Adventures in Historical Baking: Bath Buns

As I mentioned in my “Tea with Jane Austen” video this weekend, one of Austen’s favorite treats was the Bath bun, an enriched, brioche-like bun that has been referenced since at least 1763. Austen wrote in her letters of “disordering [her] stomach” with them. So as part of my video, I wanted to try to recreate them.

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I’ve been able to find many 18th- and 19th-century cookbooks freely available on Google Books, and it’s not only been a boon to my historical series, but also just great fun. So I looked through a book from 1805 called The Housekeeper’s Instructor by W. A. Henderson and I found this recipe for “Bath Cakes or Buns”:

“TAKE a half pound of butter, and one pound of flour; rub the butter well into the flour; add five eggs, and a teacup full of yeast. Set the whole well mixed up before the fire to rise; when sufficiently rose add a quarter of a pound of find powder sugar, an ounce of carraways well mixed in, then roll them out in little cakes and bake them on tins; they may be eat for either breakfast or tea.”

It seemed straightforward enough, and because much of the recipe is given in weight, there was little confusion as to how much of things to use. The one confusion was the “teacup full of yeast.” Of course, it was not calling for a cup of dry powdered yeast, as we use now, but likely meant a cup full of the liquid yeast slurry known as “barm.” James Townsend has a great video about yeast, in which he gives a recipe for an approximate substitute from the barm that would have been used (jump to 3:40 for that). Barm was a by-product of beer brewing and using it in bread-making allowed for the production of sweeter breads, rather than the sourdoughs that would have been produced before. For our sweet Bath buns, “yeast” likely meant barm, which also accounts for the lack of liquid in the dough, apart from the eggs.

As this was considered a relative of modern brioche, which is a milk-based dough, I decided that instead of making barm with beer and yeast, I would simply replace the “yeast” in the recipe with a packet of dry yeast activated in some warm milk. So I warmed a cup of milk, added the yeast, let it sit for 15-20 minutes and then proceeded with the rest of the recipe.

And I was left with an incredibly loose batter, rather than a dough! I ended up having to add much more flour to make it into a dough, which threw off the ratios of the sugar and butter as well. So it seemed the recipe required more sleuthing.

The first thing I realized is that I didn’t actually know how big a “teacup” was in early 19th-century cooking. I simply assumed it meant a cup, but looking at most of my teacups, that seems a rather poor assumption. So I found this list of somewhat obscure cooking measures, which helped. It turns out a teacup is the same as a gill and is equal to two wineglasses (or a half a cup, in modern terms).

Next, I looked at my eggs. I use standard large eggs in my baking, and most recipe I find these days call for large eggs, but in the past, eggs would have been smaller. So I hunted around for references and found that 19th-century chickens probably produced eggs that today would be considered small-to-medium. Now, rather than buy different eggs, I looked up conversions and five small or medium eggs is about four large eggs.

Thus armed with new knowledge, I took up my recipe again. This time, I produced a very loose, sticky dough, but it was cohesive enough to be picked up and formed roughly into blobs, which I baked in a muffin tin. They look a bit like muffins, but inside, they have a fine-crumbed, enriched bread texture, with a lovely sweetness and a good flavor from the caraway seeds. I can see why the caraway seeds fell out of favor in modern incarnations, but I rather like that old-fashioned flavor. They are, indeed, lovely for breakfast or tea, especially slathered with a good bit of soft butter.

Bath Buns
makes a dozen buns

Ingredients:

1 lb. of flour
1/2 lb. (2 sticks) of salted butter, at room temperature
1 packet of dry active yeast
1/2 cup of whole milk, warmed to 100F
4 large eggs
1/4 lb. (4 oz., by weight) of granulated sugar
1 oz., by weight, of caraway seeds

  1. Mix the warm milk and yeast together and set aside for 15 or so minutes.
  2. Rub the butter into the flour well, until it resembles coarse crumbs.
  3. Mix up the eggs and the milk mixture and then add to the flour and butter until a loose dough forms.
  4. Cover with a damp towel and set in a warm place for an hour or so, until it doubles in size.
  5. Preheat your oven to 375F and put paper cases into a 12-cup muffin tin.
  6. Add the sugar and caraway seeds to the dough, and mix well.
  7. With damp hands, to prevent sticking, form the dough into 12 buns and place each in a muffin cup.
  8. Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until risen, brown, and hollow-sounding when tapped (or until a thermometer reads at least 190F).
  9. Enjoy with tea.

A note on the amounts: I kept the ingredients by weight and I mixed the dough by weight, except where specified otherwise in the original recipe, so I don’t know how much I used by volume. I highly recommend you get a kitchen scale for baking, but there are a few sources online of the approximate conversion of weight to volume for each ingredient. Remember that a pound of flour and a pound of sugar will be different volumes, so you will need to look up each separately.

Finding Solitude When You Don’t Live Alone

The inimitable Cathy Hay posted her Costume College vlog/recap last week and it was, of course, unique and brilliant. In it, she talks about attending large conventions as an introvert, someone who finds large groups of people exhausting and needs time alone to recharge. One of the things that stood out to me was when she referenced that fact that she lives alone in the country. I remember my own days living alone with some fondness, particularly when I was in college in a small upstate-NY city, but of course, I no longer live alone.

