Barm Bread

Here is a basic barm bread recipe for you to use with your home-made potato barm.

I am still experimenting with recipes other than loaves of bread, and will hopefully be able to post some other uses in due course, but in the meantime, I present to you a basic recipe, and some suggestions of how you can use it to adapt to what you have to hand. If you have multiple loaf tins, feel free to double or even triple this recipe.

Both breads on this page, and the two white loaves on the previous page, were made according to this recipe. The above image is a cross-section of a loaf made with Stoneground Wholemeal Flour. The image below is from a loaf made with Stoneground Wholemeal Flour and Buckwheat Flour in a 50:50 ratio.

Buckwheat Wholemeal Barm Bread

 

Simple Barm Bread

350g bread flour(s)
150ml room-temperature barm¹
150ml warm water
1tsp salt

  • Mix 50g of the flour with the barm and the warm water. Set aside to work for 30 minutes. This is not strictly necessary with fresh barm, as it is full of life, but it is good to get into the habit for the future, be it weeks or months later, in order to check whether your barm is still lively. If there are no bubbles visible after 30 minutes, you can try and jump-start it by stirring in 1tsp brown sugar and waiting another 15 minutes.
  • When bubbles are visible, add the rest of the flour and the salt and mix thoroughly. Knead by hand for 10 minutes. If you’re using a mixer and a dough hook, set it to the lowest possible speed for 10 minutes, then the highest speed for two minutes. You want the dough to be elastic, but probably a little more moist than regular dough – the long rise time is very drying and if the dough is too stiff to begin with, it will restrict the rise.
  • Grease a large loaf tin well.
  • Tip out the dough and knead it into a loaf shape. I usually pat it flat(ish), then fold the ends in, then the sides in, then turn it over so the seal is on the bottom.
  • Lay the dough in your loaf tin. Brush the top of the dough lightly with a little oil or spray with water and/or scatter flour over the surface. This will help keep the dough from drying out.
  • If you have a plastic bag large enough, you could put your tin inside and ‘inflate’ it around the loaf to keep off any drafts. I usually just put it in the oven.
  • Set aside to rise. The rising time will depend on the age of the barm, the type of flour used and the temperature of the room.
    • I recently made white bread with a fresh batch of barm, and it took 5½ hours to rise during the day (warmer).
    • Stoneground wholemeal flour bread with some month-old barm took 10 hours overnight (cooler).
    • Enriched (with sugar and butter) dough with fresh barm (for hot cross buns) 9 hours overnight.
  • When the dough has risen sufficiently,² bake in a hot oven, 200°C, 180°C Fan for 50 minutes, turning the loaf around half way through the baking time to even the colouring.
  • For an extra crispy crust, remove the loaf from the tin and return to the oven for 5-10 minutes before cooling on a wire rack.

 

¹ Be sure to shake/whisk your barm up well before taking your measure out.

² This should be when it has doubled in size. For this amount of flour, in a large loaf tin, it will be when the dough almost ¾ fills the tin. The last bit of rise should be in reaction to the heat of the oven (oven spring). Don’t worry if you mis-judge it and let it go a little too long, bake the loaf anyway – it will be delicious, just with a rather flattened top.

Barm

Barm is what we used to use to make bread before the advent of solid, compressed yeast. It was skimmed off the top of fermenting beer and occasionally wine, and, back in the day when everyone was drinking small beer and ale because water couldn’t be relied on, was in ready supply.

Nowadays, it is a little tricky to obtain, unless you live near a brewery, but easy to rustle up your own due to the numerous recipes available in old books.

In general, a small quantity of hops is simmered in water for flavour, then flour and sugar and boiled, mashed potatoes are added to create the right consistency (a little like double cream). Frustratingly, when I was first looking into this, most of the recipes I found included an instruction something along the lines of: “then add a pint of good barm.” So yes, you end up with a large quantity of barm for all your baking needs, but only if you have barm to begin with. What about if you have no barm or, as I recently found, no yeast in the shops due to the random panic buying intially happening at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown?

