Having glanced at the origin and early history of the loaf, and seen what it was and still is when in the shape of unleavened bread, we will trace the next step in its progress - the introduction of leaven. It does not seem difficult to imagine how it came into use. It is only needful to leave a portion of the unleavened dough in a warm place for some days, and you will see that it begins to ferment, as though it contained barm of some kind; but the taste is rather sour and not pleasant.
"A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump." These few words tell the story of leavened breadmaking. A small portion of this sour dough is mixed with the large quantity of flour, salt, and water requisite for the batch of bread, and in time the whole lump is leavened. But it retained, though in a less degree, the sour taste of the little piece put into the lump, and the bread requires a longer time to work than when made with yeast.
In remote country districts on the Continent this mode of leavening bread is still in common use, and English travellers find it anything but agreeable. I well remember that, when in Switzerland a dozen years ago, our party crossed the Gemmi Pass two days sooner than we intended because my husband could not endure the taste of this leavened bread, and there was nothing else to be had at Kendersteg just then. In many other hotels in the mountainous districts we found leavened bread, but with this one exception there were always plenty of the delightful little milk rolls, twists, and "cobs," as we call them in Lancashire, in addition to the sour-tasted loaves.
Brewer's yeast is merely the froth which rises on the surface of beer during the process of fermentation. It is skimmed off when thick enough, as cream is taken from the milk.
When I was a girl, we, whether lived in country towns and villages, were wholly dependent on this kind of yeast, or on a home-made article for lightening our bread. On certain days in each week a stream of small customers might be seen, mug or pitcher in hand, wending their way towards the various breweries, at which as small as quantity as a halfpennyworth of yeast could be purchased. Many an injunction did these young messengers receive not to loiter by the way lest all the yeast should be gone - a calamity of no small consequence. The yeast money was always the special perquisite of the brewer's wife.
On the weekly market-day, one of the first errands of the country carrier was to the brewery. He conveyed a whole string of tin cans, with close-fitting lids; earthenware jugs, with bungs, and of many sizes; and in these he took home yeast for the village shops, farmers' wives, and cottagers for many a mile round. Probably the motion of the cart would make the barm obstreperous on the homeward way. In spite of the wet rag put on to make the bung or lid fit more tightly, one would fly out with an explosion, the other be lifted off, and some passenger begin to grumble that the froth was trickling on to her bonnet from one of the shelves below the tilt which held the lesser parcels.
Country people are always neighbourly, and yeast was an article much borrowed and lent, not a thing to be rashly or wastefully treated. A little quantity left over was hoarded to make a bit of cake with, or given to a poor neighbour. Baking day only came once a week in cottage homes, new bread being deemed extravagant, and old bread reckoned to go further.
The difficulty of procuring brewer's yeast as often as was requisite, set invention to work to contrive modes of preservation of substitutes for it.
One way of preserving it was by whisking it well, and spreading a thin layer on a large wooden trencher or board. When this was dry another was added, and so on, until the paste was a couple of inches thick, when it was cut up and placed in air-tight canisters until required. Then it was dissolved in warm water and used like fresh yeast.
Potato yeast is made with mealy potatoes; boiled, pounded and passed through a sieve. To 1lb of this pulp add two tablespoonfuls of treacle and boiling water to make it the thickness of brewer's yeast. When just warm stir in two tablespoonfuls of yeast, and keep it in a warm place to ferment for twenty-four hours, when it will be fit for use. It will keep in a cold place for several weeks.
But almost all the substitutes for brewer's barm require just a little of the genuine article to set them going. I will give one recipe for yeast with which the brewer has nothing to do. It is from a very comprehensive treatise on the "Art of Breadmaking," published three quarters of a century ago. Ingredients, 1/2lb flour, 1/2lb coarse sugar, 3/4 peck of malt, bruised. Boil together in 1/2 gallon of water for fifteen minutes. When cooled to 80 degrees, add 1 pint of any water impregnated with fixed air, such as the artificial seltzer (Schweppe's). This will cause fermentation, and when it ceases the clear liquor can be poured off, and the yeast, fit for use, will be found at the bottom.
