A Taste of Benedictine Hospitality

Regular readers here may recall that for nearly the last four years, Lisa and I have traveled monthly to Conception Abbey and Seminary College for diaconate formation weekends. During that time, we’ve befriended many of the holy, happy monks there; truly a blessing. As such, it is our great pleasure to welcome Fr. Guerric Letter, O.S.B. to the Soup & Stories series. As a young monk and a recently ordained priest, Fr. Guerric is a bundle of holy energy, and that energy is coming in handy. The recently appointed abbey Kitchen Master is also completing his Pastry/Baking Certificate at the prestigious Johnson County Community College Hospitality Management Program. Feel free to implore the intercession of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, patron of bakers, on his behalf!

As the youngest of 11 children, five brothers and five sisters, in a devoutly Catholic farm family, Fr. Guerric Letter learned early on to cook for a crowd and pass rigorous sanitary inspections. On the occasions when his mother and sisters would take a day off, the men still needed to eat. The one instruction he received from him mother and sisters? Don’t leave the kitchen a mess.

Out of high school, the young Black Creek, Wisconsin native traded the discipline and work ethic of farm life for that of minor seminary. Clearly it fit. When asked about his monastic vocation story, the straightforward, plain-spoken Fr. Guerric is characteristically brief and blunt. “After my sophomore year, I walked across the street and told them, ‘I’m staying.’” Indeed he did.

One of the first assignments for then-Brother Guerric was to assist former Kitchen Master Fr. Adam. The elder monk noted that the younger one showed skill and promise, an observation he passed along to the abbot. Following a hiatus from the community to complete major seminary at St. Meinrad in Indiana, Fr. Guerric discussed his return to the abbey with Abbot Gregory. The abbot suggested Kitchen Master might be a good assignment. Fr. Guerric’s response? “I’m not doing it unless you educate me.”

Around the same time, the abbey was being audited by a fellow Benedictine community from the same congregation, a routine process. They agreed some training might be in order, so Fr. Guerric and Abbot Gregory mapped out a plan that included training Fr. Guerric as a pastry chef. The one-year program, based in Kansas City, also included an extra year of prerequisite classes. So for nearly the past two years, Fr. Guerric has been commuting back and forth weekly between Conception and KC. That’s a 200+ mile roundtrip. He graduates this May. One of the goals is to use Fr. Guerric’s culinary skills to develop a second cottage industry, alongside Printery House, to help sustain the abbey.

Think Kitchen Master is an easy assignment? At just 31 years old with virtually no managerial experience, Fr. Guerric was placed in charge of eight full-time employees and a kitchen that produces three meals a day for between 250-300 people, up to 600 on the weekends, and regularly caters banquets. On top of managing employees, he had to learn to plan meals, order food, and read a budget. To top it all off, just months after taking over the kitchen, the abbey’s longtime Kitchen Manager died of cancer.

Whether or not he would admit it, Fr. Guerric is a natural manager. Upon receiving his new assignment, the first thing he did was meet individually with each member of his staff and ask them how he could help them enjoy their jobs more. He gets people. He knows his job is a lot easier if the people working for him are happy.

The aspect of his job he enjoys most is the end result — producing something that nourishes and sustains people and gives them joy. People, he notes, are naturally inclined to be generative, to give life in some way by giving of themselves, even as a celibate. Feeding others is one way to do that.

Speaking of joy, one of Fr. Guerric’s responsibilities is catering the traditional Christmas Day banquet for 40-50 monks, plus family, friends, and oblates. The centerpiece of the feast is Seafood Chowder, an old monastic recipe that has been handed down through the years, perfect for those meatless Fridays during Lent.

As a bonus, another heirloom recipe is included, a heavenly Angel Food Cake passed down to Fr. Guerric from one of his childhood neighbors, perfect for Easter Sunday feasting. Enjoy!

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Seafood Chowder (Download PDF copy here)

*Note from Fr. Guerric: “We don’t measure when making, so some measurements may be off. Use your judgement when making the soup. The soup is normally made in 5-gallon batches, and has been scaled down to 1-gallon here.”

Ingredients

1 cup flour
1 cup oil
1 quart heavy cream
1 quart milk
1 pound shrimp
1/2 pound scallops
1/2 pound orange roughy
1/2 pound clams
1-1/2 pounds potatoes, diced
8 ounces onion, chopped
4 ounces carrot, chopped
4 ounces celery, chopped
Salt as needed
Pepper as needed
1 ounce cornstarch (plus water)

Preparation

Cook all your fish to start. While fish is cooking make a roux in stockpot using 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of oil. Add cream and milk, being careful not to scorch the cream. Add potatoes, carrots, onions, and celery to stockpot. When the fish is done, add to the soup. Reserve shrimp and clam broth, and add to soup as desired. Add cornstarch to thicken.

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Angel Food Cake with Fluffy Frosting

For the Cake

10 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1-3/4 cups sugar
1 cup sifted cake flour

For the Frosting

1-1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup light corn syrup
2 egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

To make the Cake

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, whip egg whites until frothy using a stand electric mixer with a whisk attachment. Add salt, cream of tartar, and vanilla and almond extracts to egg whites. Continue to whip egg whites until they form stiff peaks, but do not overbeat. With mixer set on medium speed, slowly add sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, until entire amount is whipped into egg whites. Slowly incorporate flour, 1/4 cup at a time, by hand using a balloon whisk and taking care not to deflate egg white-sugar mixture. Carefully transfer batter to a round, angel food tube pan. Bake for 1 hour. Remove from oven and immediately invert pan until cake has completely cooled. Turn out cake onto cake plate.

To make the Frosting

In a large saucepan, whisk sugar, water, and corn syrup together over medium heat. Stop whisking when sugar is dissolved and syrup mixture comes up to a simmer. While syrup mixture continues to heat on the stovetop, in a large mixing bowl whip egg whites until frothy, using a stand electric mixer with a cleaned whisk attachment. Add cream of tartar and whip until stiff peaks form. Check syrup mixture on stovetop. Remove mixture from the heat when it reaches the thread stage (mixture drips off a spoon in threads as opposed to droplets), between 230 and 235 degrees on a candy thermometer. With mixer set on medium speed, slowly add hot syrup to whipped egg whites. Continue whipping mixture for 7 minutes. Frosting should be glossy and thick. Add vanilla extract and whip until incorporated. Spread frosting on cooled angel food cake. Allow frosting to set before cutting into it using a serrated knife.

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Read all Soup & Stories entries here

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