To the rescue came a recipe in a Welsh-language cookery book “Llyfr Coginio a Chadw Ty”, (Wrexham, circa 1880), in which you can indeed start with no barm and end up with about a gallon.

I’ve made this a few times. The batch I made last year was in October, and after something of a baking frenzy spread over a couple of weeks, I left the remainder outside the back door in a closed, tupperare box. With the recent demise of yeast in the shops, I thought I’d try and resurrect it, and by jove it worked! The bread had a pronounced beery/yeasty flavour, which was due to the age, I think. Still, good to know it can keep for over 5 months in a cool environment.

Unlike a sourdough starter, it doesn’t need cosseting and feeding. Once mixed, and it has ‘risen and fallen’, it can be transferred to your container of choice and left alone. Before you use it, you stir it up (because it will settle over time), take what you need, then put the rest back.

Baking with barm is a little different from regular yeast. For starters, it takes a long time to rise, but on the plus side, it only needs to rise once. For wholemeal flour, it’s usually about 10 hours at room temperature for a loaf, and for white flour, around eight. This can be to your advantage, in that you can set a batch to rise at night, and it’ll be ready to bake by the morning. Also morning/afternoon rise, bake at night. If these times don’t suit, you could always go for an extra long, slow rise by putting the dough in a cool place, or even in the fridge (not tried this myself yet).

I have three hop bines planted in my garden, and if, like me, your garden is tiny, I can thoroughly recommend them as they are excellent producers of foliage for a tiny footprint of earth. I freeze some of the cones for barm making, others can be used in pillows to aid sleep. They also look fabulous hanging up and absorbing smells from the kitchen (although once dry, the droppage from the cones when you brush past is a housekeeping nightmare).

I realise not everyone will be in a similar position, so I have spent some time exploring other options, and

  • you can buy hops on the internet from brewing supply stores. You only need 60g for one batch of barm – which makes a LOT – so don’t go mad with the quantities.
  • I have also been investigating whether hops are actually needed at all, and the good news is, they aren’t! I have successfully made a batch of barm using only sugar, flour, potatoes, salt and water. If I’m honest, the hop-less bread does initially seem to lack a little something flavourwise, so my workaround for this is a suggestion to use beer as some (up to 50%) of the initial liquid, in order to get the hint of brewery aromas. You can choose dark, strong beers if you like it really pronounced, or something from the ales aisle for a lighter flavour. Or, you could just wait a while – the lower bread in the picture was baked with 2 week old hopless barm, and it had already started to have its own yeasty flavour.

Home-made Barm

Day One
4.5 litres water or beer & water mixed
60g dried hops (optional)
225g brown sugar
4tbs salt
450g flour – a mixture of different flours if liked.

Day Three
1.5kg floury potatoes (Maris Piper, Wilja, etc)

Day Four
Put into container(s)

