spiritual experience.”
Herbal Encouragement Bread
- ¼ cup warm water (100 to 110 F)
- 1 pkg. Active Dry Yeast
- 1 cup sour cream
- 1 egg
- 1 Tbs. vegetable oil
- 2 tsp. honey
- ¼ tsp. baking soda
- 1 tsp. salt
- ¼ cup minced onion
- ½ tsp. dried thyme
- 4 to 4½ cups all-purpose unbleached flour
Dissolve yeast in warm water and allow to develop until foamy. Heat sour cream to 110 to 120 F and pour into a medium size mixing bowl. Add egg, oil, honey, soda, salt, onion, and thyme, and stir until thoroughly mixed. Add yeast and stir until combined. Add 4 cups flour, one cup at a time, mixing thoroughly after each cup. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead gently for 1 minute. Allow dough to rest for 10 minutes (this resting period helps the dough to “firm up”). Knead for another four minutes, adding small amounts of flour as needed to keep the dough manageable — dough will be elastic but slightly sticky. Lightly oil the surface of the dough and place in the rinsed mixing bowl. Cover with a dish towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free place about 1 hour, or until doubled. Punch dough down and knead briefly to expel the larger air bubbles. Divide dough into three equal portions. Roll each portion into a rope 18” long. Braid ropes to form a loaf, tucking the ends underneath. Place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Cover and let rise until doubled, about 30 minutes. Bake in a preheated 350 oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown and bread sounds hollow when tapped. Cool on rack for 15 minutes, then brush the top and sides of the loaf with butter if desired.
NOTE: I developed this recipe as a bread to share with a friend who is going through a difficult time, as several of the ingredients have a symbolic meaning. The sour cream symbolizes making the best of something that has gone bad. The onions of course represent tears, and the thyme is the herb of perseverance and courage, as this hardy plant thrives in the rockiest and harshest of environments. The loaf is braided to suggest that although things in the person’s life may look tangled and confused, stepping back and reflecting may reveal both a pattern and a purpose. A fresh loaf bread with a handwritten note explaining its message would mean far more than any store-bought card. Copyright ©2001 by Father Dominic Garramone, OSB. Saint Bede Abbey, Peru IL 61354. Used with permission.