I truly believe there is a certain amount of artistry that goes into making prosphora. Whenever you watch a master, at anything, you can see the ease of motion as they set to the task. I also believe, with practice, we can all make a good loaf of prosphoro. I’ve made more than my fair share of loaves that didn’t turn out so well…and I’m not just talking about the seal. There was one particular Saturday where I was making prosphora with my nieces and sons at my parents’ house. My dad, who is a priest, came into the kitchen and was telling me all about how one lady at his parish makes perfect loaves every time – no huge bubble under the crust, not mushy and dense in the center, the crust is not soooo hard that he can’t pierce through the seal, he can clearly see the seal, and it has nice small air bubbles throughout. To say I felt the pressure to make the “perfect” batch of loaves was an understatement especially since they were for my dad and he just shared all his knowledge about baking prosphora with me. The problem was that I was using an oven that I was not familiar with and in a different climate than my own back home. (There was HEAVY humidity and rain) My loaves did not turn out like they normally do back home. Ug. For the first time ever, I had the tops of the bread significantly curl up all around the edges. I still have no idea how I managed to do that. Impressing my dad was just not happening that time around.
There’s a tendency in many parishes for just a few women or men to bake prosphora for each Sunday. I know some parishes where only one old lady makes the prosphora year round because either nobody else knows how to make it or many of the parishioners don’t have the confidence to try and make it.
If you can learn from someone who has been making prosphora for years – ask if they will teach you! Even though the ingredients are the same for everyone – flour, yeast, salt, and water – each baker has their own techniques and tricks and it will vary from person to person. For all of you who have never tried or have tried with flaws, I dedicate this post to you. I purposely went through and tried to re-create some of the common mistakes when making prosphora. If you make a loaf that you don’t feel comfortable taking to church, the best thing to do is break it up and put it in a place where it will not be walked on in your backyard. God’s creatures will nibble on it through the night and day.
Common Mistakes When Making Prosphora
I learned a trick from a lady at church many, many years ago for activating the yeast. Put about 2 tsps of flour in a glass bowl. Add yeast and about 1/4 cup hot water. (Turn on the tap water. As soon as it’s too hot for your hand to stay under the water – that’s the temperature you want for your yeast.) Briefly stir and cover for about 15-20 minutes.
I’ve had other people tell me this is not a sure fire way to activate the yeast but I’ve NEVER had any problem since using this method. I suppose it’s possible that my temperature threshold was the same as the lady who taught me the trick so it’s possible others could get the water too hot or too cold for the yeast using this method. I’ve not had a problem with it though.
Left: Correct, Right: Yeast Didn’t Activate
Problem: The bread is so dense that it is extremely hard for the priest to cut.
If you have a tendency to be impatient (this would apply to me!) or simply didn’t know you were supposed to let the dough rise twice before putting it in the oven, this could be one reason for your loaves not turning out how you hoped.
After you thoroughly knead the dough, cover it and let it double in size. (It will take approximately 60-90 minutes) After it doubles in size, you will need to separate the dough into however many loaves you intend to make. Let each dough ball proof for another 20-30 minutes before it goes into the oven.
Left: Correct, Right: Did not let dough rise twice
Problem: This loaf of bread was THE hardest loaf for me to cut in half, making it extremely difficult for the priest to cut and prepare.
Did you shape the dough into a ball by tucking the sides underneath? You need to really work the dough after it rises before putting it in the oven. You can smack the top of the dough to push out any air bubbles you may have created when tucking the sides underneath.
Did you press down firmly with the seal and then pull it up quickly? You may have created a vacuum and accidentally formed a large pocket of air under the crust especially if you did not poke any holes in the seal before placing the dough in the oven.
Was the dough super sticky and constantly sticking to your hands? You may not have added enough flour.
Left: Correct, Right: Large air bubble under crust
Problem: I’ve had loaves where a bubble was on the entire underside of the crust. It makes it impossible for the priest to take out a piece of the bread when he’s cutting out part of the seal because he only grabs crust.
The middle will have a tendency to be dense and a bit mushy if it’s not cooked all the way. When using an 8″ cake pan for one loaf, cooking it for 30 minutes at 375 degrees will cook it all the way.
Left: Correct, Right: Undercooked
Problem: The bread will have a tendency to be dense and partially raw in the middle.
If you overcook the bread, it will be difficult for the priest to pierce through the crust as he cuts the pieces he needs. You may consider making another loaf if time permits.
Left: Correct, Right: Overcooked
Problem: It is hard for the priest to cut through the crust.
If you do not add enough flour to your dough, not only will it be hard to release the seal from the dough after pressing it down but the bread will also have a tendency to not want to come out of the pan after it’s been cooked.
I use a KitchenAid mixer with a dough hook when making prosphora. You can tell when the dough is the right consistency when it pulls away from the sides of the bowl and stays in a ball while it is being kneaded by the dough hook. If it is too wet, it will stick to the sides of the bowl. Add a little bit of flour at a time and let it FULLY incorporate before adding more. As soon as it pulls away from the bowl and stays in a ball, stop adding flour.
Left: Correct, Right: Too much water
Problem: 1) It is incredibly hard to get a good seal on the dough when it’s too wet because the seal will stick to the dough. 2) It is equally hard to get the bread out of the pan after it has been cooked. The loaf will have a tendency to rip as you try to pry it out. 3) Large bubbles tend to occur when there’s not enough flour in the dough
I use a KitchenAid mixer with a dough hook when making prosphora. You can tell when the dough is the right consistency when it pulls away from the sides of the bowl and stays in a ball while it is being kneaded by the dough hook. If it is too wet, it will stick to the sides of the bowl. Add a little bit of flour at a time and let it FULLY incorporate before adding more. As soon as it pulls away from the bowl and stays in a ball, stop adding flour. It is much easier to add more flour when needed rather than to add more water.
Left: Correct, Right: Too much flour
Problem: Dense bread
Whether you’re kneading by hand or using a mixer, it’s important to knead the dough for a minimum of 10 minutes. (It can be longer by hand.)
Left: Correct, Right: Didn’t knead the dough long enough
Problem: Dense in some areas with large air bubbles in other areas
Did you press the seal firmly into the dough? You can actually use quite a bit of pressure to press it down firmly.
Did you poke holes around the seal? Depending upon the consistency of your dough this may be needed in order to prevent the seal from disappearing.
Did you press the seal in the dough before or after you let it proof? Proofing is letting the dough rise a second time before baking. Some people press the seal into the dough before they proof it. I tend to press it in after I proof it.
The dough right before I put it in the oven
Left: Correct, Right: Seal did not come out clear
10. Crust is mushy after wrapping it up to bring to church:
If you didn’t let the bread COMPLETELY cool before wrapping it up, condensation will form all around the outside of the bread and leave a mushy crust. It will take several hours for the bread to cool before it is ready to be wrapped up to bring to church.