Seven years ago on Christmas Day, my husband and I anxiously sat in a hospital waiting room. Carols played in the background, and strands of lights glimmered around the windows. Every once in awhile we heard a chime through the sound system, a tradition signaling the birth of a baby. The reminder of new life became a welcome interruption as we waited to hear from my mom’s surgeon.
Family and friends stopped by to check on us and ask about my mom. One couple dropped off sandwiches and salads for lunch. Later that night in a last minute attempt to salvage Christmas dinner, we heated up white chicken chili from my brother’s freezer.
Two years later, I answered emails and made phone calls while I “worked from home” at my mom’s bedside. The doorbell rang, a frequent occurrence in those last months as people visited and dropped off food and gifts for my family. It was my parents’ elderly neighbor. I anxiously twitched when I saw her, even though she was a perfectly pleasant woman. I couldn’t help but remember backing into car as a teenager and causing $800 worth of damage. But she wasn’t there to relive stories of my negligent driving.
She held out a cookie sheet with clear glass bowls set in neat rows, each filled with homemade custard—a treat Mrs. Smith brought my mom periodically during those last few months. It was one of the only foods my mom could keep down because of her cancer, and I remember Mom’s eyes brightening when I brought her a bowl.
Years later after I became a mother myself, our church brought over meals and my sisters stocked our refrigerator. Another friend dropped off a meal a week ago just because. Right now, there’s a container of homemade soup in my freezer from another friend who sent me home from her house with two kinds of soup, bread, and a Ziploc bag full of muffins.
That same friend provided a much-needed dinner last winter. My twins and I were a miserable lot. They had double ear infections, I was worn out and pregnant. All of us had the flu. I packed everyone up in the car just to go for a drive because cabin fever had long since set in, and if I didn’t get out of the house soon, I’d implode. She met me in the parking lot of an ice cream shop where she had taken her boys and handed me beef vegetable soup and Irish soda bread. I ate half the loaf on my ten-minute drive home.
It’s not ultimately about the salads or chili or custard or bread. But food gives us words in the form of a casserole when we don’t know what to say. Chopping vegetables and stirring soup brings purpose to our hands when there’s nothing else we can do. A loaf of bread shows someone we see them, they’re not forgotten, and they’re loved. As Shauna Niequist said, “Food is the starting point, the common ground, the thing to hold and handle, the currency we offer to one another.”
The food isn’t everything. But when we give what nourishes both body and soul, that’s definitely something.
Spiced Chai Bread with Cream Cheese Glaze
Yields 1 loaf
Spiced Chai Bread
1 ¾ cups all purpose flour
1 ¼ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¾ cup granulated sugar
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 eggs, beaten
¾ cup brewed chai tea, at room temperature
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour an 8x4-inch loaf pan. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and ginger.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the sugar and butter. Add the eggs, brewed tea, and vanilla and mix until combined.
Gradually add the dry flour mixture to the wet ingredients. Mix gently just until incorporated.
Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Allow the bread to cool in the pan for 20-30 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely. Drizzle with the cream cheese glaze, reserving some glaze for when you’re ready to serve.
Cream Cheese Glaze
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
¼ cup powdered sugar (plus more to taste)
3-4 Tablespoons brewed chai tea, at room temperature
½ tsp vanilla extract
Whisk together the cream cheese, powdered sugar, 3 tablespoons of brewed tea, and the vanilla extract. (I used a hand blender to do this quickly.) Add additional tea if needed, until you reach the desired consistency. You can also increase the amount of powdered sugar if you prefer a sweeter glaze.
Drizzle over the Spiced Chai Bread, reserving some glaze for serving.
Note: The glaze will harden as it cools. If it seems too thick when you’re ready to pour, microwave it at 5 second intervals, stirring in between. The cream cheese will melt just enough to make the glaze pourable.