  • Day One. The aim on Day One is to get a mixture that will attract the natural airborne yeast that surrounds us. One method uses hops, another uses no hops, but beer and water, a third uses neither beer or hops.
    • With Hops: Add your hops to litres of water, bring the water to a gentle simmer and simmer for 30 minutes. If you want just a mild hoppiness, strain now, otherwise allow to cool to blood temperature and strain.
    • With Beer: Make up 4.5 litres of liquid using beer/ale and water. Bring the mixture to blood temperature.
    • No hops or beer: Bring 4.5 litres of water to blood temperature.
  • Weigh out 450g flour. It can be one type of flour or a mixture of flours. Generally speaking, bleached white bread flour isn’t the best, better to have a mixture of brown/wholewheat with a little rye or buckwheat for flavour.
  • Weigh out 225g brown sugar. Again, the type doesn’t matter, it’s more for colour and flavour. I prefer dark muscovado.
  • Mix the flour, salt and sugar to a smooth paste with a little of your warm liquid, then add the whole to the rest of the liquid and whisk together thoroughly.
  • Set aside and leave uncovered (so it can catch all the lovely natural yeast) for 48 hours. I use my preserving pan and leave it on one of the back rings of the hob.
  • The flour will eventually sink, so keep a whisk handy and give it a good stir every now and then.
  • Day Three
  • Peel and boil 1.5kg mealy potatoes.
  • Put the cooked potatoes through a ricer, or mash thoroughly.
  • Add the mashed potatoes to the flour mixture and mix thoroughly. If you’re concerned about there being lumps of potato, I’ve found a stick blender is very efficient at smoothing out the mix.
  • Leave for at least 24 hours. NB essentially what you are doing here is feeding the yeast your delicious flour/sugar mixture caught in the previous two days with a carb-fest of potatoes. The yeast will enjoy this so much, it will start working overtime, but will eventually fall into a carb coma. This is my very unscientific explanation of the ‘rise and fall’ that needs to happen before you confine your barm in a container. Failure to let this initial activity work through completely will result in exploded containers (see Exhibit A: my bathroom walls/ceiling/shower screen a few weeks ago….).
  • You can pre-empt any overflows by continuing to whisk vigorously during this 24 hour period, to knock out the air in the mixture. If you’re concerned that your pan might overflow overnight, put it in the (empty) kitchen sink before you go to bed. I’ve done this every time, and it’s never overflowed, but I’ll bet the one time I don’t do it, I’ll regret it.
  • Day Four: You will see a distinct ‘tide mark’ around your pan indicating both the high point your mixture got to, and confirmation that it has indeed ‘dropped’.
  • Stir your mixture one last time, and put into your container(s). I use a large, 5 litre tupperwear box for a whole batch, but large (1.5 litre) plastic fruit juice bottles make for a handy size, with the added ease of a screwtop. VERY IMPORTANT do not screw the lids tight initially, just rest them on the top and only tighten them gradually, otherwise explosions, mess, wailing and gnashing of teeth, yaddah, yaddah…

Here endeth the lesson on the making of barm. Next up, what to do with your gallon of barm !

 

Oat Cakes

I’m using the recipe for these oatcakes as an example of the pitfalls of projecting 21st century understanding onto 17th century recipes.

Mention the word ‘oatcakes’ and most people will think of small, crisp biscuits that are enjoyed with cheese, pate and the like.

These oatcakes, however, come from an altogether different origin, resembling as they do, what we nowadays would call a muffin. And here is where I have to hold my hand up and make a confession.  Back in 2011, in this post, I had a bit of a chuckle at Hannah Glasse’s distracted recipe for Muffins and Oat-cakes, that never mentions oatcakes beyond the title, and her mistake at the end of the method where she writes

Observe, muffins are made the same way.

However, upon reading this and several other early oatcake recipes, it became clear to me that Hannah’s method had actually been describing the making of oat-cakes, which are muffins made with a significant proportion of oat flour. I’d just assumed she was in error because I was thinking of the wrong kind of oatcake, putting the modern notion of a biscuit onto her 18th century recipe.

Oat Cakes recipe
Oat Cakes recipe, circa 1700, MS7788, Wellcome Library

The manuscript in which I found this recipe dates from around 1700, which makes them of the time of Queen Anne, last of the Stuart monarchs. The spicing and flavouring make them deliciously decadent and aromatic, perfect for an elegant afternoon tea-table. They are best enjoyed warm, with just a little butter. If you’re not eating them fresh from the pan, then the outsides should be lightly toasted under a grill before gently pulling apart and buttering.

These take a little longer than regular muffins in the initial cooking, but my guess is that is down to the oat flour. Speaking of which, I made these by sifting fine oatmeal, which is also sometimes sold as oat flour. It is coarser than wheat flour, being somewhere between brown flour and stoneground wholemeal flour in texture.  I firstly sieve out the coarser particles and then whizz these coarse siftings in a blender/spice grinder (the offset blades are more efficient than a food processor) and re-sieve in order to get the maximum amount of ‘flour’. This process is a little tedious, and frankly, you could just use the oat flour as is and they would be fine, but by using only the finest quality of oat flour ensures the delicacy of their texture matches the delicacy of the flavourings.