Many other recipes might be given for artificial yeasts, but fortunately we are much less likely to require them than we were when I made my first loaf. The introduction of German yeast, which is chiefly obtained from the great Continental distilleries, especially those of Holland and Hamburg, has proved a great boon. This is a cleanly article, which comes to us in the form of a light paste with a fresh and pleasant smell, and without the bitter taste of brewer's yeast. This is drained on cloths and pressed dry before being packed for exportation.
I can well remember the dubious looks we cast on the first lump of German yeast offered as a substitute for the ordinary barm by the baker from whom our flour was purchased, and at a time when brewer's yeast could not be easily obtained. We tried it from necessity; we liked it, and ever after preferred it to anything else. Within a very few years after the introduction of the article, one year's imports up to March 31, 1866, amounted to 5,735 tons! What the quantity has now reached I am unable to tell, but it must be something enormous.
Now having told you about the origin of bread and the various kinds of yeast, we will set about making a batch of household bread such as may be seen all the year round at our table. WE must have 12lbs of fine flour, 3oz German yeast, a good handful of salt, and a jug of warm water. But we need not tuck up our sleeves yet, as we are only going to "set the sponge."
A yellow earthenware pancheon, or, as Lancashire folk call it, a "mug," is the nicest thing to make bread in, and preferable to the large wooden bowl occasionally used.
In winter time the pancheon may be placed near the fire before the flour is put in, as the warmth helps the bread to rise in very cold weather. Dust it carefully with a dry cloth, put in nearly all the flour, into which sprinkle and stir the salt. Dissolve the yeast thoroughly in a pint of warm - *not hot - water, and having made a hole in the middle of the flour, pour it in through a strainer, and stir in with it some of the flour to a paste. Leave it near the fender for half an hour to rise, but do not forget to throw a clean cloth over the top of the pancheon, so that no dust may get in.
So far there has been no need to tuck up your sleeves. But at the half-hour's end mind that hands and nails are thoroughly clean, your cooking apron on, your sleeves secured so that they will not slip down, your large jug of warm water ready, and the small quantity of flour remaining out of the dozen pounds ready to hand in a bowl at the left side of your pancheon, which should stand on a stool. A table is generally too high.
I must mention another matter. Whatever may be your fashion of wearing your hair, have it smoothly and snugly tucked up when engaged in breadmaking or cookery of any kind There is nothing more disgusting or objectionable than to find a hair amongst our eatables; yet nothing more likely to occur if we go about our cooking with our locks hanging loosely about our necks and faces. I have seen a floury hand lifted from amongst the dough to push back a straggling wisp of hair or tuck up a fallen sleeve, and have always registered a mental resolution not to eat home-made bread at that establishment.
Every article used in breadmaking should be of the most spotless cleanliness. Paste-board, rolling-pin, baking-dishes, or tins should be put away clean after use, and carefully rubbed and dusted when taken out again.
Perhaps all these minute details may sound unnecessary, but I am not giving recipes to grown-up people, or merely a history of the origin of bread and a list of its varieties. I want to teach you, dear girls, to make bread as my dear mother taught me when I was a little one many years ago.
Begin to work the dough with the right hand, adding the warm water gradually with your left from the jug which is beside you. Draw the dough from the sides to the middle, using both hands when the ingredients are fairly mixed with the right. It must neither be hard nor soft, but of a sufficient consistency for you to lift it, when very thoroughly worked, in one lump and turn it over. You sprinkle a little flour round to enable you to do this, and if your dough is just what it should be there will be none sticking to the pancheon; it will be clean from everything but a little flour when you lift the dough to turn it.
Now place the pancheon outside the fender, covered as before with a fine white cloth, having sprinkled the flour on the top of the dough to keep it from sticking. It should be ready in less than two hours if the yeast is good. Get your own well-heated, then rub the shelves with a clean, wet dish-cloth; warm and grease your baking-tins or dishes with a little suet, butter, lard, or fresh dripping, held by a little writing paper in the fingers. This is to prevent the bread from sticking to the sides. Then, with clean hands, work a piece of dough on the floured pasteboard; shape it to suit your tin, which should be filled even with the edges. Let it stand on the hearth for a few minutes to rise, and before putting your loaves in the oven, either prick them with a steel fork, or make one or two cuts across the top of each with a sharp knife.
