Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday: What are YOU giving up for Lent?

 This is a very short homily / reflection that I wrote for Ash Wednesday.  It is not my turn to preach and will not be delivering it.  It is based on the readings for Ash Wednesday that can be found here.

Most of you probably heard about the embellished claims that NBC announcer Brian Williams was caught in that has cost him at least a 6 month suspension without pay, and maybe his career.  I have seem hundreds of jokes on-line about it, depicting him being present at every event from the parting of the Red Sea to the landing on the moon.  At first, I though these little cartoons were FUNNY.  But seeing so many of these made me think:  How easy it is to sit in judgment of others. We read and hear so much about people’s wrongdoings in the media. We gossip about people at work or in in our families.  It stirs us up to ridicule them if not to outright condemn them. It seems like such a natural reaction for us to cast stones at others.  I think in a manner,   it’s often our way of avoiding facing up to the reality of our own wrongdoing.

And so in this period of Lent, as people if faith, we’re encouraged to stop pointing the finger of accusation at others, and instead to take a good look at our own lives.

The word “Lent” comes from an old English word which means “lengthen” or “springtime” so it reminds us of spring cleaning and the new life in nature during spring.  When it comes to sin, we’re all in the same boat – “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”, as Paul puts it.  Is that “white lie” you told to keep yourself out of trouble at its roots any different than the stories that Brian Williams told? The reality is that sin is sin, whatever form it takes – we all need to come before the Cross of Christ, for forgiveness and reconciliation.

In the Old Testament when people left sin behind and turned over a new leaf they used ashes to symbolize their repentance. Job said, “I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6) Daniel “turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.”
The words of the Lord through the prophet Joel in our first reading are words that have special significance for us today as we begin this season of Lent and are words that we can easily see the Lord speaking to us personally. “Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God.”

Sometimes people ask, “What are you doing for Lent?”  “What are you giving up? There is one thing to give up during Lent – sin. And any of those things that lead you there. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Home Made King Cake

Why would someone in South Louisiana go to the trouble of making their own king cake when they are available in almost every store, bakery and gas station in town? For me, there are several reasons. 

Reason 1 Cost -The price of king cake continues to go up and up and up.  A large cake from the most popular king cake bakeries cost around $30.  For me, that is just not a good value. This recipe cost between $3 and $5, including the electricity for your oven, depending on the quality of ingredients.  Makes me want to get into the organic king cake business!

Reason 2 Ingredients - My rule of thumb with cooking and baking is if the ingredient did not exists when my grandmother was around and cooking actively, I don't use it and try not to consume it. I knew that the grocery store king cakes were full of not so savory ingredients such as artificial colors, artificial flavors, multiple preservatives, dough conditioners, etc.  I was astounded when I read the wrapper of some of the most popular king cake bakeries. To the left is a picture of the ingredients of a king cake from a very large and popular king cake bakery in the city. 

Reason 3 Satisfaction - There is always, for me, a sense of accomplishment for doing things myself.

If none of these reasons apply to you, skip the king cake part of this recipe. Go buy one from the store, pour yourself a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, and start eating!

 This recipe looks complicated.  It is actually not. Although I am a fairly decent cook, a baker I am not.  I am starting to make bread, rolls, and a few things.  I would consider myself just past a beginner when it comes to baking. My wife Pam normally is the dessert maker in our family.

 This recipe makes the equivalent of 1 large Randazzo’s King cake.  I find that it is easier that after the first rising, cut the dough in half and make two king cakes.  They are easier to handle, easier to braid, and you don’t have the problem of finding oversized pans and plates to put them on.

For the cake:
1 cup lukewarm milk, about 110°
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons dry yeast
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
½  cup melted butter
½ cup melted coconut oil
5 egg yolks, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon grated fresh lemon zest
A few pinches of ground nutmeg

For the filling
A few tablespoons of melted butter or coconut oil
The filling is just a cinnamon sugar mix with a pinch of nutmeg. I have never measured these ingredients so you will just have to use your judgment.

For the Glaze
2 cups powdered sugar
6 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

For the Baker
Coffee or Red Wine for drinking!

1 fava bean or plastic baby to hide in the cake after baking

Comments on the ingredient and alternatives:
If you don’t know how to zest a lemon, here is a Youtube video on zesting citrus. . If you don’t want to do that, you can substitute 1 tablespoon of freshly squeezed lemon for the zest.  If you do, you may have to add a pinch more floor in the kneading process.

I have made these with all coconut all, all butter, and the ½ and ½ blend that I have in this recipe.  I like the ½ and ½ blend the best.

I use organic flour, oil, sugar and butter.  The rest of the ingredients are the best quality that I could get.

Save the egg whites and have an omelet with them!

Mix the Cake
I do not have a proofing oven, so I usually put my regular oven on Hold Warm and then turn it off when it comes to temperature.  I do this as the first thing when I start taking out my ingredients, so that by the time the dough is ready to rise, the oven is at about the perfect temperature. I use this as the place to do the first rising of the dough.