Oat Cakes

Makes 14

300g plain flour
300g oat flour
20g fresh yeast
150ml whole milk
150ml water
1 large egg
2 large yolks
2tbs sweet sherry/Madeira/Marsala
1/3 nutmeg, grated
1/4 tsp ground mace
1/2tsp salt
20g caster sugar

  • Put the dry ingredients and the yeast into a bowl. I use my stand mixer fitted with a dough hook.
  • Whisk the milk, water, egg, yolks and alcohol together then add to the dry ingredients.
  • Mix thoroughly for 10 minutes.
  • Mix on high for 2 minutes, then and leave to rise for 1 hour.
  • Deflate the dough gently then divide it into 75g portions.
  • Cup your hand over each piece of dough and roll it in small circles, shaping the dough into a smooth ball. Set the ball on a flour-dusted surface to rise. Don’t put the balls of dough too close together, or they might rise into each other.
  • Allow the dough to rise for 30 minutes from the moment the first ball of dough is shaped. They will take time to cook in batches, so with the staggered batch cooking, the last few will have risen just in time to be cooked.
  • Put a heavy-based pan onto a large ring on a medium heat. On my 1-9 induction hob, I use 6.
  • Cook the muffins in batches. Depending on the size of your pan, you can cook 4 or 5 at a time.
  • To transfer the risen dough to the pan, gently slide a thin spatula underneath and transfer it to the pan turning it upside down as you do so, so that the top of the oat cake cooks first. This will help create the perfect muffin shape. If you cook the base first, the top will continue to rise and curve, and since the radiated heat from the pan will dry the surface of the dough as it cooks, this will thus make it ‘reluctant’ to flatten into the traditional muffin shape. Cooking the soft top first, the weight of the dough pressing down allows it to settle like a gently deflating cushion, into the flattened shape, and a partial hardening of the already flat bottom (which has become the top) is fine.
  • Cook for 6-7 minutes, then gently turn the cakes over and cook for another 5-6 minutes. When done, they should sound hollow when tapped.
  • Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Wholemeal Oat Bread

For a number of years, my favourite brown bread has been the Grant Loaf, partly due to the almost ridiculously easy method of preparation, and partly due to its deliciousness, especially when either freshly baked, or lightly toasted.

However, even the most ardent of fans will admit that it is not a light loaf. It has certain brick-like qualities not limited solely to its shape. So the discovery of this loaf, which not only uses wholemeal flour, but adds oatmeal to it as well, and which results in a light and airy loaf, is a bit of a revelation. You’d think that mixing heavy, stoneground wholemeal with heavy oatmeal would be a recipe for a loaf of leaden qualities, but no – it’s almost as if these two ‘wrongs’ make a ‘right’. Fickle as I am, this is now my new favourite wholemeal loaf.

Like the Grant Loaf, it also takes advantage of the initial vigorousness of the yeast by being proofed only for two short intervals, making it much quicker than traditional bread.

The second difference is the shape in which it is baked. The recipe’s author, Sir Henry Thompson, was most famous for his expertise in the fields of medicine and surgery. However, as a recognised polymath, he was also knowledgeable in a number of other areas, including nutrition, exemplified by his book “Food and Feeding” (1879) in which he noted (on the subject of wholemeal flour)

it does not readily produce light agreeable bread when made in the form of ordinary loaves : a solid mass of this meal being a bad conductor of heat, will have a hard flinty crust if baked sufficiently to cook the interior ; or it will have a soft dough-like interior, if the baking is checked when the crust is properly done. Consequently the form of a flat cake, resembling that of the ordinary tea-cake, is preferable, since it admits of the right amount of heat operating equally throughout the mass.

4th Edition, p40.

The first edition of Sir Henry’s book suggested a mixture of wholemeal flour and fine flour. Later editions changed this to a recommendation of oatmeal – fine if using baking powder and medium if using yeast. I’ve tried both combinations and much refer the yeast version, as the baking powder version seemed to develop a sour taste quite quickly, although that might have been due to me using Sir Henry’s own version of baking powder which reversed the proportions we use nowadays, i.e. 1 part cream of tartar to 2 parts bicarbonate of soda.

