Monday, February 28, 2011

Our Lady of the Rock -- Part 5 (Final)

Chocolate and roses
My sleep had been deep and peaceful, perhaps due to my resolution to end the trip, perhaps simply due to the velvety silence of the night; and I awoke to the gentle lowing of cows. I would speak to Mother Hildegard after the morning Terse, make the most of the day, and leave on the evening ferry. But the first thing I would do was to visit the cows.

I threw on my jeans, made some coffee and strolled outside to find them, munching on grass, happy enough in their confinement. The bells rang, signaling that it was time to go to the chapel.

I found the morning prayer to be such a luxury, although more for me perhaps than the sisters. They had been up since dawn, I expect; as there had been two other prayer services before this one; and while I sat quietly with eyes closed, luxuriating in the sounds of worship, they chanted. It seemed like such work for them, and I the beneficiary.

That work, however was soon over. I rose to meet Mother Hildegard outside.

“I realized last night,” I told her, “that I should go back today to see my mother. She’s not too well, you know, and, well, I think it was wrong of me to come here. I’d like to cook today and leave tonight.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” she said with a surprisingly grave rich voice full of sincere gentleness, and my eyes began to burn. She continued, “I’m sure you know what you need to do. I’ll meet you down in the work kitchen and you can get started. It is the building right next to your guesthouse, connected to the dairy. I’ll see you down there in a few minutes.” Again, she disappeared behind the gate, and I took my own path down to the kitchen. This time, I was ready to work alone, as they did, each tending to their own tasks.

The kitchen was a welcome sight, a clearly workable and unpretentious space. There were boxes of apples, several varieties, they no doubt were donations from nearby farms. There were also lines of mason jars, bowls and strainers on bare wood shelves, and a large mixer on an old wooden work table. The place was clean, and everything looked old and very well used. I found a dish towel which I wrapped around my head to contain my hair, and threw on an apron.

Mother Hildegard entered hurriedly, and with efficiency she set about showing me the kitchen. With a sharp ‘crunch’ down on the levered door handle she opened the large reach-in refrigerator. “Here is where we keep the eggs, milk and produce. The dried fruit, chocolate and nuts are over there.” She slammed the door closed, then opened another door into the large room containing a walk-in freezer. “Here’s the butter and over there are the bins of flour and sugar.” I ran after her  back into the kitchen where she grabbed a cookbook entitled Bars which she quickly leafed through. “I love these pecan chocolate bars, but any of them are good.” She slapped closed the book. “What kind of crème brûlée did you want to make?”

“Hmmm,” I said. “I love to work with rose petals or lavender as long as there are no pesticides on them. Do you have any of that?”

“Only dried ones from the garden for Sister Patrice’s pot pourri,” she said apologetically, as though she usually had fresh ones on hand. She threw two one-gallon bags onto the  work table; one filled with brilliant magenta rose petals and the other with lavender. I chuckled shaking my head, never having before seen such a large supply in one place.

“I have to get to the animals, now. Mother Therese will bring over the cream as soon as she gets it skimmed, and Sister Barbara will come get you at about three o’clock to go up to the herb house to work on Mother Patrice’s mustard. One of us will take you to the ferry a little bit after Compline.” And with that, she blew out the door, clearly having much more to do somewhere else.

Immediately I set out to make the bars. I put together a shortbread dough and pressed it into the bottom of a baking pan, then placed it in the oven while I assembled the chocolate-pecan topping. The recipe called for more chocolate chips than they had so I chopped up semi-sweet chocolate pieces. It seemed to call for an awful lot, but somehow I just didn’t trust myself and just went by numbers. I don’t often use corn syrup and that seemed too much as well. And parchment--Oh God! There wasn’t any, so I had to use waxed paper. Even waxed paper was making me nervous. My stomach began to tighten. Cooking for nuns should not have been this daunting -- even these pecan chocolate bars were proving too much for me. But I powered on. Actually, this felt more like careening.

Just as I put the pecan bars back in the oven, Mother Therese entered gingerly holding a glass pint pitcher of cream. She was careful not to splash any of it over the top. “Here’s the cream, as much as I could get of it, anyway,” she said placing it on the work table. “Hope it will do!” Of course it would! I thought. I’d make just as much crème brûlée as I had cream. In fact, I would even add some milk to add to the layering effect Mother Hildegard had described.

I’d need one egg yolk per half cup of cream and milk. The trick however, would be in steeping the rose petals. I wanted to keep the milk raw, but needed heat to steep the petals. I ended up steeping a small amount of cream with all the petals, leaving the remaining cream raw. Then I mixed together the eggs and sugar, strained in the rose-cream the raw cream, and the milk, then I poured it all into one pan which was placed in a hot water bath. I opened the oven, pulled the pecan bars out and placed them where they could cool, then I put in the crème brûlée.

Two down, one to go! I thought with satisfaction. Maybe I can do this! And I started in on an apple pie. This will be a no-brainer, I thought as I threw together a quick crust. The apples--there were such beautiful boxes of them. I couldn’t decide which kind to use, so I chose a few of each and tasted the variety as I sliced them up. I tossed in some flour, lemon juice,  cinnamon, sugar, then tasted for balance...and I choked. I had added salt instead of sugar (the two canisters being unmarked and sitting next to each other). There was a moment of panic. I can’t waste the stuff, they might get upset. And it’s not like I can hide the evidence! I gulped hard and rinsed the apples, pouring all that flavor down the sink. Then I added more sugar, lemon juice, cinnamon and flour. I’ll suggest they eat the pie with the crème brûlée, I thought with desperation. It might work, apples and rose are wonderful together.

