I have a thing for monastery cookbooks, specifically those of the Buddhist variety. I don't own many, just a few obtained as gifts or at second-hand bookstores. Of the ones I do have, I find the dishes in them to be honest and sustaining, exactly what you need for the long haul, whether you're sitting zazen for hours or spending an afternoon picking up toys before cleaning the rest of the house.
Some of the best food I have ever eaten was years ago when I attended my first silent meditation retreat while a graduate student in psychology. The three-day retreat was at an old boy scout camp in the San Gabriel Mountains forty miles east of Los Angeles. It was part of a Buddhism course I was enrolled in, and most of the attendees were my fellow classmates. I welcomed the experience as a break from the chaotic day-to-day of my life which was packed with school, clinical training activities and a job at a hospital.
There were certain rules we were required to follow during the retreat. The main one left us wondering how we would manage: no contact - neither by voice nor via the eyes. We were permitted contact only by writing down questions for our teacher and submitting them in a box located in the dining hall. Our teacher would make time each afternoon to answer each student's question individually. Other than this, we met as a group once a day and the teacher would provide a talk on various aspects of Buddhism.
Another of the first lessons we learned about was the Zen Buddhist tradition of using three bowls for every meal. We were directed to a shelf on one of the walls in the dining hall, on which sat cloth-wrapped sets, one per attendee. The largest of the three bowls represented the Buddha's head and knowledge.
This was a student's form of the traditional oryioki, an elaborate meal ritual practiced by monks in China and Japan for a thousand years, transmitted through individuals and presented to us now in the form of a choice. Pick a set, remember which one you chose, and be responsible for keeping it clean. We were instructed to wash and wrap up our bowls and utensils after each meal and return them to the shelf, ready for the next time.
Meditation practice began each day after we were woken at 5:30 by the sound of wooden blocks being clapped together by an intrepid volunteer. In the zendo, a long wooden building with platforms on which we sat in meditation three times a day, my head was cluttered with the noise of everything I thought I had left at the bottom of the mountain.
Slowly, the disorder and haze began to clear and I learned that thoughts were like passing visitors you greeted as they approached. It was simple, really. Acknowledge their presence, then let them continue on their way. This was the first time I realized that such a feat was actually possible. I didn't have to be held in the grip of a thought or worry. They could still exist as distant acquaintances, but I didn't have to be friends with them.
It might seem strange to say that the other thing I remember most strongly about the retreat experience is eating utterly delicious food in the dining hall. The foods the monks cooked for us were entirely vegetarian and free of dairy, which our teacher had explicitly requested, to cut down on noises such as throat clearing during our long sits in the zendo.
In the dining hall, everyone around me was engaged in the task of eating in complete silence. Yet each time I sat down with my fellow attendees, my own inner quietude was smashed to pieces by the thoughts boomeranging around my head. Thoughts such as, "God. How did they make this squash soup? It is amazing! I wonder if I can get the recipe. But how do I ask? Can I put note in the box? Is that allowed?"
Some meditation student I was!
By the end of the experience, I learned that "noise" is normal. But, when we take time to retreat from it briefly and limit contact with one another by being more tuned in to ourselves, the result is that we feel the presence of others so much more keenly. Indeed, as the retreat wound down, I was left with an even deeper sense of connectedness to other people and the larger world (so maybe it is good to take intermittent breaks from social media?).
And now, I have on my kitchen shelf a variety of monastery cookbooks, many with recipes featuring wacky measurements (like 5/8 of a cup? Does anyone own a 5/8 measure cup, or even an eighth? Are these measurements the recipe writer's ode to the Zen koan?).
Recently when I was flipping through one of my old Tassajara cookbooks, I came across a recipe for a tahini cookie and decided to make these. The recipe is inspired by Tassajara but is adapted from one of Alice Medrich's gems.
It may look like a Plain Jane, but this is one of the best sweets you'll ever eat. I promise. She's a delicate gal of a cookie -- crumbly and full of nutty flavor from the tahini. Oat and white rice flours surprisingly push the butter flavor to the fore.
This is also a recipe with some wacky volume measurements, but the weight measurements will provide you with safe guidance if you prefer to go that route. Whichever you decide to use, enjoy the journey and of course the final product. And here's a little Buddhist-ish tip for you: don't get so attached to your first batch that you become upset when it is gone. Remember, our existence is transient -- and as far as these cookies go, you can always make more.
Tahini Oat Butter Cookies
Makes 16 2 1/2" cookies.
3/4 cup plus 1 1/4 teaspoons of oat flour (70 g)
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons white rice flour (28 g)
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/16 teaspoon baking powder (really, a small pinch)
1/3 cup granulated sugar (65 g)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter (56 g), softened
1/4 cup tahini (60 g)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
Whisk together flours, salt, baking soda, and sugar. Combine tahini and vanilla. Work tahini mixture and butter into the dry ingredients. It's best to use the tools the Maker gave you and just mix everything together with your hands. You will have a soft, pliable dough.
From here, you can roll it into a log (about 1" in diameter) and place it in the fridge to rest and firm up for 2 hours. This allows the flours to fully absorb the liquids. Then, slice (1/4") and bake. The log keeps well in the fridge for three days. You can also put it in the freezer if you can't get to it right away.
To bake these right away, roll dough into 1-inch balls, place on your prepared sheet and flatten the dough with the bottom of a glass. Bake for 25 minutes until just barely golden.
Cool cookies fully on the pan or lift the entire parchment sheet of cookies and place on a wire cooling rack.
p.s. For a variation, try adding a couple of teaspoons of instant coffee or espresso powder to your cookie dough. Add more or less, according to your own preference.