I do all of the mixing in my awesome Kitchen Aid Stand mixed.  The first steps use the regular mixing paddle, the rest are done with the dough hook. Put the warm milk into a large bowl. Whisk in the granulated sugar, yeast, and a heaping tablespoon of the flour, mixing until both the sugar and the yeast have dissolved.

Once bubbles have developed on the surface of the milk and it begins to foam, whisk in the butter, oil, egg yolks, vanilla, and lemon zest.

 Add the remaining flour, and nutmeg and fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients.

Switch to the dough hook in your mixer.  Kneed for about five minutes on speed 1.  The dough should form a ball and come clean away from the sides of the mixing bowl.  If it is sticky and not forming a ball, add flour about a teaspoon at a time.  If it is dry and clumpy, add a few drops of water or milk.

Windowpane Test
The dough is done kneading when it passes the windowpane test.  If you are going to knead this by hand, it will probably take 10 or 15 minutes.  After you have done this a few times, you will be able to tell by the way the dough balls and pulls away from the side of the mixing bowl that it is done.

Put the dough in a bowl in the previously warmed oven and let it proof, or rise, for 1½ hours or until the dough has doubled in volume.  Go have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and relax.

Preheat the oven to 350°.
 Once the dough has risen, punch it down and divide the dough in half. Roll the half dough out flat until it is approximately ½ inch thick, 18 inches long, and 6 inches wide.  The size really does not matter except that I find that it bakes best when it is about this size.

Using a brush, paint the top of the flat dough with the melted butter or coconut oil.  Sprinkle the sugar / cinnamon /nutmeg mix generously on the dough. 

Fold it over and roll it again until it is approximately the original size.  Cut the dough in three strips lengthwise.

Roll and Braid the Cake.
I found that this was easier if you dust your fingers with a little flour before doing the rolling and braiding. Everything was a little less sticky and easier to handle.

Roll the strips into “ropes”. 
Lay the three strips on a counter and braid them the same way you would do a hair braid.
Braid the 3 ropes around one another and then form the braided loaf into a circle, pinching ends together to seal.

Put braided dough on a cookie sheet and let it rise until it doubles in size, about 30 minutes.  I like to put parchment paper down on the cookie sheet because I hate the clean up.

Have some more coffee or another glass of wine.

Once it’s doubled in size, place the cookie sheet in the oven and bake until the braid is golden brown, about 30 minutes.  That time is going to vary depending on how thick you make the braids. Remove the cake from the oven, place on a wire rack, and allow to cool for 30 minutes.

Glaze the Cake
For the glaze, while the cake is cooling, use a wire whisk and mix together the powdered sugar, milk, and lemon juice in a bowl until the icing is smooth and pourable.  Add extra milk or sugar if the icing is either too thick or too thin

Once the cake has cooled, use a spoon or your favorite implement to drizzle the icing over the top of the cake. Tuck the fava bean or plastic baby into underside of the cake and slide the cake onto a platter.  I plan to experiment next time with some natural ingredients to add some purple, green, and gold coloring.

Just  a note of warning - there are no chemicals or preseravative in this recipe so, it is only going to taste fresh for a day or so.  If you go the route of making two cakes, after you glaze it, you can freeze one uncovered until it gets hard, and then wrap it up for later.  Or, you can just pig out and eat it all!

The king cakes should look something like the pictures.  If they don't, no worries. They will likely still taste good.  And I promise that after you do this a few times, they will start looking better and better.

King cake goes well with…. Coffee or a glass of red wine!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Why Does God Allow Suffering

The following is an approximation of the homily I delivered at St. Luke the Evangelist Church in Slidell .  Click here to read the scripture on which these are based for the fifth Sunday in Ordinary time.

Charles’ Jr. life was filled with pain, loss and suffering.  His only sister Olga died as an infant before he was born.  He was nine when his mother died. His brother and best friend Edmund died when he was twelve.   At twenty-one, he discovered his father dead on the floor, and was left without a family.

In college, Charles was an athlete, in skiing and soccer, an author and a brilliant student. He learned 12 languages. But his sufferings were not limited to the loss of his family.  During the war, he was forced into hard labor in a stone quarry. Many of his friends were killed.  He was run over by a truck and nearly died.

Fast forward to the age of sixty, an assassin shot him in his own front yard, and he nearly died again. A year later, someone tried to kill him with a bayonet.  In is 80’s he suffered from severe arthritis and Parkinson’s disease that eventually left him crippled, distorted and nearly unable to speak.   

Before his death Charles became a world-renowned celebrity, speaker, and author who wrote a best seller on suffering. Even though he knew much about sorrow and suffering first hand, he was joyful to the very end.   Who was he? You may know Charles better by his polish name of Karol, and more commonly Pope John Paul II.

