In the Orthodox Church, particularly in churches of Slavic background, small breads are baked on a weekly basis (sometimes more in quantity during special seasons) and these are offered to anyone for purchase. These are called prosphora, and they are commemorative breads. In many churches the money given to purchase them is donated to charities. Parishioners may bake them as a labor of love. Five of these loaves are used at the commemorative service that precedes the Divine Liturgy called the Liturgy of Preparation. (In Greek and Antiochian churches, one large loaf is used.) During this beautiful service, the priest prepares the breads to be used at the Eucharist by commemorating Christ, his Mother, saints from the history of the church, the bishops of the church, and those in the congregation for whom prayers are requested – whether they be currently members of the church or not.
The breads are made of two pieces of dough, a smaller circle placed atop a larger one; when they are baked they tend to look like turbans. The two pieces are said to symbolize the two natures of Christ, human and divine, a belief at the heart of the Christian faith.
The top portion is stamped with a prosphora seal. Some churches own a number of seals, which they pass around to different parishioners who take turns in baking. Chapter 6 on White Breads has a recipe for Eucharistic Breads intended for use in churches other than the Orthodox, but there is every reason that others would or could use these seals and recipes popular among the Orthodox for their own breads. Orthodox church supply stores and on-line services offer seals for purchase. The main link here is www.prosphora.org.
The word prosphora is Greek. Pronounce it PROS-phor-a, with emphasis on the first syllable. It means “offering” or “gift,” and it contains the idea of sacrifice as well.
At the proskomedia (the service of preparation), small triangular portions of each loaf are cut out with a liturgical knife called a spear or lance, in memory of the spear that pierced the side of Christ at the crucifixion. When five loaves are used for the commemoration we follow this order: first, for Christ the Lamb of God; second, for his Mother the Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary; third, for the nine ranks of saints; fourth, for the living; and fifth, for the deceased. The loaf for Christ is cut into a square and then cut crosswise on the bottom to just below the seal so it is not further divided at this point. Later, in the Liturgy, it will be divided for use in the distribution of Holy Communion.
The proskomedia is usually unseen by members of the church for two reasons; first, it takes place before the liturgy begins, while the reader and/or choir are serving the hours or matins service as a preliminary prayers to the Divine Liturgy. Secondly, it is usually unseen because it takes place within the sanctuary, behind the iconostasis. We may understand this service, however, as both a lovely teaching vehicle and a magnificent example of the prayer life of the church; hence, some priests have moved the proskomedia table, on occasion, into a space where the people, and especially the children, can gather round to participate in the service visually and be edified.
Those who bake prosphora receive a blessing from their priest. They keep the tools for prosphora baking in a special place (I keep all my seals, my brush for water, my cutters and my wire point in a tin). The tools are “sacred;” they are set apart for a special, in this case holy, purpose.
The work should proceed in quietness. Turn off your kitchen radio and eliminate all distractions before you begin. You want to concentrate. You want to be present with this task and this one alone, for the moment. Arrange all the materials and ingredients on your own table of preparation (mise en place) before you begin. You will need an assortment of round cookie cutters ranging in size from 2 – 3 1/2”.
Take a deep breath and get focused. Make the sign of the cross. Say the prayer:
“Through the prayers of our holy fathers, Lord Jesus Christ, our God, have mercy on us. Amen. Glory to thee, our God, glory to thee.
“O God, whose only-begotten Son has said, ‘With0ut me you can do nothing,’ my Lord and my God, in faith I bend the knees of my soul before your Fatherly goodness and I raise my hands to you: help me, a sinner, to do this work in conformity with your will. Send down your Holy Spirit to guide me in making these prosphora, that they may be worthy of the use for which they are intended.”
Now turning to the ingredients, say a blessing like this:
“In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Lord have mercy (three times).
“O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, through the prayers of your most pure Mother, by the power of the precious and life-giving cross, by the intercessions of blessed Michael the Archangel, of the holy prophet, Forerunner and Baptist, John, of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, of (your patron saint or the saint of the church in which the Liturgy will be served), of my holy Guardian Angel, and of all the saints, have mercy on me and save me, for you are good and the Lover of Mankind. Amen.”
Now you are ready to prepare the prosphora. Here is the recipe; it can be varied in size. The basic recipe below will make a baker’s dozen small prosphora or 5-6 large ones. If you increase the amount of water to 2½ cups, it will produce 25 small prosphora and a dozen large ones.
1. The recipe:
- 1½ c water
- 1 rounded t yeast
- 1 pinch of salt
- 4-5 c unbleached white flour
Mix the ingredients, stirring well until you begin to see the strands of gluten developing; then knead the dough well. You want to make sure that you get loaves with minimal alveolation and maximum consistency throughout; the vigorous stirring and kneading will aid this process. You may do this step in a mixer with dough hook attachment, but be sure to knead the finished dough a few minutes to be on the safe side. Without letting the dough rise, then, go to step 2.
2. Roll the dough out to a uniform thickness. For this task a normal rolling pin is preferable to the tapered French pin. You may wish to do the rolling in two batches, depending on the size of your work surface. Roll them out uniformly as follows: for the base of the larger prosphora, roll to 1/2” and cut out the bases with a 3 1/2” round cookie cutter. For the tops of the larger prosphora and the base of the smaller ones, roll to 3/8” and cut the dough with a 2 1/2” cookie cutter. For the tops of the smaller ones, roll the dough out to a thickness of 3/8” and cut them out with your 2” cutter. Place them on a lightly floured board about an inch apart in all directions.
3. Cover them all and let them rest and rise one hour.
4. Uncover and assemble the prosphora. Fill a glass of water half-way and get out your pastry brush for this purpose. Take one sealed portion and, with the brush dipped in water but not dripping wet, brush the back of the portion; brush the top of a larger portion and place the seal on top of the larger portion. Continue until you have finished brushing them and assembling them. Then take your tool for piercing (a large paper clip, bent into a straight portion with one loop left intact, will serve you well; it may be unceremonious, but it’s useful) and pierce each loaf four times upon the seal in the sign of the cross, then once in the center. This enables the loaf to rise uniformly during baking. You may also see these fives piercings as the five wounds our Lord suffered upon the cross and meditate upon that symbol. Cover the assembled and pierced prosphora once more and let them rest for 20 minutes.
5. Heat the oven to 325. When the 20 minutes is over, place them on your baking stone and bake them for 25 – 30 minutes, depending on the speed of your oven. You want them to be baked but not burned, so monitor the first few bakings to make sure you know precisely how long to keep them in the oven.
6. Cool them on a rack. When they are completely cool, you may place them in zip-lock bags and store them in the refrigerator for use. They are best used within 48 hours of baking.
You may freeze prosphora but they tend to thaw out so that parts of the outer edge flake off. Our preference is that they be as freshly baked as you can manage. Try Saturday night after you have come home from Great Vespers. The entire time needed for prosphora production is two and a half hours start to finish, so you can fit them into your schedule easily. Refrigerate them overnight.
Ss. Spiridon and Nikodim (12th C.) baked prosphora for the Kievan Caves Monastery (Pechersk). Spiridon was illiterate but fulfilled his calling for over thirty years. He sang the Psalms while he prepared the loaves and so memorized the whole Psalter. Remember them, and ask them to remember you, when you are baking.