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Baking Heritage Bread - “No Knead to Worry”

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By Cynthia Peters

When the fall fires begin to burn, it’s definitely time for homemade bread baking “pioneer style”.  Now, I know that can be a stretch for most city folk, but bread baked in a machine or modern oven can be also amazing!  I’m lucky enough to own a Pioneer Maid wood oven made by the Mennonites in Waterloo. It creates a lot of heat and transforms our breakfast room into an inviting gathering spot on many winter mornings for our guests.

Baking bread in a wood oven is an emotional journey. For many, it is a touchstone of our youth. Growing up with a grandmother that baked effortlessly (without recipes) provided me many memories and smells. For others, it’s a tribute to our culinary traditions and appreciation of the goodness (taste and love) of making bread from scratch. It also conjures up a lot of work and wait time for many of us. So I was delighted the other week when I met up with my friend Liz Driver, Curator of the Campbell House in Toronto, and baked bread with her in a traditional historical bake oven in Prince Edward County.  It was part of a County heritage-cooking event hosted by one of our local County museums, Macaulay House and the Ontario Culinary Historians.

Picture a really large fireplace with an opening about four feet high. Cooking in the eighteenth century was done primarily on a fire set into an open grate, usually with a very large hearth. Bread was cooked in an oven beside the fireplace., embedded in the bricks. The oven we used was a great example of the above description. It was particularly fascinating for me to watch the volunteer museum chefs work their magic.

The “French Bread” that was served for the lunch was an 1800’s recipe. While we did make it in the traditional bake oven at Macaulay House in Picton, my version was baked in my wood oven. It also can be made in a modern gas or electric oven.  What is also perfect is that it is simple to make and only has one rising. And most importantly, there is no weighting of ingredients or kneading.

I learned that it was called “French Bread” because in the 17th century the British had admired the well-to-do French recipe that contained eggs and milk. So when the British created this recipe they named it in honor of their neighbors. Below is the original version for your enjoyment. Following, is the modern version with my tips for your oven.

“French Bread”

 With a quarter of a peck of fine flour mix the yolks of three and whites of two eggs, beaten and strained, a little salt, half a pint of good yeast that is not bitter, and as much milk, made a little warm, as will work into a thin light dough. Stir it about, but don't knead it. have ready three dishes, divide the dough equally in them, set to rise, then turn them out into the oven, which must be quick. 

The Canadian Housewife's Manual of Cookery (Hamilton, 1861), but based on a recipe in Eliza Smith's famous 18th-century English cookbook

Interesting Notes:

- Quarter of a peck = 4 pints (1 peck = 2 gallons)
- Half a pint of good yeast = use enough modern yeast to rise the amount of flour. At the time of the cookbook, yeast was homemade and was part of the liquid volume in the recipe; hence, "half a pint of good yeast."

Modern” French” Bread

In separate bowls…

Mix 2 tablespoons of yeast with a teaspoon of sugar and about ¼ cup of warm water.

In another bowl measure out 8 cups of flour. I used bread flour…but you can use all –purpose flour, as that is what the original recipe would of used.

In another bowl mix the eggs with a ¼ teaspoon of salt. (amounts above)

When the yeast is ready, pour into bowl of flour, add eggs and add 1 litre of buttermilk or 1 percent milk….will also need a bit more milk. You need to judge. The dough should be very moist…like thick banana bread dough (do not stir too much)

 Grease 3 large loaf pans with some oil. And divide dough into three pans.

Cover with a tea towel and put in a warm place.  Let rise for about an hour on top of a radiator or heating vent is a good place. Bread should at least double its size and be close to the top of the tin.

When oven reaches 375 degrees, bake the bread for 40 to 50 minutes. Should sound hollow when knocked on the bottom. And golden on top.

Remove from pans and place on wire rack to cool. Do not cut till it is completely cooled.

This bread has a good weight and a nice crumb.  It’s great for toast and leftovers would be ideal for a bread pudding.  Mine is cooling right now..…looking forward to toast with local honey and butter tomorrow morning. Is there anything better?


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