How does 18th century no-knead bread taste?

A few days back I saw a post on bread in one of the food groups I follow on Facebook. This post was very specific in collecting more information about Sour Dough bread (which is one of my favorites). The fellow members were quick to jump and help the information seeker. This post is dedicated to all the bread lovers and seekers.

I have always loved talking about bread, sharing my love and of course more emphasis on breaking bread together to share the human and humane connection with each other.

Grain plays a vital role in many culture, mythology, and religion. It plays an important role in civilization, the beginning and end of the day and the cycle of death and rebirth. In India, we have festivals like Onam, Basant Panchami and few others denoting the new harvest and a new season. Grains for me narrates a story of being omnipresent in every society and religion. I love the popular saying “since the sliced bread” which essentially means nobody knows how old is the specific thing and has always been around.

A friend from Norway once told me that in their culture it is said if one eats from the same loaf of bread, they are destined to fall in love with each other. In Greece nuns are forbidden to make or eat this loaf; it attracts the Evil Eye.

In one of my older post on bread I have said, bread is a perfect example of the amalgamation of Pancha mahabhuta, or five great elements as per Ayurveda. We need the flour which comes from the mother earth, knead with water, incorporate air to make it fluffy, bake it in fire and then let it rest and give it space under an open sky to mature the flavor. This is pure magic for me.

We have often seen on TV, heard and seen our friends and chefs kneading the bread dough to break the gluten and make the bread light and fluffy. However, there’s a whole array of recipe books and traditional bakers who also promote “no-knead” bread which also happens to be the initial ways of baking bread on stone or Dutch oven or other baking equipment similar to this.

In 1945, Pillsbury Mill published a booklet called, “Baking the No-Knead Way” and On November 8, 1945, The Milwaukee Journal published, “We Don’t Need to Knead Bread Now: Experts Show New Method”. These two books, in my opinion, revolutionized the new ways of baking. However, if we go back in history (like the way I did), we will find the early ways of baking “French bread” was pretty similar to no-knead bread. The recipes just asked to put all the dry and wet ingredients together, mix well, proof for 12-24 hours and bake it. In the modern-day, the same bread is pretty popular as “farmer’s bread”.

The Loaf Awakens by Michael Rene Zuzel describes the “must do” when it comes to baking no-knead bread where he describes Lahey’s technique and gives us four important tips

  1. A very wet dough — so wet that can be difficult or impossible to shape by hand.
  2. A tiny amount of yeast, as little as one-eighth of a teaspoon, and no starter.
  3. A long, room-temperature rise, at least overnight and preferably 18 hours.
  4. A Dutch oven in which the dough is baked, with the steam from the wet dough creating the rustic crust.

Whereas Benjamin Phelan in his article Time is on Your Side says kneaded bread vs. no-knead bread is a false dichotomy. You should be making slow bread, … “The most important part of the bread-making process is neither kneading nor not-kneading, nor measuring with scientific accuracy, nor any technique per se. The most important thing is to leave the dough alone for long periods, over and over again, which is easy to do.”

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Original recipe from The Compleat Housewife: Or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion by Eliza Smith, 1739

To a lot of bread bakers, it is the process which they love the most. Once every ingredient is mixed well (kneaded or not kneaded), they simply got to weight, and weight patiently. Do their routine and mundane job without touching or bothering the dough. Phelan goes on to say “Bread is dough’s destiny, and bread-making is like being a parent: Just as a child can be spoiled by too much interference with the natural processes of time, to make good bread you must leave the dough to its self-creation.”

If you have old food books or you can find them online, the first thing you’ll notice is the use of barm or something similar to yeast to help the bread grow. However, yeast was only discovered in the 19th century and later the cultivation started but as mentioned earlier the bakers either used beer or starter (fermented dough) as yeast. The recipe I found is from 1739 and titled as The Compleat Housewife: Or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion by Eliza Smith. This recipe, in particular, asks for eggs however, you can find many other recipes without eggs as well. I feel the eggs help make the bread rise well and adds better taste.

This from the 18th century and hence I had to make it 21st century and millennial-friendly, and hence you will find a bit differentiation between the original and my step. I have also tried to make my own non-alcoholic “barm”.

Bread
No-Knead Bread following the recipe from the 18th Century

Let’s get baking

  1. 1/2 cup water
  2. 1 Tablespoon flour
  3. 1/2 teaspoon Instant yeast

Mix all these ingredients and set it aside. This will eventually work as your “barm”

  1. 3 cups of all-purpose flour
  2. 1-1/2 teaspoons salt
  3. 1 cup milk
  4. 2 egg yolks
  5. 1 egg white
  6. 2 Tablespoons butter

Steps

  1. In a bowl, mix all your wet ingredients step by step.
  2. Whisk milk with 1 egg white until they are well incorporated.
  3. In another smaller bowl, mix the butter and egg yolks and stir in the above mixture until mixed properly.
  4. Finally, mix in your “barm”.
  5. In an open bowl or flat plate, mix all the dry ingredients, make a well and pour the liquid mixture which we just created. Mix it thoroughly. Use either your hands to mix or a wooden ladle. This mixture is going to be sticky and that’s okay because that is what we want.
  6. Cover this mixture with a damp muslin or velvet cloth and leave it for 14-20 hours, untouched and undisturbed. Remember it is all about patience.
  7. Once the dough has well-rested, you’ll notice that it has become lighter and has almost like a sponge texture. This is a good sign. We want this to happen.
  8. Traditionally people baked this bread in a Dutch oven, but this is an adapted version, hence go ahead and heat your oven on 220 degree Celsius or 450-degree Fahrenheit
  9. Take the dough out of your bowl and turn it out onto a floured surface and with floured hands gently press it out into an oval shape (or any other shape that you like)
  10. Stretch the dough from both the ends and fold it twice. This is just to give a good texture; the original recipe doesn’t ask for it.
  11. Once done, place the dough in a baking container and bake for 30 to 35 minutes.
  12. Let it cool before you take the bread out of the baking container. You need to give some space and air to bread for the flavors to mature.
  13. Bread is ready. Make a sandwich or eat with butter, your choice but thank all the bakers in the world for putting so much hard work to bring loaves of bread of all sorts on your dining table, on your dastarkhan.

Cover Picture Courtesy: https://fineartamerica.com

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