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.

Holiday Recipe: Maple Pecan Pie

Yesterday, we celebrated Thanksgiving in the States. Now, being the technically-Southern woman that I am, one of my favorite Thanksgiving treats is pecan pie. Of course, the traditional version is mostly corn syrup and sugar, with eggs for body, and some pecans. Apparently, one of my uncles loves pecan pie, but when he eats it, he picks off the pecans, which invariably float to the top of the filling, and then just eats the sugar-corn-syrup goo underneath.

Appetizing, no? Well, I’m not a fan of corn syrup goo, so when I was developing my own recipe, in addition to adding many more pecans than my traditional family recipe, I also decided to swap out corn syrup for maple syrup. Because even though I’m technically in the South, I’m a Northern lady at heart, right? Anyway, maple syrup also lends a delicious flavor and richness that blends beautifully with the pecans. Here’s my recipe, if you’re in the mood for an American holiday treat.

Maple Pecan Pie
serves 8-12

Crust:

1 cup flour
1 stick butter, cold
1 pinch salt
1/8-1/4 cup cold water

Filling:

2 cups chopped pecans, plus more for the top
6 Tbsp. butter, melted
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 cup Grade B maple syrup
3 eggs
good pinch of salt
2 tsp. vanilla extract

  1. Make the crust by blitzing together the flour, salt, and butter in the food processor until it resembles coarse crumbs. Add the water a little at a time until a dough just forms. Squeeze together into a ball and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill for at least half an hour.
  2. When the dough is chilled, roll it out into a large disk and place in the bottom of a 9″ pie pan. Trim and crimp the edges. Pop back in the fridge to chill while you make the filling.
  3. Preheat the oven to 350. Mix together the melted butter, brown sugar, maple syrup, vanilla, and salt. Whisk in the eggs until smooth.
  4. Scatter the pecans in the pie crust and top with the filling. Arrange more pecan halves on top to make it look pretty. Bake for an hour or so, or until the filling is just set. Cool completely before eating. Can be made a day ahead, chilled overnight, and brought to room temperature before eating. Enjoy!

Autumnal Frolicking: Apple Picking and Apple Baking

This past weekend, a few of my coworkers and I decided to drive out to a farm a little ways out of town for an autumnal treat: apple picking. Sadly, it’s the very end of the season, so pickings were slim (or rather, split and attacked by birds), but it was still a lovely outing. We were treated to stunning views of the countryside in an area where the mountains start to roll a bit and the weather was sunny and yet crisp.

We arrived at the farm in the late morning to a bustling scene of fall fun. A few children and a few more dogs joined in as we gathered our peck bags and headed up the hill. The best apples were at the very top of the hill, so we were able to kill two birds with one stone and take in the views as well. After a little time scouring the trees for apples that were ripe but not overripe, we adjourned to the bins of harvested apples at the ends of the rows of trees to fill out our bags. As I knew most of my apples would be used for baking, I erred on the side of taking a few of the greener apples from the trees. And Fiancé had joined us as well, making it easier to get some of the higher-up apples.

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In addition to gathering apples, we also bonded socially, which is something I’ve lacked with my new coworkers, even after being almost a year into my new job. We carried our apples back down the hill and paid for them, along with some cider. After that, we took ourselves to a nearby town for a sandwich lunch and dessert at an adorable bakery. And then home again to consider our spoils.

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Back home, I found myself tired and busy, so I had limited time to bake this weekend. But I found myself awake on Sunday morning with a desire for something baked and no desire to go out. So I had Fiancé grate some apples and set to work baking a batch of Apple Pecan Muffins.

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Now, I always grate the apples in my apple muffins because I don’t like biting into big chunks of cooked apple and I find it gives them a nice apple flavor and a moist texture. You can feel free to dice them if you like, though you may need to add a bit more liquid to make up for the juices that won’t release.

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I added pecans to my muffins, as well as more spices than just cinnamon. I have a love-hate relationship with cinnamon. Fiancé likes to quote The Hangover and call me a tiger whenever the subject of cinnamon comes up, which is cute, sort of. But I find that the oft-neglected other fall spices add an almost savory-spice to the mixture. It’s a rather old-fashioned flavor and brings to mind spiced mixtures from the Middle Ages, at least to me.

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Finally, if you can find the If You Care muffin liners, try them. They are the only muffin liners I’ve found that the muffins truly release from, no spraying needed. They’re probably easier to find at a hippie natural foods store, which happens to be where I do most of my shopping, but they’re so worth it if you hate having a quarter of your muffin stick to the paper.