This recipe can be baked in two Victoria Sandwich tins and produces deliciously airy bread, ideal for sandwiches. You can cut slices across the loaf, as in the photo, or cut it into quarters for a simpler, but less elegant, wedge.

You can make this bread with ordinary wholemeal flour, but bread flour gives the better result. If you’d like to try the baking powder version, the quantity recommended for this recipe is 15g.

You can download a free copy of Sir Henry’s book, “Food and Feeding” (4th edition) here.

Wholemeal Oat Bread

450g stoneground wholemeal bread flour
115g medium oatmeal
20g fresh yeast or 1 sachet fast action yeast
5g salt
30g unsalted butter
400ml-ish half milk, half water, warmed

  • Put all the ingredients into a bowl and knead together for 10 minutes on slow using a dough hook, or by hand.
  • If using a dough hook, at the end of the 10 minutes, switch the speed to High for 2 minutes to bring the dough into a ball.
  • Allow to rise for 20 minutes.
  • Divide the dough in half, and mould each piece into a ball.
  • Press the dough into two greased, Victoria sandwich tins (20cm diameter).
  • Set to rise for another 20 minutes.
  • Preheat the oven to 220°C, 200°C Fan. Depending on how quickly your oven heats, you might want to do this as you set the bread for its second rise, or after it has been rising 10 minutes.
  • Bake for 15 minutes, then turn the heat down by 20 degrees and bake for a further 15 minutes.
  • To crisp up the bottom crust, tip the bread out of the tins and return the loaves to the oven to bake for a final 5 minutes.
  • Cool on a wire rack.

Welsh Cakes

I’ve always had a fondness for Wales. The first family holidays were amongst its lush and rolling hills and I became an avid fan of rugby through watching Wales during the glorious days of the mid-1970s.

In terms of its food, I’m constantly frustrated by the existence of so few old books from which to draw recipes. I have on my bookshelves just three in the Welsh language, all dating from the 19th century, and, disappointingly, not one of them contains recipes for either Bara Brith or Welsh Cakes. I have a feeling that there must be a very rich hoard of manuscript recipes lurking somewhere in storage, perhaps in a record office or some archive, just waiting to be discovered.

I have already brought you a couple of Bara Brith recipes, being unable to choose between the rich fruitiness of one and the delicate texture of the other. For years I have been in search of an authentic and worthy Welsh Cake recipe, with no joy. With the best will in the world, the modern Welsh Cake can be a little on the heavy side. The more tactful descriptions suggest ‘close-textured’, other spade-a-spade critiques might go with ‘stodgy’. And the stodginess would seem to be almost necessary, as too long on the griddle and the pastry-like dough of the modern Welsh cake recipe is prone to drying out and becoming tough.

I have therefore been more than a little mollified by this week’s recipe, which I found in the digitised manuscript collection of the Welcome Library. It comes from the recipe book of Dorothea Repps (nee Fountaine) and dated 1703, when she was just 21 and already married to John Repps. I am extremely fond of this manuscript book, for Dorothea’s handwriting is bold, confident and easy to read, and adorned with swooping flourishes. This recipe for Welsh Cakes appears very early on in the book and consequently I feel confident that she must have recorded it  no later than 1710.

What I find curious, quite apart from it pre-dating most other Welsh Cake recipes by at least 150 years, is the fact that Dorothea spent her life in Norfolk, just about as far east and distant from Wales as you can get without falling in the sea. There’s nothing else in her book that is particularly Welsh, so its presence is something of an enigma. Also curious is the form that Dorothea’s Welsh Cakes take: a single, large, layered yeast cake sprinkled with currants and sandwiched with raisins.

