As part of the (modern) bread baking class that I took this past week, I was
able to make bread using an historic receipt. HUZZAH! The class has been
beneficial in providing me with multiple opportunities to practice and strengthen
my bread baking skills. I will certainly put all that I learned to good historical
use! It was great fun, too, to make a bread from a centuries-old receipt.
I chose “To Make White Bread” from Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery,
as transcribed by the late noted food historian Karen Hess. My bread baking
instructor, Chef Faith Drobbin, at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE),
helped me not only understand the receipt itself, but also to adapt Hess’
interpretation of it.
Here, again, is Martha’s receipt:
To Make White Bread
Take 3 quarters of a peck of fine flower, & strow salt
in as much as will season it. then heat as much milke
as will season it luke warme, & hould it high when you
poure it on to make it light. & mingle with your milke
4 or 5 spoonfulls of good yeast. worke your paste well,
& then let it ly a rising by the fire. your oven will be
hoted in an houre & halfe; then shut up a quarter
of an houre, in which space make up your loaves
& then set them in the oven. an houre & halfe
will bake them.
Now, Hess’ interpretation of the above is that, “based on the household ale
measure,” three quarters of a peck of flour equals 24 cups.
That, in turn, is to be mixed
with 8 or 9 cups of liquid,
depending on whether
a stiff or a somewhat
softer dough is desired.
Well, 24 cups of flour! yikes
That’s 6 pounds! I sure
didn’t want to buy that
much, nor spend hours
on end making all those
loaves. Besides, it’d be
a bit impractical. So we
made it more manageable
and cut the amounts
by one sixth, meaning 4 cups of flour (1 pound) and 1 1/2 cups of liquid.
The receipt says to use all milk; I chose to split it, with half water and half milk
(that’s 3/4 cup each). In order to better approximate bread of earlier centuries,
particularly in England, I would’ve preferred to use half water and half ale, but,
I didn’t have any. Besides, Martha does specify milk. It makes for an enriched
bread and more like that of the French.
As for the yeast, we paid heed to Hess’ compliant that most people use too
much when attempting this bread. Only 1 teaspoon (of modern dry) was used.
The same for the amount of salt (1 teaspoon).
In short, this is what I did:
I added 1 teaspoon dry yeast to 3/4 cup warm (100 degrees) water, and
let it set. Then I added the 3/4 cup warm (room temperature, not heated) milk.
In a separate bowl, I put 4 cups of unbleached white flour (I used Hodgon’s Mill,
as it’s ALL flour and has NO additives of any kind) with 1 teaspoon salt and
Then I poured the liquid into the flour, and mixed well. The dough was
laid out onto a floured surface and kneaded ’til it was soft and sprung
back when poked; about 5 to 8 minutes.
Next, I put the dough into an oiled bowl (melted butter would’ve been
used, but in the interest of time, I used vegetable oil), rolled it around
so it was lightly oiled all over, covered it with a towel, and set it aside
in a warm spot to rise until double.
And I let it rise overnight. As in 6 or 7 hours or so. Doing this, will allow
that small amount of yeast to do its work. In addition, in earlier centuries,
when a brick bake oven was used, the bread (along with any pies, cakes,
cookies) was most likely made the day before firing up the oven. So, I waited.
The next morning, I took out the risen dough, shaped it into a round loaf,
and then put it back in the bowl for the second rise, again, for several hours.
Finally, I put it on a cornmeal dusted pizza stone, with a pan of water below
(this approximates the humidity of a bake oven), and put it into a 450 oven.
I checked it after about a half hour, found it was not quite done, and put
it back for another 15-20 minutes. And then, Viola! I had a lovely
little loaf of Martha Washington’s White Bread!
I want to try it again, using half water and half ale, to see if there’s any
difference in taste. In Martha’s time, yeast from the brewing of beer
would’ve been used. Or, maybe I’ll try the milk and the ale. I’d also like
to try baking it without water underneath. The result should be a softer
crust, which is what the English preferred; hard crusts were very French.
Finally, maybe I’ll do as Ms. Hess suggests, and add whole wheat flour and
some wheat germ to the white, in order to better mimic the flour of earlier
centuries. Although, this receipt IS for “White Bread,” and that is just what
everyone wanted to eat. Even in Gervase Markham’s Manchets receipt (posted
on 5/21;and manchets were just that, white), he calls for “the whitest flour…
boulted through the finest boulting cloth.” Having been to several working
historic grist mills, I know it is possible.
So there you have it, my adventure in baking historic bread. Feel free
to try it. Let me know how it turns out.