When we are baking bread at home, most of the time we will use the quickest possible way to bake bread, which is using commercial yeast. Traditionally, this is not the case with prosforo, the Church bread offering. When prosforo is prepared, a lot more than just our desire or necessity to bake is included. Prosforo is prepared mindfully and prayerfully, our offering to God.
The most traditional way of baking prosforo is using starter. In the most ancient days of Christianity, the only way you could leaven the dough was using starter. You couldn’t buy yeast like we do today. This starter is a combination of water and flour. Yeast naturally begins to grow in the starter over time and uses the mixture as food. You must regularly add more water and flour so that the yeast bacteria can survive and the leaven can be used for prosforo baking. When the leaven is fed, various troparia are sang, thereby sanctifying and blessing the future bread offering. The sourdough starter which we use for our Church of St. Nicholas, contains in itself various different holy waters blessed at various holy sites from around the world (St. Demetrios, Pochaev Monastery, St. Basil of Ostrog, etc). This means that every time you are partaking of the prosforo, you are partaking of the blessing of these various monasteries and holy places. Additionally, on the day of the Elevation of the Cross, a piece of the true wood of Jesus’s cross was placed on the starter container, blessing it for several hours. This is the reason why our Bishop gave us the blessing to start using this traditional way of baking prosforo.
At the Holy Mountain, every bread is prepared by using the same starter as prosforo. Needless to say, at the Holy Mountain everyone follows this tradition. An Athonite Monk who visited a monastery in Serbia which bakes prosforo with the starter said once to me: “Those who are truly knowledgeable about our sacred tradition rejoice upon eating prosforo made with the starter because they know how blessed and sanctified this holy bread is”.
Another experienced prosfora baker wrote: Commercial yeast makes the preparation of breads quicker but leaven, or starter carries a timeless tradition. Baking with commercial yeast is very different to baking with natural leaven. It confers a very different feel and texture to the dough; it rises much faster, smells different, and the taste is not the same. Bread made with leaven tastes wonderful and importantly, keeps much longer before becoming moldy.
There is nothing wrong with baking prosforo with commercial yeast. Both bread baked with yeast and with starter is a sacred offering to God on behalf of the faithful. Baking with starter simply gives us a greater opportunity to sacrifice and offer ourselves and our prayers to God for our salvation. May God bless our efforts in all cases!
PROSFORO: comes from the Greek word which means OFFERING
ANDIDORON: Literally means, what is left from the gift. This is the bread you get at the end of the liturgy or after communion. The gift being whatever was offered to God to be sanctified and blessed as Holy Communion.