01 January, 2011

The 6th Day of Christmas

New Year's Eve

Its a traditional Southern meal, with a twist. Both of our local markets were out of black eyed peas. I used black beans instead. Soaked them overnight, put them in a dutch oven with hamhocks, a bit of salt and fresh ground pepper, a dash or two of Hatch mild red chile powder, and a coarse chopped onion. I added enough cold water to cover it all, brought it to a rolling boil and then reduced the heat to a low simmer.

Three hours later, I began the process of making bread.

I use a recipe from the Tassajara Bread Book. The book was first published in 1971. My copy dates back that far. It is dog eared, crusty and well loved. Some years ago, I finally had to add clear packing tape over the binding to hold it together.

The Tassajara Zen Mountain Center is located south by southeast of Monterrey, CA in the Pacific Coastal range on the edge of the Big Sur Wilderness. The hot springs on site have been in use since prehistoric times. In the late 1800's a hotel and spa were built there. In 1967, it was purchased by a group of Zen Buddhist's who transformed it into the first Buddhist monastery in the U.S.

Much like Christian monastic life, Zen Buddhism is based upon prayer and meditation and holy work, what can be described as prayer and meditation in action. The connection betwixt the two practices came together in the very profound life of Thomas Merton, a Roman Catholic monk.

Along with yeasted bread, I whipped up my Dad's recipe for Southern style buttermilk cornbread. Its not sweet. It is dense, crunchy and honest, a perfect foil for the beans and hamhocks.


6 tablespoons of unsalted butter
1 cup of yellow corn meal
1/2 cup of unbleached flour
1 tablespoon of sugar
1 tablespoon of baking powder (adjusted for high altitude)
1/4 teaspoon of salt
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cup of buttermilk


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Melt the butter in a 12 inch cast iron skillet.

Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Beat the eggs in another bowl and blend in the buttermilk. add the liquid to the dry ingredients and beat until smooth, adding the melted butter.

Here is the secret to making the bread:
Keep the skillet hot with the remnants of the butter greasing the surface. Pour the batter into the hot pan and immediately slip the skillet into the the oven. The hot skillet sears a bottom and side crust almost immediately.

About thirty minutes later, a beautiful brown crust will appear on top. Test with a toothpick.

The Tassajara recipe calls for three separate rises to create a dense dough. It is honest, straight forward and very, very tasty!

While I was making the sponge for the dough, I whipped up some sourdough starter, something I haven't done in twenty years. It will sit, lightly covered at room temp for about 5 days. I will stir it every day. By day 5 it will develop its distinctive "sour" smell and taste as the yeast works and dies. What will remain is an active starter, ready to be made into pancakes or bread or muffins.

With the yeast bread and corn bread out of the oven, we sat down to a fine meal of black beans and hamhock, corn bread and GLORY brand canned southern mixed greens. It was delicious!

Here's wishing a Happy and Blessed New Year to one and all!

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