Many places of worship, and a lot of non-religious organizations, have a “coffee hour” or “fellowship time” or some other name for “when we all mill around and have a little something to eat and drink.” At our church, this is a particularly vital time. Many interesting conversations happen, friendships are formed, and plans for activities are worked out during coffee hour. We’re really into food, too, especially healthy and/or unusual food, and we have a lot of people in the parish who enjoy cooking–but we don’t get competitive about it. Coffee hour is not a time to outdo each other with as-seen-in-glossy-magazines fancy cuisine, just a time to share some good food.
I’ve been to a lot of churches where the food served alongside coffee is always super-sweet stuff like cookies and donuts. I appreciate a treat, sure, but with my metabolism, a cup of coffee plus a snack of white sugar, white flour, and vegetable oil leads to a carbohydrate/caffeine buzz that feels a little scary while it’s happening (I can lose my temper quickly in that state!) and even worse when it drops me suddenly, hungry and shaking, just about the time I get home. A coffee hour that follows a late-morning event is being served around lunchtime, when most people’s stomachs are pretty empty, and then it may take a while to get home and cook lunch . . . so it’s better to serve food with some protein and/or fiber so it digests more slowly. Remember that it’s not a sit-down meal, though! You want to serve finger foods that aren’t too messy to eat off a napkin or small plate while standing. To allow for various tastes, provide at least two kinds of food, and if you know that someone in your group is allergic to a food (or abstains from a certain food for some other reason), bring a food that is free of the allergen and label it accordingly. Because people do like sweets and may feel annoyed if the refreshments seem “too healthy”, serve something that’s at least somewhat sweet–but it doesn’t have to be nutritionally bankrupt!–and also something savory, creating an appealing variety of foods.
My seven-year-old Nicholas and I have a lot of experience serving coffee hour! All his life we’ve taken several turns a year to bring the food, set up, and clean up. Nicholas gradually has become more and more helpful, and these days he does nearly half the work of choosing serving plates, arranging food on them, filling the cream pitcher and ice-water pitchers (or sometimes we make lemonade), and getting out the napkins and sugar bowl and coffee-stirring spoons and coffee cups and water glasses and, if needed, small plates and/or forks and/or serving utensils. (We always use real dishes; it’s easy now that our church has a dishwasher, but even when I had to hand-wash, it didn’t take a whole lot of time.)
I’m going to share our menu for coffee hour this past Sunday, and then I’ll list a few other foods that have been popular at other coffee hours. Our church has about 40-50 people at the typical coffee hour; if your group is larger or smaller, adjust amounts accordingly.
Our CSA farm gave us a gigantic bunch of dill a few weeks ago. On a tip from our friend Laura (who is splitting the farm share with us this year), I hung it upside down by its rubber band from the potholder rack in our kitchen, and sure enough, it dried beautifully! But I wasn’t sure how we would use so much dill. When I asked Nicholas for ideas of what we could make for coffee hour, he pointed to the dill and said, “Dill bread?” Genius! We used the recipe for Yogurt & Herb Bread in The Enchanted Broccoli Forest by Mollie Katzen and made 4 loaves, using a lot more dill and less of the other herbs than the recipe suggests. (This still used up only about half of the dill!) We started one loaf with our dinner on Saturday night and left the rest of that one at home. The 3 loaves we brought to church I cut in half lengthwise and then sliced crosswise, producing half-slices about 3 inches square, a good size for snacking, less crumbly than a full slice. This bread uses half whole-wheat flour, as well as yogurt and egg, so it’s pretty substantial and healthy.
By the way, we invented a technique for using herbs dried whole: Place a large measuring cup around the bottom of the hanging bunch of herb. Crumble leaves with your hand and let them drop into the cup until it contains the desired quantity. Add the leaves to the flour sifter and sift them along with the flour (or, if recipe does not involve flour, just sift them alone). This will break up the dried leaves into tiny pieces that season the food well, prevent anybody from getting a mouthful with too much leaf in it, and keep the stems out of the food.
The bread recipe has melted butter in it, so spreading butter on the bread would be excessive. Instead we brought a big bowl of instant hummus. It tastes really good on this bread! The instant hummus is better if you mix it up in advance, so we mixed it in a Pyrex bowl with lid in the morning before we left for church, popped the lid on, then later simply opened it up and stirred it to check whether it needed more water.
I also made a batch of amazing Silky Smooth Bean Fudge, which may be the world’s best example of a food that seems sweet and chocolatey and indulgent but actually is quite nutritious! I use 3/4 cup of sorghum syrup in place of both the “sweetener” and the stevia in Adrienne’s recipe. The reason I say I made it is that Nicholas retreated upstairs to escape the noise and smell of the blender. We just got our blender last year, and it still makes a “hot machine” smell every time we use it, as well as making the typical shrill-yet-harsh blender noise. I am still learning its ways and have some trouble getting things to mix completely, but this was the third time I made this particular recipe, and it worked better because I put in the ingredients a little at a time instead of all at once, I scraped down the sides every so often, and when there were whole beans on top that just wouldn’t move down toward the blades I added water 1/4 cup at a time–that really helps things mix, for some reason. (Use warm water in this or any other recipe containing coconut oil. If you use cold water, the coconut oil molecules will huddle together for warmth, creating globs of white fat which, although they taste yummy, look very unappealing.)
With the added water, and sitting at room temperature for two hours while we were arranging the food and then in church, the fudge became soft, creating a delicious apple dip! I cut 7 Gala and 7 Granny Smith apples into wedges, and Nicholas arranged them artistically.
So, at this coffee hour we served
- Yogurt & Herb Bread–contains dairy, egg, and wheat. No nuts!
- Hummus–contains tahini, a problem for nut-allergic people who are sensitive to sesame seeds as well. Vegan!
- Bean Fudge–contains coconut oil, also a problem for some nut-allergic people, and chocolate. Vegan! Gluten free!
- Apples–nobody we know is allergic to those!
- Coffee and tea, with cream and sugar available.
- Ice water.
Here are some other healthyish foods our congregation likes to eat at coffee hour:
- Raisin Bran Bread–it’s like coffee-cake, only healthier!
- Raw vegetables with hummus or a yogurt dip.
- Corn chips and salsa and/or guacamole. Several people in our parish make really delicious homemade salsa.
- Egg salad sandwiches and cucumber sandwiches on thin bread, cut in quarters. One parishioner was famous for these, and others have now taken to making them!
- Oatmeal raisin cookies–they’re cookies, but they can be quite nutritious and low in sugar, depending on how you make them.
- Cheese and crackers. Some people bring fancy cheeses, but I’ve found that a two-pound block of colby-jack, mozzarella, or cheddar cut into little slices or cubes vanishes quickly! GFS Marketplace has all these varieties at great prices, but for cheddar Costco is even cheaper.
- Orange wedges. Certain people are amused for a long time by putting the peel in front of their teeth and walking around grinning at everybody!
- Melon chunks. (These are good in the summer. Imported melons often aren’t so tasty.)
- Cranberry bread. People love it in season, but it’s even more special in the spring when fresh cranberries are no longer available–I sometimes have cranberries in the freezer that I bought when they were in season, sliced in the food processor, and froze. I make cranberry bread with whole-wheat flour and less sugar than the recipe; once I even left out the sugar!