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Apple Pecan Muffins
(makes 12 muffins)

Ingredients:

The Dry:

2 cups white whole wheat flour
1/2 cup quick-cooking steel-cut oats
1/2 cup or so of pecans, chopped
1/3 cup of dark brown sugar
1 Tbsp. of baking powder
2 tsp. of ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. of ground ginger
1/2 tsp. of ground allspice
A pinch of salt

The Wet:

1/2 stick of salted butter, melted
2 eggs
1 cup of fresh sweet apple cider
1-2 apples, grated (I used one large and one small)

The Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 F (200 C) and line a 12-cup muffin pan with paper liners. Spray the liners if you are not confident they will not stick. Or use my favorite liners.
  2. Whisk together the dry ingredients, making sure to break up any clumps of brown sugar.
  3. In a large measuring cup or a small bowl, whisk together the melted butter, 1/2 a cup of the cider, and the eggs. Really whisk it together to form an emulsion between the cider and butter.
  4. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, along with the grated apple, and mix gently. If the batter is a little dry, add the rest of the cider until it’s a good consistency. Make sure you moisten all the little pockets of flour.
  5. Spoon into the muffin papers. Your cups will be rather full. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until quite brown and springy. Cool as long as you can bear it in the pan and then eat, slathered in butter, preferably alongside a cup of tea or a mug of hot cider.

Treats Without Sweets: Cheese Scones

Lately, I’ve tried to take the advice of Lady Hirons and trim sweet things from my diet. Because I found myself reaching for sweet treats more often than not, I’ve decided that a three week fast from sweets was necessary to somewhat reset my cravings and remind me that I can, indeed, live without sugar.

Sadly, this coincided with the beginning of a new rehearsal cycle with a director who likes to schedule Saturday morning rehearsals and loves to have breakfast treats to keep us motivated. I generally like to bake for my acting colleagues, so I was somewhat disappointed that I couldn’t bring a batch of soft, sweet cream scones with cream and jam. But then I thought, well treats don’t have to be sweet, and I could easily bake scones without sugar. But they might be rather bland. So I thought back to my old Nigella Lawson recipe for onion pie with cheese scone dough and decided to make a batch of cheese scones.

These are really a simple batch of scones, without even any egg to give them more structure. I recommend you use a nice, sharp cheese, as the sharper the cheese, the stronger the cheese flavor will be. I eat them without any accompaniment, though I imagine a tart jam might be nice.

Cheese Scones

2 cups flour
1 Tbsp. baking powder
pinch of salt
1 stick of cold butter, cubed
4 oz. shredded cheese
2 cups cold milk

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Stir together the flour, salt, and baking powder, and then cut in the butter until it resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in the cheese. Add the milk, a little at a time, until a soft dough forms. Pat the dough out on a floured surface to about 1/2″ thick, and then fold three times, like a letter, and again in half. Pat this out again and cut out your scones. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until quite brown. Makes about 8 scones.

Time Spent in the Kitchen

One of my favorite things to do is to cook and bake. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen when I have it, and I love to play around with recipes and food. A lot of time, I don’t even use a recipe, but come up with my own versions of classic dishes. My mother really taught me to cook, and I have fond memories following her about in the kitchen, learning how to make a Bechamel sauce or gravy, and learning about seasonings. Most of our family traditions still revolve around food.

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But the best thing my mother taught me was when to go to a cookbook. My favorite cookbook is The Settlement Cookbook. Our family copy when I was growing up was a constant reference, with its aged mustard yellow cover and spotted pages. Some of the pages were more well-worn than others, such as the baked pancake I used to make often. When I moved out and was on my own, it was my one wish, and my mother came through, finding another old copy of it, which I still have. I’ve memorized most of my go-to recipes, but the referene is still there.

I’ve also had some luck finding old, public-domain cookbooks online. One in particular that is adorable is 1001 Ways to Please a Husband with Bettina’s Best Recipes. It’s a sweet book that follows a fictional newly-married couple. The wife is ingenious when it comes to the kitchen and seems to be able to put together a four-course meal from an old boot and a tin of sardines. The book is written in little stories that follow the seasons and highlight a menu. They have casual dinners en famille, and big dinner parties. She even teaches her neighbor how to cook and plays matchmaker.

Now, this book was written in 1917, so don’t expect progressive political ideas. But, as another blogger I read has said, one could easily see Bettina in the modern world playing the role of a party planner. And when it comes down to it, you don’t need to cook for a man to cook from scratch. While I do cook for Boyfriend most nights when I’m not at rehearsal, I spent years living on my own cooking simple, delicious food for myself. And that’s where books like these come into play. I’m not necessarily going to cook myself something fancy and complicated, but I will cook a roast chicken that will keep me in meat for a week, or a baked pancake on the weekend, or a batch of biscuits.

