The Men's Bread Club

TIMES STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The idea of baking Christmas bread for friends and family started innocently enough for Harlan Kline. Kline, a chemist, had tinkered for a couple of years with a few bread recipes he baked as gifts for friends at his church. But when he invited some buddies to help with the baking on Christmas Eve more than 30 years ago, he had no inkling that he was starting a rowdy holiday tradition.

By 1976, the men of Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church in Diamond Bar came to think of the morning of Christmas Eve as baking day. And baking day for this group of men means not only gathering to mix flour and water, but sharing cigars, Scotch and lively conversation. It's a time to check in with each other and see how everyone's lives are going. It's a day that for more than 30 years has reflected the lives of four men in their prime, the group's core members: Howard Knipple, Gene Eckenstam, Ted Meyers and Kline.

As Kline's son-in-law, I've attended the event sporadically for the last few years. Last year, armed with my cameras and a tape recorder, I went in search of the deeper meaning of "baking day."

Kline, now 63, isn't sure why only men participate, but he believes it amounts to something like the guys getting together for a fishing trip. They just did it, not really thinking about what would evolve.

"We see each other, for the most part, once a week, on Sundays," Kline says of baking day's evolution. "[But] to me, this has always been a special time of doing something together."

The day is so important to Kline that, after suffering a heart attack in early December 1995, he refused to cancel that year's baking day. "It became more important for me to be able to do this," he says. "With all the major changes that I made [giving up smoking and alcohol, changing his diet], it let me know that I was going to be all right and I could continue living."

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"It was more fun in the beginning when we were younger," says Ted Meyers, who has been the church's pastor for nearly 30 years. "We didn't have arthritic hands and everyone could drink."

With the cool light of morning glowing through the dining room window, Meyers, who also works as director of mental health for a group home, reflects on how members of the baking group have changed. "As we've gotten older, the stresses in our lives have changed. I used to come to this thing pretty harried," he says. "I was tired and there were always a lot of things to do." These days, Meyers arrives more relaxed.

Toiling over large bowls, Meyers and Knipple mix flour, yeast, eggs, sugar, milk and butter, whisking hard while trading quips about their age and stamina. Greg Moses and Todd Eckenstam, members of the second generation, also toil. As a rite of initiation, the newest bakers must perform the most tedious job: crushing cardamom. Since I'm taking pictures, I'm excused and the job falls to Sonny Kothari, Kline's other son-in-law. Using a small marble mortar, Kothari works up a sweat grinding with a wooden pestle until the spice seeds are finely crushed. When I lift my camera to take his picture, his smile comes grudgingly.

Huge piles of dough are covered with towels and left to rise on the kitchen floor, to take advantage of the warm air circulated by the refrigerator. Nearby, Kline prepares the filling ingredients for Christmas wreathes. He mixes butter, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, raisins, cardamom and chopped walnuts. His house is now full of warmth and energy. Four generations of family come and go.

His 84-year-old mother, Arlene--the only woman to grace the group--watches over the proceedings and is consulted on every detail. Arlene, known to all as Nana, lives in Kutztown, Penn., but she spends her winters in warm Southern California and has guided her son's culinary efforts from the beginning.

Kline's grandson, Alex Gauthier, 7, rolls out his first-ever wreath. With a little help, he fills, rolls and shapes it, finally presenting it to his great-grandmother for final approval before baking. The smell of cinnamon and baking bread fills the house.

Gene Eckenstam's son, Todd, meticulously weaves strips of dough into a basket pattern over a cardamom cake. Kline passes by and notices a spot where Todd laid the dough over when it should have gone under. The room erupts in laughter. A member of the next generation is taking his lumps. Only slightly embarrassed, he unweaves the dough and starts over.

Having his son by his side means a lot to Eckenstam, a fund-raiser for the Huntington Library."It has become a part of our lives," he says. "I hope the kids will continue the tradition."

Howard Knipple says, "It's really just a few guys that get together, bake bread and drink Scotch on Christmas Eve," but then he softens his position. "There have been years where people had a crisis of one kind or another, and it's been helpful to be here. Not that they got any advice," he adds. "Just being here helped."