I looked at the bars which now were probably cool enough to slice. When I tried to lift them out though, my heart sank even further.They were far too gloppy and the waxed paper stuck to the bottom of them. I peeled off what I could, hoping the nuns might not notice the lines of paper on the crust. I was thankful that I would be long gone before they ate the stuff, and I harbored no illusions that the nuns would ever want me back.

I cleaned up as the apple pie baked, returned to the guest house, and waited for Sister Barbara.

“Hello!” she said smiling as she entered the kitchen. “Are you ready to help me with the mustard?”

I was more than ready. We got into the car, the same large station wagon that Mother Therese used, and we drove up past the chapel to an old mobile home in the woods. Shelves along the walls were filled with jars of dried herbs. There was a loom and a small pile of natural dyed yarns, a kitchen sink, and a work table in the center, with a large bucket of mustard prepared by one of the nuns. Our job was to funnel it into smaller jars for sale.

I had hoped for such a time. We filled the jars as Barbara told me a little about monastery life--the structure of it, the extremely early mornings, the hours of singing. She talked about the strange dreams that disassembled her earlier life with a marriage and thriving therapeutic practice and directed her specifically to this place; how this life continued to teach her the radical discipline of ‘letting go’. She explained that she was an ‘oblate’ which meant that there would be a time before she and they would decide if she was a good fit for the monastery. The other nuns, the ‘Mothers’ had interesting accomplishments as well. Mother Hildegard had a PhD in adolescent psychology; she uses the monastery’s heirloom breeds of cattle, sheep and llamas to work with emotionally disturbed youth. Another Mother had a PhD in musicology. (I wondered if she was the one who luxuriated in the sounds and cadence of the liturgy.) Benedictines, evidently, prefer women who know what the world is before they give it up.

When we finished filling the jars of mustard, Sister Barbara drove me back to the guesthouse to prepare for Vespers and Compline which was immediately following on this day.

The final entrance into the chapel was full of mystery. Just as the night before, it was dusk, but the lights were low. I took my place in the back corner, closed my eyes and centered into silence until the sisters entered. This time, I was not going to worry about standing when I thought I was supposed to, I would simply be. The awareness of soft footsteps soon caused me to open my eyes, however. It was Mother Therese standing before me. She whispered, “Would you like the lights on?”

“No,” I answered dreamily.

“I thought not,” she replied turning back to take her place on the other side of the partition. I centered now into the chanting of Vespers, then Compline. When it was over I rose and silently took the road back to the guesthouse to wait for my ride.

Inside, I sat at the table with the rest of my dinner and a cup of tea, this time enjoying the silence while looking one last time out the window. I regretted inconveniencing one of the nuns for my ride while the rest were no doubt turning in, and I so regretted leaving. Perhaps we value these stolen moments all the more because they interrupt obligations and are by design too small.

A soft light glowed from the dairy where the cow was now sheltered. Up the hillside beyond the dairy was a brilliant cascade of lights I hadn’t noticed the night before. I caught my breath. There was more to the monastery than that small space I had initially seen over Mother Hildegard’s shoulder. What I had thought was a simple single story structure was actually a shining wall of windows facing the pasture and the sea.

The curtains were kept open here, even to the dark. The depths of their dwelling served as a  beacon from my night window; and these sisters were there to be the lucky first to glimpse the dawn.

I finished my tea just as the quiet rumble of a large station wagon signaled my approaching ride. I grabbed the suitcase, stepped into the shoes that were tucked so neatly in the mud room, and went outside where, barely visible over the station wagon’s dashboard, sat Mother Therese with Bella beside her.


November 15, 2010
Dear Mother Hildegard and all the sisters of Our Lady,

Thank you so much for your lovely hospitality. You have blessed Shaw Island with your presence and stewardship, and have provided a sanctuary for man and beast alike. I am so sorry I did not stay longer, I miss the place already and hope to return time and again in the future. It was best that I returned when I did. I thank you for your blessings, and hope the desserts worked out alright. Now that I know what your kitchen is like, I'll be better equipped to do some fun sweets next time.

Thank you again.

In Love of Light and Life,
Marcia W.





Rose-Scented Crème Brûlée from the Raw 
(Of course, pasteurized cream will do, if you must.
However, don't use rose water from a bottle. That's a 
different flavor entirely. If you don't have rose-petals 
substitute 3 Tablespoons dried lavender or earl grey tea,
even a teaspoon of vanilla.)
2 cups cream (or a rich mixture of raw milk and cream)
1/2 cup untreated organic rose petals
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar

Heat oven to 325 degrees F and put a pot of water on to boil.

Place 1/2 cup cream in a saucepan and heat just until steaming but not boiling (about 160 degrees). Add rose petals and stir. Leave covered for 20 minutes allowing roses to steep. Strain the cream.

Mix together eggs and sugar being careful not to introduce too much air. (The air bubbles will create a rough surface on the finished product.) Then temper the egg mixture into the cream and pour into small ramekins. 

Place ramekins in a pan, then add the hot water to the inside of the pan, being careful not to get any inside the ramekins. Place the into the center of the oven. Cook just until done but still a little wiggly in the center.

Remove from oven and allow to cool to room temperature in the water bath. Then remove the ramekins, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Just before serving, place sugar on top of each custard, rolling the ramekin around so as to fully coat each surface with sugar. Aim the flame of the blow torch at the surface so that it is darkened and crispy. Serve immediately.

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