Welsh Cakes Recipe
From MS 7788, Wellcome Library Collection

As with many recipes of this age, the quantities of ingredients are huge, and reflect the catering-size amounts required in a large house. I scaled them down to something more manageable and baked it as described and I have to be honest, it was a bit heavy. Nice, but decidedly door-stop. So I had another go, making even smaller, single-serving versions, with just two layers of the currant dough sandwiching the plump raisins. They were very neat, and baked to a lovely golden brown, but…..ordinary. Despite the richness of the mix, the oven heat, even without fan convection,  made the outsides of a crustiness that all the post-baking basting with milk failed to soften.

Having concentrated so much on the presentation, after carefully cutting and shaping these little filled cakes, I found myself left with quite a lot of trimmings. I can’t abide waste, so I decided to gather them together, re-roll and cut them like modern Welsh Cakes. Since the oven was in use baking the sandwich version, I thought I might cook these in a dry pan on the stove top. And this spur of the moment decision provided the secret to revealing the deliciousness of this recipe. For cooked in the traditional bakestone manner, they are extraordinary.

The thin crust that forms from contact with the warm pan (for a gentle heat is all they require) surrounds a yeast-raised interior so delicate and feather-light they almost disappear. They are at their best hot from the pan, sprinkled with a little caster sugar.

This combination of a centuries-old recipe, with a relatively modern form and method of cooking produces a real tea-time delicacy.  Wherever she gathered this delightful recipe from, I’m grateful to Dorothea Repps for recording it in her book so that we can enjoy them today. If you’re in Norfolk, you can stop by and thank her yourself: she is buried in the place where she lived until the ripe old age of 78 and lies surrounded by her family, in a vault in the magnificent church  of St Peter and St Paul, in Salle.

Dorothea Repps’ Welsh Cakes

You can, of course, use your own favourite spicing/flavourings for these Welsh cakes, instead of Dorothea’s suggestion of nutmeg. I suggest no more than a total of 1 teaspoon of whatever spices you choose.

Makes 16-20

225g plain flour
pinch of salt
½-1tsp freshly grated nutmeg
15g icing sugar
80g unsalted butter
1 large egg yolk
50-100ml milk
10g fresh yeast
40-60g currants

caster sugar for sprinkling

  • Mix the flour, icing sugar, salt and spices in a bowl.
  • Whisk 50ml of milk and the yeast together, then add the yolk and stir thoroughly.
  • Melt the butter and allow to cool a little before whisking in the milk/yeast mixture.
  • Add these wet ingredients to the dry and knead until the mixture comes together in a soft dough. Add more milk if necessary.
  • Knead for 10 minutes until smooth.
  • Knead in 40g of the currants. If it looks a little sparse to your tastes, add more until the desired level of fruitiness is achieved. Oooh, Matron!
  • Cover and set aside to rise until the dough has doubled in size. Due to the richness of the mixture, this may take between 1.5-2 hours.
  • When risen, tip the dough out and pat gently to deflate. Use a rolling-pin to roll the dough out to a thickness of 1.5cm.
  • Use a fluted, 5cm cutter to cut out little cakes, making sure each one contains a sprinkling of fruit. Re-roll trimmings until all dough has been used.
  • Cover lightly with plastic wrap and set aside to rise for 30-45 minutes.
  • When ready to cook, gently heat a thick-bottomed, heavy pan on your stove. My induction hob goes from 0-9, and I cook these on 5. I also place the cakes around the edge of the pan, avoiding the concentrated heat of the middle. The dough is rich with butter, so no further oil is required.
  • Bake the cakes until lightly browned on each side and the centre is cooked through: around 7 minutes for the first side, and 6 minutes on the second. Turn them gently, as the uncooked tops will have risen due to the heat and will be extremely light and easily deflated.
  • Remove the cooked cakes from the pan and sprinkle the tops lightly with caster sugar.
  • Serve warm, or allow to cool on a wire rack and store in an airtight box. Warm gently before serving

Sally Lunn

The Sally Lunn is a traditional, enriched tea bread that hails from the West Country city of Bath. It is a completely separate item to a Bath Bun, which is an enriched dough, traditionally filled with fruit and peel, topped with a smattering of sugar nibs.