Redeemed by the suffering and death of Jesus, we must realize that suffering is a part of the human condition and is neither useless nor in vain.

I would like to take a minute to give you some background on our first reading from the Book of Job. Named after its main character, Job is described as a prosperous, God-fearing man, blameless and upright.  Satan tells God that Job would not be so blameless and upright if he was caused to have great suffering. God gives Satan permission to test and afflict Job.

Satan takes away everything.  Thieves took Job’s oxen and killed his servants. Fire from heaven burned up his sheep. More thieves took Job’s camels, killing the rest of his servants. A storm caused the collapse of his oldest son’s house killing all his children. . Job is then afflicted with a disease covering him in painful sores from head to toe. Through each one of these calamities, he remains faithful.

Three friends come to console him and insist that his misfortune is punishment for sin. For the next 28 chapters, Job rejects his friends’ explanation and begs God to respond. God answers not by explaining suffering, but by expounding upon the wonders of creation. In the end, God restores Job’s fortune twice over and blesses him with ten more children.

Our lives are not peaches and cream. Many of us have experienced pain, loss and suffering.  Some are afflicted with the loss of children; others have debilitating, life-threatening and painful disease or injury.  Some have broken families; mental illness, failed marriages or have experienced financial ruin.  It sounds a lot like Job.

Notice that during his trials, Job does not say,  Oh, it’s all good.  I am cool with whatever you dish out” No, with painful honesty he spoke of life as drudgery. He moaned to God about restless and endless nights, of days that passed without a shred of hope. He did not pretend that all was well. What lessons can we learn from Job?  Honesty is surely one. Often we hide our darkest fears and thoughts, maybe thinking that we should just suck it up and get on with life.  Job made no such attempt. We also should be honest with God. After all, He already knows our inner most thoughts.  How can you have a real relationship not based on honesty?

Another lesson is that while suffering, darkness can easily overtake our lives.  As did Job, we must pray in the face of suffering. We seek answers that make sense of our pain. Job received no real explanation but he never ceased to pray, even though his prayer was frequently in the form of complaint. Ultimately the answer to Job’s suffering was not an explanation, but the assurance that God was with him.  And that maybe your answer also.

The book that Pope John Paul wrote on suffering was his apostolic letter, On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering (Salvifici Doloris). The Holy Father wrote that suffering is supernatural because God has bound it up with salvation and human because it is endured by all men. Through human suffering, men find their identity in themselves and in Christ.

I cannot possibly answer the question about your particular suffering.  That is for you to work out with God. The friends of Job falsely concluded, as do many preachers today that all suffering is the direct result of a person’s sin. But I assure you that the innocent do suffer. In looking for an answer to the question of “Why does God allow suffering?”  you might want to ponder these four things that I gleaned from Pope John Paul's letter: Holiness, Humility, Transformation, and Punishment.

Holiness - Sometimes my suffering helps another become holy.  When I suffer, others try to comfort with prayer and Christian charity. If suffering were eliminated, the corresponding good also would be eliminated.

Humility - Suffering can bring us closer to God and away from obstacles to true happiness. Suffering is redemptive in part as it shows us that we are not God, and that we need him.

Transformation – There are many examples of sinners transformed into saints through suffering. St. Francis of Assisi and St. Ignatius of Loyola had profound conversions through suffering.  As a result , the Franciscans and the Jesuits were formed and have affected the conversion of countless tens of millions . 

 Punishment. Sometimes our actions can directly cause suffering.  Not in some vague way but as a specific consequence to actions—greedy businessmen pollute the environment and cause disease, leaders thirst for power and domination causing war, and lust or selfishness leads to the breakup of marriages and the suffering of the family. In this sense, suffering is a punishment of sorts for wrongdoing. It is just not a punishment sent by God, it is a punishment sent by man against man.

What is your homework?
For those that suffer, know that the Church cares.  At St Luke we have numerous ministries to help the suffering including Intercessory Prayer, the Homebound Ministry, Good Samaritans and the Cancer Support group. Don’t let foolish pride keep you from seeking assistance. By allowing someone else to help, you may be the direct cause of their salvation.

For those who currently do not suffer – thank you for all you do, to alleviate the suffering of your brothers and sisters.  We can always do more.  In addition to praying for those who suffer, go help them.  Bring them meals, cut their grass, and share a cup of coffee with them.  Don’t wait for someone to ask because they likely won’t.

And if you don’t know anyone who is suffering or just have the capacity to do more, the Family Promise ministry, with a mission to help homeless families right here at home has an open house after all Masses in Room 5. Stop by and see if God is calling you to help in this way.

Jesus healed the leper, made the blind see, and fed the hungry crowds.  He gave us the parable of the Good Samaritan to show the duty of all to alleviate the suffering of others. Our final judgment in part, hinges on how we care for suffering people.