(An essay, and then a recipe, after the manner of a bored midwestern mother; at this time I am not accepting criticism regarding form.)
I'm part of a church plant in central New Jersey. It's a young, trendy congregation with a lot of grad students, interns, undergrads and intellectual-type professionals. The number of vegetarians and vegans in this group is, shall we say, not representative of national norms.
There are also people who follow restricted diets, according to which they either cannot or will not eat wheat gluten. As a dedicated foodie and enthusiastic baker, I tend to be of the exact opposite persuasion, comparing flours in the grocery store to see which has the highest protein content (promising the highest rise and the most toothsome crust). Until a little over a week ago, I had followed this persuasion in my role as church baker. Every Saturday morning, I would mix rye sourdough starter with whole wheat flour, wait until it showed some excitement, then blend it with salt and enough well-autolysed white bread flour to make a large oblong loaf. In the late afternoon, and for the rest of the day, the whole house would be scented with the enticing but almost-burned aroma of its being baked at the highest temperature my oven could muster.
The next morning, the loaf would lie on its little square table, swaddled or shrouded or veiled in its linen cloth, waiting as the pastor preached, and then at the end of the sermon, but before the blessing, he would come down from the podium to the table where it stood among us, and raise the bread, and bring it into the tradition of being the flesh of God, and break it in two, needing much strength to do so because of the robust heartiness of the divine body, and give each half to be shared by the quiet line of churchgoers, some of whom took the pieces in silence, and some of whom fell into liturgy, in response to what they heard: this is the body of Christ, broken for you. Unless you have celiac disease: then please take a rice cracker from the plate on the table, where hopefully it has absorbed some of the blessing, though without participating visibly in the ceremony.
When I first began to bake the Communion loaf, I approached it as an American Protestant, whose practices have been systematically purged of ritual and material (except for that of financial giving). Although I prepared the bread to be as excellent as I knew how to make it, still I felt as though it was somehow perfunctory. It was a feeling that eroded, gradually, over the weeks. If you don't have much experience with baking, you may not know this, but bread dough (before being baked, while being kneaded) does truly feel like flesh. Warm, resilient and flexible, its texture is shared by the softest parts of the human body, and it takes on this character more strongly over the twenty minutes or so over which it absorbs all the force the baker can put into it. It cannot be made gently, and it's common among bakers to view the considerable violence with which bread needs to be handled as a way of externalizing stress and anger. As my Protestant resistance to the material ebbed away I began to find all this a bit disturbing. This is My body; it will nourish you; pummel it with your own hands and pour out all your human torment into it, and let it pass through the flames, and then break it and share it, and then it will be your body, giving you life instead of death, making you ready to prepare it all again, and share it with as many as will partake. It's not blessed yet, while you're working the dough, but that doesn't help with the prolonged mild panic of kneading. Instead it makes you think about ritualizing forgiveness and communal sacrifice into every loaf of bread you bake, and then every meal you prepare, and then every meal you eat, and it just makes you see each blessing as a turn of a circle that was already spinning, or of a lump of dough that was already being kneaded; or the passing of only one blessing through hands that carry it through the centuries by virtue of having taken it in through the bread. I began to feel, with my heart and with my actual hands, a sacred continuity. Baking the Communion loaf made me more mystical about everything I cooked and ate, and more eager to share all of it, and more and more dubious about the forlorn plate of rice crackers.
I decided to develop a recipe that I called "Inclusive Bread," without gluten, eggs, milk, or nuts. I had never done any gluten-free baking before, so I did some research, and my friends, I did not like what I learned. Several of the recipes had a meringue base. Not only was this not vegan: it also, in requiring an electric mixer, had no room for the mystically tactile experience I now wanted to go on associating with it. I didn't really like the idea of the various common "gums", either, though I still am not quite sure why not. I decided to "follow my heart," which is what I call it when I make a recipe based on rough instincts about ingredients. It worked out, actually, quite beautifully. From the first try I knew I was onto something. By the third try I had a loaf that was enjoyable from any perspective, not just one honed by scarcity into an eagerness to eat anything resembling bread. And as I enjoyed a toasted slice of this test loaf for breakfast, I realized that there was not, really, any millennial preciousness or frivolousness in preparing Communion in this way. It is emphatically in the Spirit of Communion to make it as only one loaf to be shared by all, and that is what happened after I brought it to church: I and the pastor and several other members of the congregation, greeting one another after the service, took the remaining pieces of bread from the table and passed them around until they were gone, because we were all hungry.
Grease a loaf pan or bowl with cooking spray or oil.
Put 70g water and 10g yeast in a bowl and stir. Add 50g ground chia seed. Stir again and set aside.
Weigh and combine 90g each of brown rice flour, white rice flour and oat flour, plus 1 tsp baking powder. Stir well to break up oat chunks and set aside.
In a medium saucepan (it may seem too large, but it has to serve as a mixing bowl later), combine 20g unrefined or brown sugar, 6g salt and 80g tapioca starch. (No starch substitutions are possible.) Add 300g water. Cook and stir over medium heat until mixture begins turning elastic and clear. (It will continue to cook a little as it cools, but overheating the mixture makes it irreversibly lose some elasticity.) Remove pan from heat and let cool for 3-4 minutes or until only very warm to the touch (not painfully hot), stirring a few times to keep a skin from forming.
Stir in the flour mixture. (It will not all combine immediately.) When stirring is no longer effective, shift to kneading (although only to combine; there are no raw grain proteins to link up). Add the yeast/chia mixture and knead in until thoroughly combined. As stickiness intensifies, add up to 20g more brown rice flour as needed to make the dough easy to handle (the amount you need will depend on air humidity). Finally, work in 10g vegetable shortening. Shape it into a smooth loaf, then wet your hands and thoroughly slick the surface until well smoothed. (This is to seal up any holes that could enable loss of gas. New holes will open up, but we'll fight what we can.) Place in the greased loaf pan or bowl. Let rise uncovered for 45 minutes.
Bake at 375F until deep brown (45 minutes to 1 hour). Let cool for about a minute, then remove from pan and place in a plastic bag or closed container to soften crust. After several hours, the crust should be soft; if there is still humidity in the container, transfer the bread to a paper bag or wooden box to preserve its texture.