To make French Bread the best way
Take a gallon of fine flour, and a pint of good new ale barm, and put it to the flour, with the whites of six new laid eggs well beaten in a dish, and mixt with the barm in the middle of the flour, also three spoonfuls of fine salt; then warm some milk and fair water, and put to it, and make it up pretty stiff, being well wrought and worked up, cover it in a boul or tray with a warm cloth till your oven be hot; then make it up either in rouls, or fashion it in little wooden dishes and bake it, being baked in a quick oven, chip it hot.
Or so says Robert May, who published The Accomplisht Cook in 1678.
I found this recipe in my copy of The Cornucopia, a compilation of historic recipes from 1390 to 1899: it’s a gem of a book with a wide range of recipes, including this one. I was really keen to give it a try, especially as all online versions of this recipe used modern, commercial yeast. But this wasn’t available in the 17th Century, so I needed barm. As indicated in my first post, barm was a name for yeast used in brewing and baking. I can be a little tough to get, but if you know some brewers, they’re your best bet of getting the yeasty, beery concoction. I used the top-fermenting yeast from the krauzen – the foamy crown of yeast atop a fermenting beer – from a fermenting batch of beer at our local brewpub, and the yeasty slurry at the bottom of my husband’s fermentation barrel after he bottled his latest brew. In the 17th Century the barm would have likely been a wild mixture of different yeast strains, nurtured by a brewer for each new batch of beer, so it seemed fitting to mix two different strains for this bread.
There is a second curious addition to this recipe: its use of egg whites. I chatted with a few chefs and bakers about this and our best guess was to increase the likelihood that there was going to be ample protein in the dough to trap the CO2 produced by the yeast: a pseudo-gluten, if you will. The strength of flour is even today a little dependable in each crop, so eggs would have been a good way to ensure that there was going to be some strength. It made the bread’s crumb a bit heavy, but not unpleasantly so: I ate just a roll for dinner and really enjoyed it.
Finally, there is no way that the whiteness of modern white flour was equal to white/ fine flour in the 17th Century: to fix this, I took a few serving spoon’s worth of white flour out of the bowl, and added an equal amount of wholegrain flour to dirty it up. Historical white flour was put through a horsehair sieve to remove the bran: I can’t be sure how thorough that was, so I decided that a few spoon’s worth of wholegrain flour would take modern flour to a slightly-closer-to-17th-Century flour.
I made a half-size batch, as the thought of kneading a full gallon of flour (about 3kg!) was terrifying. This recipe is as faithfully close to the original as I could make it, with conversions into modern measures to make it more readable.
To make French Bread the best way
1.5 kg flour, mostly white with a bit of wholegrain
3 egg whites
400ml yeast from a friendly brewer*
250ml water and 250ml milk, warmed
Mix the flour and salt together, pile onto the bench top, and make a big well in the middle. Beat the egg whites to the point before a soft peak, pour into the well, and add the barm. Use your hands in a gentle circular motion to start slowly incorporating the egg white and barm, and then little by little start mixing in some of the flour walls of your well. It will form sticky chunks and be unwilling to take in more flour once about half of the flour is incorporated.
At this point, you can either slowly add the warmed water and milk to the well and keep going, or transfer it all to a big bowl and get stuck in, squishing it all in. Add about half of the liquid to start, and add the rest in dashes until the dry flour is incorporated, and your hands look more like dough than anything else. If you added the liquid in a bowl, now’s the time to tip it back onto the bench for kneading. If you used the well method: congratulations! You saved yourself a dish, unlike me.
Knead the dough until it slowly stops sticking to the bench and eventually to you. It will become a soft, elastic ball that is more interested in sticking to itself even though it doesn’t feel likely at the beginning. If it feels far too wet (but don’t confuse sticky with wet) don’t be afraid to add a spoonful of flour to firm it up. Knead it well: my kneading time to this point took about 15-20 minutes. Eventually, I was left with a beautiful ball of dough that very happily stood up to the twisting mentioned in my sourdough post. You can see here what twisting does on the bottom of the dough to create tension: –
Lightly flour the top of the dough, and pop it upside down in a bowl, and leave in a warm spot to rise. (The authors of The Cornucopia helpfully included annotations, and indicate here that it took around two hours to warm your oven up in the 17th Century). Let the loaf rise for 2 hours in a warm spot, during which the dough ought to double in size.
Curiously, the recipe doesn’t include instructions to punch the dough down and give it a second rise, which goes against all of my instincts. But as my intention is to stay true to Robert May’s instructions, divide the dough into portions and shape into loaves or buns (roles – aka rolls). It is very easy dough to divide with a knife. I made up four buns and a small loaf with one half of the bread, and a large loaf with the other half. Bake your dough in a hot 200° Celsius oven, in a dish or exposed. I baked the buns on a baking tray, exposed in the oven for 30 minutes, which gave them a beautiful burnish. I baked the loaves in cast iron pots, for 20 minutes with the lid on and 20 minutes after without. When you remove the lids you get a lovely waft of beer coming out of the oven, which adds to the delicious bread smell filling the house.
And that random final instruction to “chip it hot”? means to chip away the crust, which is actually necessary. This is a bread that makes a solid bottom crust, requiring some serious chewing. Unfortunately, I failed to flour the bottom of my pots, so the super-heavy crust also stuck like a demon to my pans: removing the loaves required chipping to get the bread out!
Would I make this bread again? Absolutely! The only changes I would make would be to flour the bottom of the pans to avoid the sticking/ chipping issue, and I would investigate making a version without the eggs, and another with an experimental second rise. The bread itself is very tasty, and the beery aroma that comes from it is delicious. It is dependant on my being able to procure the barm, but will very likely become an occasional bread recipe of mine. Especially when I serve any beer-focussed dinner.
* This yeast might be a little chunky, with leftover protein, hop particles, dead and live yeast, all floating in the beer. If this grosses you out, you can rinse or wash your yeast, but I didn’t: it pretty much all went in, as my husband pointed out: the liquid isn’t necessarily the yeast. This actually added to the bread’s flavour: there’s a lovely hint of beery hop bitterness at the back of your palate after each mouthful.