And if I need something a little kitschy or vintage? I can go to the older books for colorful fruit and jello salads, or a fun party spread. And since I managed to fry my last meat thermometer, it’s nice to have an outside estimate of how long to roast certain cuts of meat by time (although vintage roasting times are notoriously over-estimated). But simple food never goes out of style.

My Most Obscure Christmas Tradition: Christmas Cake

Fruitcake is the butt of many jokes in the United States. One of my earliest memories of TV was of an episode of a show that was making fun of fruitcake. But I’ve discovered that properly made fruitcake is not only delicious, it’s one of my mother’s favorite things. So for years now, I’ve endeavored to make her a Christmas cake.

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Proper Christmas cake does not involve any dyed cherries. And it involves a lot of brandy. And time. I make my Christmas cake the weekend after Thanksgiving and mature it for a month before consumption, at least. Some years, I’m remiss and forget to make the cake until closer to Christmas, in which case it becomes more of a mid-to-late January cake, rather than a Christmas cake.

But one thing is always the same: no raisins. And no dyed fruit.

I often use the recipe in Nigella Lawson’s fabulous book How to Be a Domestic Goddess, but this year I decided to try something different. I used this recipe from the BBC, and used my own blend of dried fruit. I used mostly currants, with some dried cherries, apricots, and bits of minced candied ginger. I often include dried sugared pineapple, but I forgot it this year.

The house smelled like Christmas as I simmered the fruit, brandy, butter, sugar, and spices, and then baked the cake for two hours. Then, I fed the cake with a bit more brandy and wrapped it tightly with paper and string. That whole thing went into a sealed zipper bag, although an airtight, decorative tin would be more aesthetically pleasing. Every so often, two or three times before Christmas, I would unwrap it, feed it a bit more brandy, and rewrap it until the big day.

One thing I’ve learned is to eat homemade fruitcake in very thin slices. The flavors are strong and the brandy is potent. But it makes a lovely addition to a tray of holiday sweets, either on Christmas Eve, or as friends and relatives pop by throughout the season.

Everyday Scones

When I was little, my mother taught me about table manners by having tea parties. I never really understood the fake tea parties you see children characters on television having because when I had a tea party, I did not invite my stuffed animals and serve imaginary food. My mother set out real china and had finger sandwiches and scones.

Scones are one of my favorite baked goods, and something that I’ve perfected in my baking repetoire, although I generally bake rich, light cream scones. The other day, I woke up and I wanted scones with my breakfast tea, so I found a recipe for English scones, which tend to be less sweet and greasy than those things you find in American coffeeshops. And then I tweaked it just a little, using one cup of sprouted whole wheat flour and one cup of cake flour for the two cups of plain flour. They baked up tender, with enough structure to hold onto butter and jam at breakfast.

I folded in a handful of currants, leftover from Christmas cake baking, just before shaping and cutting them. It reminded me of the time I offered a friend a currant scone, to which he looked bewildered and answered, “Well, I wouldn’t want a past scone.” Some misunderstanding about “currant” versus “current,” it would seem. But these were both current scones and currant scones. I cut them into wedges, put two of them on a baking sheet, and tucked them into a hot oven.

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And then, I froze the rest of the batch. I laid them out on a baking sheet lined with parchment, put them in the freezer for about an hour, and then moved the now-solid wedges to a plastic zipper bag and froze them. So now, when I wake up in the morning, I can take a scone or two out of the freezer and put them on a baking sheet, preheat my oven, and have scones in about 15 minutes, just long enough to gather my wits, brew a cup of tea, and lay out the rest of my breakfast.

Half-Wheat Scones
(adapted from here)

1 cup cake flour
1 cup sprouted wheat flour
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. sugar
4 Tbsp. butter, cut into cubes
1 beaten egg
6-8 Tbsp. milk
handful of dried fruit, peel, or nuts (optional)

Preheat your oven to 425 F and line a baking sheet with a piece of parchment. Stir together the flours, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Scatter the bits of butter over the dry mixture and work the butter in with your fingers until it resembles crumbly pebbles. Beat together the egg and 5 Tbsp. of milk and add to the dry ingredients. Stir together, adding more milk a dribble at a time if needed, until it comes together into a nice dough. Fold in the fruit or nuts or peel now it you like. Form into a circle and pat to 1/2″ thick. Cut into 8 wedges and bake for 8 or 9 minutes, until golden at the edges.