STAGES in the preparation of prosphoro
At the start, two things are essential if we are to succeed. The first is prayer and the other is 'correct proportions'.
Having set out all our utensils and measured the ingredients we pause to reflect on the purpose and significance of what we're about to start.
Then we light our candle, place the incense on the lit coal and begin our prayers while incensing our kitchen and all the utensils and ingredients.
Let my prayer be set forth before You as incense, The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. (Ps 140)
It is best to always weigh the ingredients. Don't rely on measuring cups etc. Correct proportions are essential for reliable and repeatable results. Even very small changes in the ratio of water to flour will affect the consistency of the dough, and may cause problems, especially in the shaping and stamping stage and ultimately may affect the quality and taste of our offering.
There are various ways to start. The most straightforward is to stir the salt through the flour in a large mixing bowl, make a depression in the shape of the cross in the flour and pour the water into the depression. Then the starter is added to the water and we note that it floats - a sure sign of it's vigour.
Next we gently and gradually stir all the ingredients together.
A good technique is to scoop downwards with your mixing spoon (or hand) from the edge of the bowl towards the bottom and then lift gently towards the surface, bringing the contents upwards, rotating the bowl occasionally and repeating.
Within minutes, the mixture will look like a shaggy raggedy mass. (image left).
Then press on the mixture in the bowl with your fists rotating the bowl and pressing down every part. Flip the mass over to press some more. Repeat.
Very soon it will become a dough that incorporates all the flour. At this stage, the dough will be rough and lumpy but has almost no bits of dry flour.
Shape it round or oblong and place in into a plastic bag to rest for 30 minutes without drying out. (Alternatively cover with a damp tea towel) This is called "autolysis", during which time the water begins to alter the flour's sugars and proteins and enhances the action of the microbes.
REINFORCING THE MATRIX
We want a low hydration (51-52%) dough. This makes it firm. If after autolysis in the first minutes of kneading the dough sticks to your fingers, then your dough is too moist. Add flour in small increments. If it is too dry and hard or if it splits at the edges as you knead, it is too dry so add very small amounts of water (by spray or moistening your hands) little by little.
Mrs Eugenia describes the consistency of the dough as "not soft like your earlobe, but firm like the muscles in your hand at the base of your thumb".
For kneading, it is best that you position yourself high enough so you can use the weight of your upper body to lean down onto the dough lessening the effort required of your arm muscles. Either position your bench lower (a lower table) or use stool to stand a little higher. Knead for 5-8 minutes. If you use a mechanical dough mixer, use a low setting and only for 2 mins to avoid overheating the dough. Then let the dough rest 5-10 minutes, protected from dehydrating in a plastic bag or covered with a damp tea towel.
KNEADING - IN BRIEF...
The most basic kneading schedule is to knead for 5 -10 minutes and rest (covered) for 5 - 10mins in three cycles. As part of the last kneading, flatten the dough using your fists, to 1 cm thick round. Fold it in half and press down. Fold it in half again and press. Fold a third time into a small parcel then roll it back and forth for several minutes before beginning the shaping stage. Sometimes we use a rolling pin for this work. Here's a ten minute video showing the last cycle of kneading, rolling, & shaping
Getting the shape of the prosphoro right at this stage is important not only to achieve symmetry but also because the shape affects the stamping, the rise and the baking processes.
HOW TO SHAPE
At the last kneading stage, when you have rolled the dough a few minutes, round it up so that most of the dough has a smooth surface. Gather the non-unified folds/edges towards one side.
Use the palm of your left hand to support the smooth part of the dough. Grasp the body of the dough with your right hand. Very gently squeeze your right hand around the dough, which rests in your left palm, rotating and squeezing at each small turn. This technique extends the smooth part and merges the folds towards the other end.
As you continue rotating and gently squeezing, you will achieve a "pear shape", with the folds getting smaller and towards the right, at the top of the pear. The rest of the dough, in your left hand should have a smooth surface and will hopefully become the top and the sides of the prosphoro. Gently press the pear between your hands into a sphere.
We use the baking pan as a mould. Here's how:-
Lightly dust the base and sides of your pre-waxed baking pan with flour. Place the dough smooth side down and press it firmly and evenly all the way around and flatten it into the shape of the base of the pan.
Then, using side to side "sifting movements"of the pan, loosen the dough from the edges of the pan. Tip it carefully onto the bench, with the smooth, and hopefully now perfectly round side up! This process is covered in the video featured in the kneading section just above.