Anyone who knows me personally probably knows that I am an introvert. This may come as a surprise to people who only know me when I’m “on” — in stage shows or at work in my networking-heavy job — but I thrive on alone time. Of course, I’ve been married twice now and even have a child (plus I had to live with housemates most of the time I spent before moving in with Dan after my divorce), so I no longer live alone and have to find ways to get the solitude I crave. This has been particularly challenging since having Elliot, but it is still possible.

That said, I do think that any commentary on my solitary tendencies would not be complete without my waxing rhapsodic about the solo apartment of my later two years of college. I lived in a town where I could get a large one-bedroom apartment for less than a studio in the area where I currently live, so when my friend was trying to get out of his lease, I jumped at it. I had a large bedroom, living room, bathroom, and kitchen all to myself, along with a giant arched window to let in glorious amounts of natural light. And it was far enough away from campus to avoid much of the weekend partier traffic, while being close enough that walking to class wasn’t onerous. Of course, when finals weeks made my solitude even more profound (I would often go days without speaking), I would occasionally make a point to get breakfast in a cafe to have some interaction, but I was largely happy to exist alone.

Moving for graduate school made living alone financially impossible, and then I eventually moved in with my first husband. Then, the divorce again made living alone impossible, and the apartment I was finally able to rent on my own after that ended up being a poor fit for me. And then, I moved in with Dan, and eventually, we married and had our son.

So over the last more than 10 years since college, I’ve learned how to live with people and still maintain a sense of solitude. I now live in a suburb of a major city and work in the city, so I am almost never alone. Couple that with the fact that a new baby means lots of visitors, and I’ve had to hone my skills at finding alone time.

I think the cornerstone of my solitude practice is rising early. When I went back to work, I started rising between 5:30 and 6 a.m. to shower before Dan woke up, and try to make a cup of tea (or chocolate) and have some time to read before anyone else woke up. This time in the early morning is the only time that I feel truly alone sometimes. And it is especially nice on the weekends, when Dan sleeps in rather late (sometimes until 8am!) and I have a longer time to myself. Those who met me in the last ten years may be surprised to learn that I have not always been a morning person. I forced myself to start rising earlier when I started running in grad school so that I could take advantage of my time before classes started (and cooler weather in the summer). And I will say that training my body to rise earlier has been one of the single best ways for me to retain a sense of solitude, even while growing our family.

This weekend, for example, I woke up naturally around 5:30 a.m., and decided that, rather than trying to go back to sleep, I’d rather make myself some tea and have a quiet morning to myself while Dan slept in with Elliot. I wrote some letters, sipped my tea, and walked to the post box just before Dan and Elliot woke up. It was lovely and calm and let me reconnect with myself and my own interests before jumping into a day of family togetherness.

My Historically-Inspired Morning Routine

I’ve written before about my vintage-inspired routines, but lately, I’ve been finding myself going even further back in history for inspiration. Because the summer always makes me yearn for airy muslin dresses, I’ve been stuck in the Regency period lately. And because I never just limit myself to fashion or beauty, I’ve found the practices of the Regency period bleeding into my morning routine.

Since having a baby, the early morning is often the only time I get entirely to myself, and adding childcare to my morning routine has meant that I have to rise particularly early. While my hours may be more akin to that of a Regency servant, I’ve taken some inspiration from Regency middle and upper classes to carve out a few quiet moments to myself in the morning.

I rise between 5:30 and 6 a.m., and wash up. I shower every morning, although it is often a very quick shower to wash my body and face, while I keep my hair protected in a cap or turban. I spritz my clean skin with rosewater and apply a few drops of facial oil, put on a robe, and go into the kitchen.

One thing I’ve learned is that I no longer wake ravenous, so I don’t need to make a full breakfast immediately upon rising. In true historical fashion, I’ve started eating my breakfast around 10 a.m. in my office. But I need something to get me through my commute, so I’ve been making a cup of drinking chocolate. I’ll share more about my particular recipe a little further on, but while my chocolate boils, I usually have enough time to prepare the few things I need to bring to work for my breakfast and lunch: some sliced bread and cheese, a couple boiled eggs, some fruit, and a salad.

To make my chocolate, I bring water to a boil, add chopped chocolate, spices ground in my mortar and pestle, and sugar. I stir until the chocolate melts, and then bring it to a simmer. Then I remove it from the heat, add cream, and whip it to a froth. This is poured into a cup or mug and enjoyed with a chapter or two of a book. I’ve lately tried to keep myself from opening up my devices too early in the morning (although I often fail to resist temptation), and instead have been reading classic books. I recently finished Jane Eyre and enjoyed it immensely.

By the time I finish my chocolate, Elliot and Dan have usually woken up, so I sit and nurse Elliot while Dan takes his shower. Once both have finished, I can make the final touches to my skin care by applying sunscreen, and then dress my hair, dress my body, and put on a little makeup. Then, I can gather my things and leave for the train station, my little oasis of calm having thoroughly prepared me for the day.

Regency-Inspired Drinking Chocolate
(inspired by this post)

1 oz. unsweetened chocolate
2 cardamom pods
3 allspice berries
1 Tbsp. of sucanat (unrefined sugar)
1 cup of water
2-3 Tbsp. heavy cream

Bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan. Break open the cardamom pods and empty the seeds into a mortar. Add the allspice. Grind the spices to a powder with the pestle. Chop the chocolate. Add the chocolate, spices, and sucanat to the boiling water. Stir until the chocolate has melted and blended with the water, then bring back to a simmer. Remove from the heat and add cream. Whip to a froth and serve. Makes one generous cup.