Thursday, September 12, 2013

A Continual Feast by Evelyn Birge Vitz

A Continual Feast: A Cookbook to Celebrate the Joys of Family & Faith Throughout the Christian YearA Continual Feast: A Cookbook to Celebrate the Joys of Family & Faith Throughout the Christian Year by Evelyn Birge Vitz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At Pentecost a few years ago the usefulness of food for teaching religious ideas really became apparent to me. I was trying to explain to my children what Pentecost was, and their eyes were getting that glassy look that mothers know so well. I was losing them fast. Then (providential inspiration?) I declared, "We are going to bake a cake to eat on the great feast of Pentecost. How shall we decorate it?" Now, as it happens, my children love to decorate cakes and cookies. Their eyes brightened and their ears pricked up. We made a pretty wild-looking bakery item, with flames and doves and rays of light, but we all had a wonderful time, and they certainly knew what Pentecost was by the time we were through.
Evelyn Vitz goes on to give a recipe for making and decorating the Pentecost Cake, but as we can see, this is much more than a cookbook. As the subtitle says, it is: "A cookbook to celebrate the joys of family and faith throughout the Christian year." This book is perfect for the family who wants their faith present in every part of their lives, including the kitchen and dining room.

The first half of the book focuses on "All the days of our lives" with meals for celebrations, daily dining, and hospitality. This is also where the section on fasting and meat-free meals is included. As Vitz points out, abstinence from meat is still required of American Catholics unless they replace it with some other form of penance or good work. And that puts it squarely in the regular part of our meal planning lives.

"The Christian Year" is the focus of the second half which is organized according to the liturgical calendar. Vitz gives good explanations of the evolution and meanings of different customs and rites. Aimed primarily at Catholic and Orthodox families there is still a lot of information for exploration by Protestant families interested in tradition. The recipes in this section include a big section for saints days and special feast days, organized by season.

Lovely drawings and food-faith quotes are scattered throughout the book in pertinent spots. Some of the recipes are simple, some complex, and they are drawn from countries around the world. All were obviously chosen a lot of care and I was impressed with the range. Most of all, though, Evelyn Vitz's warm personality and love of faith come through in every headnote for each recipe.

Here's a sample recipe that caught my eye since autumn is upon us, which means All Souls Day looms ever nearer (November 2). I want to try these.
Beans of the dead
Fave Dei Morti

Here is a recipe for Italian "soul" cookies called Fave dei Morti, "Beans of the Dead." The theme of beans suggests, among other things, the idea of burial in the ground and rebirth. Sometimes "soul" cookies are called Ossi de Morti--"Bones of the Dead"--and are made in the shape of bones. In fact, the central ingredient in all the forms of this cookis is ground or crushed nuts, which are understood to suggest bones. (This theme is also common in bakery items for this day in other countries, such as Mexico.) These perhaps morbid considerations notwithstanding, Fave (and Ossi) dei Morti are delicious.

2/3 cup blanched almonds
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces and softened
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Grated rind of 1 lemon

Place the almonds on a baking sheet and dry them out for 10 minutes or so in a slow oven: 200°. Reset the oven for 350‚.

Grind the almonds very fine. Place them in a large bowl. Add the sugar, and blend the mixture well with a fork. Add the flour and the cinnamon, then the butter, and finally the egg, the vanilla, and the grated lemon rind, mixing well with each addition. With a fork or floured hands, work the mixture to a smooth paste.

Break off large-bean-sized pieces of paste (about 1 inch long), and place them about 2 inches apart on a greased, floured baking sheet. [My comment ... I would use parchment paper here.] Squash each bean slightly to produce an oval shape like a lima or fava bean.

Bake for about 15 minutes, or until they are a golden color.

Yield: about 100 one-inch beans.

Form pieces of dough into the shape of bones, 1 or 2 inches long.
Please Note:
I received this review copy of A Continual Feast from the good folks at Catholic Family Gifts. They've got a lot of great items there, including this cookbook and several others.

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