Using gentle circular movements with your palm, brush any flour off and carefully rub the top surface till it achieves a very smooth, glassy sheen.
Before we stamp it with the seal, we must rest the shaped dough for 10 -15 minutes (covered). This is essential. Without this rest, a deep impression is difficult to achieve.
THE PINNACLE OF OUR EFFORTS
We Orthodox are stamped with the seal of the Holy Spirit at our Chrismation immediately after our baptism. We are thereby mystically transformed into Christians. Members of His Body, the Church and children of God.
Similarly, up until the stamping, the dough is bread dough. Once it is stamped with the holy seal it becomes a prosphoro - a holy offering for the Holy One. This is the pinnacle of our efforts. Everything else is in support and preservation of this seal's impression.
Having let the shaped dough rest for 10 mins, carefully remove the covering. Smooth the top surface and make sure it is free of flour. Lay the dough in the lightly floured pan, with the smooth surface up. Make sure the dough is of even thickness - it should be flat. Make sure it rests in the centre with even gaps all around.
Take your wooden seal and make the sign of the cross over the pan praying "In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen". Gently place the seal exactly in the centre of the dough, in the centre of the pan.
Step up a little so you can exert firm downward pressure on the seal. To ensure the seal has no tilt, turn the pan around a little, and press, turn and press. Continue to exert pressure steadily until the top edge of the seal sinks down to the level of the surrounding dough. As a rough guide, the seal will sink about 1 cm into the dough. Do not sink the top of the seal deeper than the surrounding dough.
REMOVING THE SEAL
Make the sign of the cross, then gently pull upwards on the handle of the seal. It is unlikely that the seal will come off with the first pull. Rotate the pan a little and pull upwards again. Turn and pull up. Soon the dough will release the seal. Be careful to not traumatise the impression or the surface of the dough by removing the seal abruptly. If you perform the preceding steps as recommended, you should almost never experience the problem of dough sticking to the seal.
Before the maturation and rise, we pierce the prosphoro.
Maturation - the rise
When we have shaped, stamped and pierced successfully, we need to let the chemical and microbiological activity in the dough ferment and leaven our prosphoro.
A good maturation and rise of the prosphoro is dependent on the correct completion of the preceding stages - right proportions, a healthy leaven, thorough kneading, a good deep stamping. The success of our efforts is now also dependent on the maturation of the dough. It is vital that a number of factors be considered and controlled.
Our starter is a 'sourdough'. Unlike using yeast, which brings on a much faster rise, our starter takes time to leaven the lump.
I have found that in our summer in Australia (room temp around 26 C), it takes 4 to 6 hours and double that in winter (20 C). There are ways to prepare and bake conveniently around our timetable...
More about the maturation of our prosphoro
The testing ground for all your efforts
There cannot be one set of instructions for all ovens.
To bake successfully you must know your own oven well. With each attempt, take note how different settings and temperatures affect the results. Keeping a baking diary and recording details of all the variables is essential. Note even which shelf you bake on, and the time taken till some rosy colour appears on the surface.
If you have prepared the prosphoro properly, and it has risen to it's apex without going past the ideal point, then most ovens set to a general bread baking programme, should bake it well.
You're not finished yet...
This is not an essential step. However it is nice to adorn your beautiful prosphoro with a shiny glaze.
The easiest way is to brush boiled water onto the top as soon as you take the prosphoro out of the oven. For a more pronounced glaze, use the steam glazing technique shown in this video
To ensure the crust doesn't become hard and brittle, (it is best when soft and elastic) wrap the prosphoro in a tea-towel, then in a woolen blanket. Let it cool slowly for 6 hours or overnight, after which, it is ready to be taken to church.
Traditionally, families present the gift to the Church in a white linen or cotton prosphoro bag, decorated with embroidered Orthodox symbols like the pattern of the seal or a cross. (The white linen representing Christ's body buried in a fine linen shroud)
If you need to store it more than 2 days before offering it to church, it is best to wrap it in clean kitchen paper towels, sealed in a clean plastic bag or cling wrap and frozen. Prosphora last best when frozen - in the freezer not the refrigerator. They can be stored frozen for weeks without much detriment. Then they need to be taken out of the freezer a day before use. Just be careful to defrost very slowly at first by wrapping it in a blanket or towel for a few hours once you remove it from the freezer. Later, you can let it defrost to room temperature with just a tea-towel around it. Early rapid defrosting will cause surface cracking and flaking.