The Sally Lunn has been likened to a British brioche, rich with dairy and eggs, but not sweet. The traditional shape is round and tall, allowing it to be easily sliced horizontally, usually into three, before being loaded with lashings of butter or, as asserted by Dorothy Hartley in her 1954 book Food In England, cream. More descriptively, she actually wrote:

“This yellow-white bun was an infernal trouble to make, taking from sunrise to sunset to raise, was made gold on top with the beaten yolks of eggs, and split hot and embosomed in clouds of cream”.

I don’t know which recipe Ms Hartley was referring to, but the ones I have read seem straightforward enough. As with all yeast-raised goods, this requires only sufficient time to rise, which involves practically no input from the maker whatsoever.

The first mention of the Sally Lunn bun has for years been accepted as 1780 when, in his publication “The Valetudinarians Bath Guide”, Mr Philip Thicknesse wrote:

I had the misfortune to lose a beloved brother in the prime of life, who dropt down dead as he was playing on the fiddle at Sir Robert Throgmorton’s after drinking a large quantity of Bath Waters, and eating a hearty breakfast of spungy hot rolls, or Sally Luns.

making them arguably the first buns so good they were simply to die for.

Moving on from this grisly-yet-detatched account, I’m going to rock the Sally Lunn world with some newly discovered snippets of information that pushes their provenance back even earlier in the eighteenth century.

Firstly a song, published in 1778 in The Gentleman’s Magazine” the opening lines of which read:

A general Invitation to Sally Lund at Spring Garden

Ye Beaux and ye Belles, who resort to the Wells,
Come to Bath, your loose guineas to fund;
One and all I invite, free from envy or spite,
To feast upon sweet Sally Lund.

Spring Gardens were the pleasure gardens set out across the River Avon, east of Bath, which held public breakfasts twice a week, with musical accompaniment, at sixpence a head.

Just to, if not rain, then certainly drizzle a little, on Bath’s bun parade claim to fame, in 1776, a (long and, to be honest, rather dreary) poem published in The Westminster Magazine contained the lines:

Where Donnybrook surveys her winding rills,
And Chapelizod rears her sunny hills
Thy sumptuous board the little loves prepare,
And Sally Lun and Saffron cake are there.

placing these teatime treats surprisingly, but very firmly, in the Dublin countryside.

And finally, we have a recipe. The only recipe I’ve been able to find that actually dates from the eighteenth century. A recipe which predates all other mentions by several years and comes, not from elegant, regency Bath, but from Newcastle in the north-east of England. Discovered in a book published in 1772 by Mary Smith, it admittedly doesn’t have the exact same name, but it is recognisably similar. In addition, the recipe itself does indeed make a bun that fits the description of a Sally Lunn, right down to the traditional serving suggestion.

Luns Cake

As well as the early date and surprising location of this recipe, there are two further interesting details: the single rise and the bakeware. When a dough is enriched with dairy and eggs, it lengthens the amount of time required for the yeast to do its work. This explains why, in old recipes, the dough is first set to rise, and only afterwards are the enriching ingredients kneaded in, just before the dough is shaped.  Enriching dough can be something of a double-edged sword, because yes, the result is very delicious, but also, without the correct proportion of liquid, or time, it can turn out heavy. The single rise here means that the initial, exuberant frothiness of the yeast is tempered with the rich ingredients, ultimately producing the perfect balance of both richness and lightness.

Luns Cake

The second detail was the recommendation for an earthenware pot to bake it in. It makes sense – a metal tin would get very hot in the brick oven and the enriched dough would run the risk being scorched. Early test batches of this recipe were baked in some red, 10cm, tapas dishes like this. However, on a visit to a French market I found some ceramic mustard jars (shown in the top image) and they proved the perfect shape to allow the dough to really soar whilst still remaining protected from the heat of the oven.

