Baking with Br. Chris
His hobby fulfilled a knead
First of Seven parts
BY TONI CASHNELLI
Br. Chris Cahill had a powerful motive for learning to make bread.
"I needed the exercise," he says. "The biggest reason was at college I really wanted to do something that involved physical work instead of studying all the time."
Hundreds – maybe thousands – of loaves later, all that kneading has paid dividends. Chris is famous for his bread, famous as in, they auction it off at fund-raisers. His creations fetch hundreds of dollars. Family, fellow friars and his students at Roger Bacon High School benefit from his baking skills year-round.
This week as a treat for readers we’re sharing some of Chris’ favorite baking techniques and recipes: A quick bread and muffins for a brunch; a wheat bread that makes any meal special; easy-to-fix desserts for the holidays; breads for gift-giving; and a fancy braided bread to serve for Christmas dinner.
Recently while he turned out 12 loaves for Roger Bacon’s Evening for Excellence, Chris gave us a front-row seat in his kitchen at Br. Juniper Friary in St. Bernard, Ohio. "If you want fresh bread, it’s not the easiest of processes," he says, "but it’s an enjoyable thing to do. It’s something creative. It certainly tastes better than what you get in the store." Best of all, "There are lots of very nice smells along the way."
Chris admits he is "something of a bread snob", but says cooking from scratch runs in the family. Back home in Petersburg, Ky., his mother made jelly from home-grown grapes. When he and his seven siblings were children, "She let us make our own birthday cakes." He adds, "My mom was very smart." Boy Scouts helped him hone meal-planning and food-prep skills.
At college in the 1980s, Chris cooked on a popcorn popper in his room – "everybody did it; the food service was awful" – and worked his way up to the oven in the dorm at the University of Louisville. "I’d bring breads to events, and started going from there. I made the bread for our Masses at the Newman Center," although it looked more like a loaf than a wafer. He still bakes it for Masses at Su Casa Hispanic Center, where he’s a longtime volunteer.
After joining the faculty at Roger Bacon, Chris learned the quickest way to a student’s heart is through his or her stomach. When he taught Calculus, "I made pies for ‘Pi Day’," a truly creative enticement to math class. Chris preferred apple or pumpkin, but, "The girls always wanted chocolate," a pie crust filled with JELL-O pudding.
His skills as baker are much in demand, "but I have a limited number of things I make. I don’t do as much as I’d like. I usually make things I like to eat." And if it’s there, "I’ll eat most of it." His favorite recipes are on yellowed clippings, mom’s hand-written cards and cookbook pages spattered with batter. Like any former Scout, Chris is always prepared, pantry stocked with a 50-pound bin of bread flour and pans of every dimension stacked in cupboards.
He rarely cuts corners in baking. "I tend to do stuff by hand," including mixing. Remember, "The reason I started making bread was it was a physical activity." He doesn’t even own an electric mixer. "Where’s the fun in that?"
NEXT: Baking tips and techniques from Br. Chris.