A Friar Who’s a Baker — and a Recipe for Carrot Cake
“For me, cooking was always fun, creative and life giving,” says New York’s Franciscan Father Nicholas Spano
Franciscan Father Nicholas Spano is the parochial vicar at Assumption Church in Syracuse, New York, and director of “the Franciscan Place at Destiny USA,” a parish ministry that brings daily Mass and 12 hours of confession per week to a regional shopping center in Syracuse. Born in upstate New York to a Catholic family, he said he had always wanted to be a priest, a choice that met with his parent’s approval.
But other life influences temporarily interceded. Coming from an Italian family, Father Spano said cooking appealed to him because he was always helping his grandparents in their vegetable garden, picking berries and seasonal produce. Even more, he liked watching his grandmother cook. “She was always making something, like rhubarb or gooseberry jam,” he said. “So from a young age, I was involved with cooking things like that because my mom did not like to cook. … My grandmother was excited to cook, and was a foodie on her own.”
Of course, he attributes his cooking passion and talents to his grandmother, who taught him many basics. Plus as a youngster, he watched the Cooking Channel and PBS with Julia Child, Lydia Bastianich and Mario Batalli. “For me, cooking was always fun, creative and life giving,” he said.
He applied to and was accepted by the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and thought that that was what Jesus was telling him to do. But after a brief sojourn there (the site happens to be located in an old Jesuit seminary), Father Spano was astonished by its negativity. “I said I can’t do this. I will be miserable for the rest of my life,” he said. “That was the moment I really had to know what to do with rest of my life.”
So he applied to colleges and received two letters, one from Villanova (staffed by Augustinians) wait-listing him and one from Siena (staffed by Franciscans) giving him early admission. “I went to Siena, discerned with the Franciscans, and that is how it happened,” he said.
As he looks back at his first assignment at the Assumption Church, it was running its soup kitchen and food pantry. Under the threat of closures, Father Spano said he could save them, though he would need to have a plan for closure.
“We started baking pies,” he said, “then we watched the Julia Child and Ina Garten for inspiration, and found it in an episode in which Ina baked shortbread cookies. We made and sold the cookies to farmers’ market and mail order to raise money for the soup kitchen and food pantry. There wasn’t like an emergency plan. … We were really pushed to use what we had to make all the meals. … There were 700 people we served a day.”
Once the bakery started to make hot meals, Father Spano worked with the local health department to get ample produce so the staff could make lunches and dinners, Mondays through Fridays. He noted that people in the community, like local farmers, would drop off extra produce. On one occasion they received 40 bushels of zucchini and two tons of apples and pears. “We made enough apple and pear sauces to fill a chest freezer,” he said. “We even had a giant pickle barrel and gave pickles out with sandwiches.”
Now fully occupied by his priestly duties — which, during the pandemic, began temporarily alternating between his parish and the nearby parish of St. Daniel — Father Spano doesn’t really cook anymore, except when he cooks for the friars and when he is called upon to cook for parish events. “I do miss my cooking,” said. “There are times when I could go bake something. But it is not a skill or interest I lost. I always have the ability to cook or to bake. It is always there and part of the package.”
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Recipe: Carrot Cake
Serves 6 to 8
- 2 cups self-rising flour
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 1/2 cups vegetable oil, such as Wesson or Crisco
- 4 eggs, lightly beaten
- 3 cups grated carrots
- 1 cup raisins
- 1 cup chopped pecans
Preheat the oven to 325 F. Grease and flour three 8 1/2-inch round pans.
Mix the flour and the sugar, cinnamon, and baking soda by hand until well combined. Stir in the oil and mix well. Stir in the eggs and mix well. Add the carrots and mix well. Add the raisins and pecans and mix well. Spoon the mixture into the pans.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes — test for doneness with a toothpick. Remove from the oven and cool before icing.
- One 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
- One 8-ounce stick butter or margarine, softened
- 1 pound confectioners’ sugar
- 1 cup chopped pecans
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Blend together the cream cheese and butter. Stir in the confectioners’ sugar, pecans and vanilla extract. Mix well by hand.
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