We never use tins for baking in, except for tea cakes. Our baking dishes are of coarse brown earthenware, and stand on four little knobs. With these we rarely have a burnt loaf, however hot the oven may be. A slack oven spoils bread, and the admission of cold air by opening the door should be avoided until the dough has had time to set. To ascertain when the loaf is baked enough, turn it out of the baking-dish and press the side firmly with the point of the finger. If the crust springs back you may judge that it is right; but if the pressure leaves a hollow, the loaf must be returned to the oven. When the dough is first put in, it should be placed on the oven bottom; and when well set and about half baked removed to the top to "soak" as it is technically termed. When sufficiently baked the loaves should be taken out of the dishes or tins, and placed on their sides; when quite cold we put ours in a large pancheon, and cover them with a clean cloth. This preserves the moistness of the bread and conduces to cleanliness also.
Many persons only use 2oz of German yeast to 12lbs of flour, but we prefer the larger quantity, and every one praises our home-made bread as being simply perfect. Our cook prides herself more upon it than upon the most dainty dish she prepares for the dinner-table. One day when she was far from well I suggested that she should suspend her bakings for a little time, and let us buy our bread in order to lighten her work. But this she promptly declined, adding, "It would be of no use, ma'am, for if everybody else in the house could put up with bought bread, *I couldn't."
I should add a word or two with regard to the quality of your ingredients. Buy thoroughly good flour; keep it in a dry place, as damp flour is bad. Never use doubtful yeast. It is poor economy to spoil a batch of bread in order to *use up yeast, or milk which is not perfectly sweet.
The Austrian flour, made from wheat frown on the banks of the Danube, is particularly fine. It goes into a very small compass, and absorbs an immense quantity of water. Some while ago when staying at a delightful farmhouse in summer we had a little difficulty about bread. At length a small shopkeeper, who sold everything, undertook to bake for us; and exquisite bread she made. But she bargained that she should be allowed to use what she called "ostrich flour," though it would be a trifle dearer. She meant Austrian.
Aerated bread is made by a patented process. It is mixed in a sort of iron box, with water charged with fixed air, or carbonic acid gas, which lightens the dough without the aid of yeast. The whole operation is performed by machinery, and the hand does not touch the dough. The bread is very light and digestible, and is said to effect a saving of ten per cent in flour, besides economising time and labour. But I do not find it so satisfying as ordinary bread, and have heard children complain that they soon feel hungry again after eating it.
There is also a self-raising flour, which is a good deal used for making cakes and pastry. It is prepared by Messrs McDougall, of Manchester, and the scones, tea-cakes, etc., made from it are very light and agreeable to eat, but none of these articles, to my mind, make ordinary home bread less enjoyable in comparison.
Delicious brown bread may be made in the same way as the white by using "ground down," or the whole of the powdered grain of wheat without removing any portion.
A mixture of rye with fine wheaten flour makes exquisitely sweet bread, and may be made with equal parts, or with only a third or a fourth portion rye. Rye flour is sticky to the touch, and the dough must be made very stiff. It is much nicer when baked in *thick cakes on the oven shelf than in loaves.
French bread has a pint of new milk, two eggs, and a 1/4lb of butter well mixed in with three quarts of water, or as much as will make 18lbs of flour of the proper consistency. Yeast and salt added in the same proportions as for home-made bread. This liquor is stirred into the flour until all is well mixed. When ready for baking it is made into loaves or bricks, which are turned over when half done, and the crust well browned. When quite cold, the loaves are rasped, or else chipped with a knife. Bran bread is made by adding a basinful of bran to 6lbs of flour, and working in the ordinary way Barley-bread, from the flour of barley carefully freed from the husks and made like rye-bread.
Potato bread is made by mixing mealy potatoes boiled and pounded in the proportion of 3lbs to 9lbs of flour. Make in the ordinary way and bake in a very hot oven. The bread is very light, but less nutritious than the pure wheaten. Were I to enumerate all the kinds of bread I should occupy far too much space. Maize, rice, beans, peas, acorns, chestnuts, turnips, and a variety of roots and barks of trees, have been used in seasons of scarcity and by various nations; so that read, or a substitute for it, however coarse, might not be wholly wanting to the very poorest.