This is a story not of a chain-letter but a chain-cake.
A few weeks ago I took a call from a family friend who asked me whether my mother was ready to accept her dough. I told her I had no idea what she was talking about.
She then started dramatically exclaiming "The dough, the dough ... I have to drop off the dough to her today!"
I then asked her, "Do you mean 'doe' as in deer, or 'dough' as in bread?"
She replied, "Dough as in cake," and then she explained the backstory and put it all into context for me and finally I understood where she was coming from.
I told her, "Janet, my mum's not here right now but I'll take the dough on her behalf and follow through on the process."
About an hour later I met her at the front gate where she dropped off a takeaway container full of cake dough and a sheet of instructions.
Now, I know you're asking – "What's with this dough?"
So let me explain ...
The cake dough forms the basis of The Cake of Our Lady Virgin Mary (also known as Pope Pius Bread).
The story is told that an Italian woman who was suffering all her life from illness that she could not even do her house chores. One day her daughter asked her to bake a cake. She refused more than once because she was unable to do it. The daughter moaned so much that the mother felt she needed to bake the cake. She asked the aid of the Virgin Mary.As soon as she started to prepare the cake, the Virgin Mary appeared and she herself prepared the cake for the woman. The woman was astonished with what was happening and the Virgin Mary told her, "You yourself will eat from that bread and the whole world as well". She asked her to keep 1/4 of the dough and to add in it the ingredients of the recipe to make a whole cake and distribute the other 3/4 to 3 other faithful people, on one condition, that they will follow through the same procedure to this miraculous dough.Unto this day, no one has refused to bake this cake yet, because it brings blessings and prosperity to all families that have received it and prepared it accordingly. It has been said that this bread travelled from the Vatican to the Americans, to Australia and Africa – this in itself is a miracle because:a) Even though it is kept out of the fridge it never moulded.b) Its odour and form gives one idea that it has yeast even thought it doesn't.
The instruction sheet that came with the dough then provides information on how to tend to the dough, a recipe to follow, and a schedule for when to pass the dough onto fellow bakers.
I'm not religious and I'm not Catholic but I grew up watching lots of religious movies such as the Song of Bernadette on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and I have a respect for most religious faiths provided people are accepting and don't foist their beliefs on others or believe theirs is the only way. I ended up having a number of different emotional reactions to being presented with this dough. I wanted to honour my mother's friend's commitment to the process and to her faith and belief in it, my inner sceptic suggested I check out the internet to see how much of this was really a hoax, but the storyteller in me who likes all the little miracles in life wanted to participate in the ritual that makes up this cake and the passing forward of good tidings.
When I did do an internet search I found very little – just a true Catholic believer who was disappointed and proclaimed the cake to be a hoax because hers went mouldy. All I can say is – she probably didn't follow the instructions because ours turned out brilliantly with nary a mould cell or spore in sight.
From an entirely practical point of view of somebody who LOVES cooking, I remembered a similarity in the preparation of this dough to sourdough starter. My parents had visited Alaska a couple of years ago and had returned with a present for me – a copy of Alaskan Sourdough Cooking: Recipes from the Last Frontier, which came with a starter powder pack (which I haven't used yet as it will be the devil for me – I LOVE sourdough and if I maintain the dough in perpetuity I will be eating it every day and grow the size of a house!)
Just as an aside, the history of sourdough is actually quite interesting – here is a quote from the book:
Pioneer Alaskans, because of their exposure to extreme conditions, did not have ready access to such grain leavening products as fresh eggs, yeast and milk. Since they were constantly traveling or spending long periods of time isolated from civilization, prospectors and settlers had to produce these agents from dried goods and from the yeast naturally present in their environment. In Alaska, sourdough was the only continous supply of leavening that could be easily transported and stored...
The introduction then tells us how they transported the starter from camp to camp, how it was used as a bridal dowry, how they would make it and maintain it and then provides instructions such as what temperature it must be, what utensils to use and what not to use and so on that parallel the instructions in the Virgin Mary Cake. However, the sourdough starter recipes of today that are contained in the book, do contain yeast (and milk or water plus flour). The difference I think is in the use of yoghurt and sugar in the Virgin Mary recipe plus eggs on the very last day to turn it into cake batter. I'm not a food chemist so I don't understand the chemical reactions that take place with the combination of certain ingredients, but I suspect the sugar and yoghurt culture is an important part of the process.
Anyway, I marked up all the instructions with the dates and followed everything to the letter. What was interesting was just how serious I took the process and just how much of my heart went into tending to this cake dough and letting it reach maturity within our kitchen. I also organised for three other people to be the recipients of a quarter each of this dough – one was a Australian woman my age who born into an Italian family and who was raised a devout Catholic, the second one was a primary school teacher and close family friend, and the third was business owner who worked in a teaching capacity with children of all ages.
Everything went swimmingly until the final day – I asked my mother to bake the cake because I had to go out. I had scored the dough into four pieces and delivered two of them to their appropriate people. The third one was being picked up so I left it in the bowl until such time as she popped in. Well, my mother didn't separate the two pieces and added all the remaining ingredients into the dough. I walked in, saw what had happened and freaked out (the superstitious part of me surfaced). In the end it was too late so we had to add another batch of eggs, sugar and yoghurt to the mixture and put it in the oven. (By the way, if you ever received this cake, make sure you bake it at around ten degrees less than what the recipe says and check the oven about ten to 15 minutes before it is meant to come out. Even at double the recipe, our cake was ready well ahead of time. Result – subtle, moist, tasty and very morish.)
I rang up the woman the quarter was supposed to go to and explained what had happened. I then said that we would keep half of our cake and give the other half to her. However, for some reason the first mistake set off another chain of mishaps. We got stuck into the our part of the cake and put the second half away – but then we got some unexpected visitors and my Dad served the second half up to them. Upon discovering what had happened, I quickly saved one slice, put it on a plate and covered it in foil and placed it on a high shelf in a cupboard where we rarely ventured. When I went to get it the next day to deliver to our friend, it was gone. It turned out my father had found it and thought we had set it aside for him and had promptly eaten it. (I live on a farm and the extended family is coming and going all the time!) My mother and I just burst out laughing when we heard. Somebody else said that the person "was never meant to get the cake" but we remedied that later on and made sure 1/4 of the dough from one of the other people returned back to our friend.
So what did I get out of this? Actually ... quite a lot. Though the cake turned out to be quite tasty, it wasn't the important element in the scenario. The most important part was the actual process and the commitment we all had to looking after this dough. I say "we" because the experience was shared by others down the chain ... it brought out a warm feeling in us all, this cake reconnected and bonded many of us with our family and friends, it became a talking point between male and female of all ages and backgrounds, it excited children and it perhaps brought us back into the realms of our imagination to a simpler time when we understood what it would be like to sit around the hearth and shares our heart and our stories. Catholic or not, religious or not, this cake has restored my faith in the magic in all of us.