For Meyers, "just being here" has taken an especially deep meaning. Earlier this year, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and faces surgery.

"A day like today allows us to think of ourselves and all that we've survived as individuals and as a group," he says. "A day like today shows the positive side of the way we've lived our lives."

Finished cakes and wreaths sit on the kitchen floor, ready for wrapping. Outside, the men toast their accomplishments: a few dozen cardamom wreaths and cakes, one more year together.

Cardamom Cake

Active Work Time: 30 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 2 hours 40 minutes

DOUGH

1 (1/4-ounce) envelope active dry yeast

2 tablespoons warm water

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter or margarine

3 cups sifted flour

2 tablespoons sugar

3 eggs, slightly beaten

* Sprinkle yeast into warm water in small bowl; stir until dissolved.

* Cut butter into flour and sugar in large bowl with pastry blender or fingers until mixture is crumbly.

Make well in center of dry ingredients. Put eggs and yeast mixture in indentation and stir with wooden spoon until wet ingredients are incorporated and dough holds together. Knead several times until dough is smooth and satiny. Set dough aside to rest 10 minutes.

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FILLING

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter or margarine

1/2 cup sugar

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 cup raisins or currants

* Beat butter and sugar in small bowl until light and fluffy; beat in cardamom, cinnamon and raisins.

* Press 2/3 of dough onto bottom and about 1 inch up sides of 9-inch buttered springform pan. Spread filling evenly over dough. On lightly floured surface, roll remaining 1/3 of dough into about 13 strips about as thick as a little finger. Arrange lattice-fashion on top of filling, pressing firmly to dough at edge.

* Cover pan with towel or wax paper. Let rise in warm place, away from draft, until doubled in bulk, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

* Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown, about 40 minutes. Remove from oven. Remove side of springform pan and cool bread on wire rack. Serve warm.

8 servings. Each serving: 467 calories; 260 mg sodium; 142 mg cholesterol; 25 grams fat; 53 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 0.22 gram fiber.

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Christmas Wreath

Active Work Time: 40 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 3 hours 20 minutes

BREAD

2 to 2 1/4 cups flour

1 (1/4-ounce) package dry yeast

3/4 cup milk

1/4 cup butter plus extra for greasing bowl

1/2 cup sugar

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 egg

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/2 cup raisins

1/2 cup walnuts, finely chopped

* Thoroughly mix 1 cup flour with yeast in mixing bowl.

* Heat milk, 1/4 cup butter, 1/4 cup sugar and salt in saucepan until warm (120 to 130 degrees), about 5 minutes. Add to flour. Add egg and beat 30 seconds at low speed with electric mixer, scraping bowl constantly, then beat 3 minutes at high speed. Add additional 1/2 cup flour and beat 1 minute.

* Stir in enough of remaining flour to make soft dough. Turn onto lightly floured surface and knead until satiny and smooth, 5 to 10 minutes.

* Grease inside of large bowl with butter. Put dough in bowl and turn around to butter all sides of dough. Cover and let rise in a warm place (about 80 degrees) or place bowl on rack over hot water until dough is doubled, about 1 1/2 hours.

* Punch dough down and turn onto lightly floured surface. Roll dough into 1 (18 x 7 inch) rectangle. Brush dough with melted butter to within 1/2 inch of edges.

* Mix remaining 1/4 cup sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom. Sprinkle evenly over buttered rectangular dough. Scatter raisins and walnuts over buttered surface.

* Beginning with longer side of rectangle, roll up and pinch edges to seal. Form roll into ring on buttered baking sheet; slash top at intervals. Allow to rise 40 to 50 minutes.

* Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown, 20 minutes. Remove to wire rack to cool.

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GLAZE

1 1/4 cups powdered sugar

2 tablespoons butter, softened

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons milk

* Combine powdered sugar, butter, vanilla extract and 1 1/2 tablespoons milk in mixing bowl until well-blended. Add up to 1/2 tablespoon milk if glaze appears too thick. Frost Christmas wreath with glaze.

8 servings. Each serving: 405 calories; 333 mg sodium; 52 mg cholesterol; 15 grams fat; 64 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 0.57 gram fiber.

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