As my girls and I continue to prepare for the Jane Austen festival, my culinary journey centers on one of the staples of the English table in Jane’s time-bread.
The bread which appeared on an English family’s table was a good barometer of their financial stability. The richer you were, the more you dined on bread made of fine soft flour with a light, fluffy texture. As the income decreased, the courseness of the bread increased. I’d put this recipe about right in the middle-it’s not at all course and yet it is hardy-and it’s made with only four ingredients, one of which is water, so it would have been inexpensive.
Bread baking in Jane’s time was a laborious process and in most homes, all the bread baking for the week was done in the span of a day or two, if possible. That accounts for the enormity of the loaf in this English bread recipes, found in “Cooking with Jane Austen” by Kirsten Olsen. I was able to feed my family for three days on half a loaf-and the other half I took to work, where it fed another 15 or so people.
In Jane’s time, there were no loaf pans, so bread was often shaped and loaded into an oven on a wooden paddle, to bake into a circular shaped mass, as you’ll see with this recipe. We must keep in mind that there were differences in the composition of flour in Jane’s time and in the makeup of yeast that cannot be recreated in a modern kitchen.
The original version of this English bread recipe is as follows:
Sift a peck of the best white flour into a trough, make a cavity in the centre, and strain through a hair sieve a pint of good yeast and a pint of lukewarm water mixed together; mix up gently with this liquor some of the flour till of a light paste, set it in a warm place covered over to prove for an hour; then mix the whole with two quarts of lukewarm water and a little salt, knead it of a good stiffness, prove it an hour more, and knead it again; prove it another hour, mould it into loaves or batch two pieces together, and bake them in a brisk oven. A middling-sized loaf would require an hour and a half in baking.
One note: Olsen’s recipe also calls for an hour and a half of baking. You’ll notice my loaf was done in just a third of that time. I cannot account for so vast a difference but, as always, you should keep an eye on your first batch and be willing to adjust according to your oven. I also added a quarter cup of water to the recipe, as I found it too dry when first mixed. It is summer-and it’s hot-so be aware that you may need to add water, depending on the climate. I also found this loaf too cumbersome for my electric mixer. I ended up hand kneading it on the countertop and, although it calls for one to knead on a floured surface, I used no flour and it did not stick at all-rather, it was very springy in its dough form.
• 8 cups flour
• 2 pkgs or 4 ½ teaspoons dry yeast
• ½ cup plus 1 1/2 to 2 cups lukewarm water
• 2 teaspoons salt
Mix the yeast into ½ cup lukewarm water. Let it stand for 15 minutes to proof-it will turn light and foamy, indicated that the yeast is alive and active.
In a large mixing dough, mix the salt into the flour.
Add the water containing the proofed yeast. Mix. Start adding the extra 1 1/2 to 2 cups water slowly. You don’t want to add too much water. You know you’ve added enough water when the dough pulls away from the sides of your mixing bowl in a smooth ball.
Knead the dough for 10 minutes. Place in a greased bowl covered with plastic or a damp, clean dishtowel and set in a warm place to rise for about an hour.
When the dough has doubled in size, punch it down thoroughly and knead it out briefly to release the air. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or spray a baking sheet. Shape the dough into a single large loaf, keeping it as high and cylindrical as possible.
Cover it loosely with plastic wrap that’s been sprayed and set aside to rise for another hour. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
When the loaf has expanded again, bake it for half an hour.
Despite it’s size, this bread was beautiful and delicious! It’s got a rustic look to it. It’s best when broken off and slathered in butter!