Mary Smith’s (Sally) Luns Cake

1772

450g plain flour
20g fresh yeast
60g unsalted butter
300ml milk, plus more to mix (maybe)
2 large eggs

  • Put the flour into a bowl and crumble in the yeast.
  • Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a low heat, then remove from the heat and add in the milk. Swirl to mix.
  • Whisk the eggs, add about 2/3 of them to the milk mixture, then pour the liquids into the flour.
  • Mix to a soft dough, adding more liquid if required.
  • Knead for 10 minutes.
  • Divide the dough evenly between your baking dishes (or tins if you haven’t anything else). The mustard pots took 150g of dough, the tapas dishes about half of that. Shape into round, smooth balls and place in the greased dishes/tins to rise for about an hour.
  • Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C Fan.
  • Use the remaining egg to gently brush the tops of the risen buns lightly. Make sure the egg doesn’t drip down the sides as it will cause the dough to stick.
  • Bake for 30-50 minutes, depending on the size of your buns, until well risen and golden brown on top.
  • Remove from the dishes promptly and allow to cool on a wire rack.
  • Store the cooled buns in an airtight box and warm gently in the oven before serving.

Malt Scones

My current lack of oven (for those interested the ETA is currently mid-February) has prompted me to delve into my small but eminently interesting collection of Victorian and Edwardian commercial bakery books in search of something to ‘bake’.

Back in the day, there were numerous recipes that could be baked on a griddle, a far more varied selection than the standard trio of Welshcakes, muffins and crumpets generally known today.

Admittedly, these do tend to be variations of a theme of ‘scones’, but the range available with just slight alterations of the ratio of ingredients is delightful.

The recipe I’ve chosen today is for an unusual griddle scone, as it is flavoured with malt, and every other version I have read has been for oven-baked scones only. I’m a great fan of malt loaves,  and have been since childhood, and they’re pretty straightforward to make at home. The 2-5 day wait for them to mature once baked, however, is frustratingly long.

Not so with this recipe. Cooked in just 10 minutes on the stovetop, they can be enjoyed on day of making either fresh from the griddle or cooled, split and buttered. The delicate malt flavour is probably most pronounced when the scones are freshly baked and cooled. Interestingly, these use both yeast and raising agents to achieve their light and fluffy texture, as well as just a single proving.

These are not SWEET sweet scones, although the malt and the sultanas do place them on the sweet side. I was delighted to discover that, with the original quantity of sultanas (30g), they are delicious with cheese. For a sweeter bite, double this quantity and enjoy them split and buttered.

This batch makes twelve, so if this is rather too much for your needs for one day, you can either freeze some, warm them in the oven (just flaunt your oven-ness at me why don’t you!?) or enjoy them toasted and buttered.

Malt Scones

Makes 12

Ferment
150ml warm water
10g    fresh yeast
2 tsp sugar – brown or white
1tbs plain flour

225g plain flour
35g unsalted butter
30g sultanas
60g  malt extract
½tsp cream of tartar
¼tsp bicarbonate of soda

  • Whisk together the ferment ingredients and set aside in a warm place for 30 minutes until frothy.
  • Put the remaining ingredients except the sultanas, into a food processor and blitz until the malt and butter are fully incorporated,
  • Tip the flour mixture into a bowl.
  • Gradually stir in the frothy ferment until the mixture comes together as a soft dough. NB Depending on the moisture levels of the rest of the ingredients you might not need all of the ferment.
  • Knead for 10 minutes.
  • Add the sultanas and mix thoroughly.
  • Divide the dough into three (about 150g each, or 170g if using the larger amount of sultanas).
  • Roll into a smooth ball, then pat out by hand to a 12cm circle.
  • Cut into quarters and set the farls onto a floured board to rise for 45 minutes.
  • Heat a heavy-bottomed pan on the stove top. I use a cast iron, non-stick pan on the largest ring set to the lowest heat. Allow the pan 5-10 minutes to come to an even heat before you start cooking the scones. If your pan doesn’t have a thick base, then choose a smaller heat and watch carefully that the scones don’t become too dark.
  • Cook the scones in batches, for 5 minutes per side until risen and lightly browned.
  • Cool on a wire rack.
  • Store in an airtight container once cold.