Today was a good bread making day. There is snow on the ground and I don’t plan to go anywhere. I selected Isabella Butler’s recipe for Bread (p. 5) as my first attempt at yeast based bread baking using the 1906 Berlin Cook Book. I learned to make bread when I was 12 years old in 4H and I’ve made it from scratch off and on ever since. Isabella probably learned to make bread as a girl too.
I think Isabella Butler is the daughter of William and Emily Butler. In the 1901 census she’s 18 years old living with her parents and younger brother and sister and it looks like her father is a banker although the hand writing is very difficult to read. In the 1911 census she’s 27 years old and still living with her parents and sister. Their heritage is listed as English and they are Anglican.
I had postponed making bread in the hopes that I would find a source for yeast cakes but after contacting the maker of Fleishman’s Yeast I received the following response:
We do not distribute fresh yeast in Canada. Active dry yeast is an excellent substitute for fresh yeast. One small (.6-ounce) cake of fresh yeast is equivalent to one envelope dry yeast. One large (2-ounce) cake is equivalent to three envelopes dry yeast. Dissolve active dry yeast in warm water (100° to 110°F) and proceed with the recipe as directed.
I highlighted the equivalency to make it easier to follow. I started the process last night as the recipe instructed. I turned my oven on to its lowest setting to provide a warmer area later for the yeast to work. I turned it off after about 10 minutes.
I wasn’t sure what size yeast cake Isabella was using but decided, based on the other quantities, to assume she was using the smaller size cake of fresh yeast. I dissolved two envelopes of granulated standard (not quick rising) yeast in 1 quart (4 cups) of warm (not hot) water and added about 2 1/2 cups of flour and stirred it together. It is important to use a large bowl for this as the mixture will rise overnight. I covered the bowl with a cloth and put the bowl on top of a cookie sheet (in case the yeast overflowed) in the warm oven. On a cold night I just could not find any other solution to keeping the mixture warm and out of drafts. Oh, for an old dough box and a wood stove. Long ago the yeast mixture would go in the bowl inside the covered dough box which would be placed next to the wood stove over night to keep it safe and warm.
This morning I took the bowl of yeast out of the oven and started adding the other ingredients. I melted the tablespoon of butter in the pint (2 cups) of warm milk before adding it to the yeast. It is very important to ensure that the milk isn’t too hot or it will kill the yeast. Salt (2 tablespoons) and sugar (1 tablespoon) were next and finally the beaten egg. Now what kind of flour should I use? How much flour? I had white bread flour so decided to use it to increase my chances of success. I started adding and stirring in cups of flour until there was at least 8 cups mixed into the batter. I don’t have a great surface for kneading bread dough but was able to manage. I set the timer for 30 minutes and put a container of flour nearby and got to work kneading the dough. I added at least another cup of flour as the mixture was quite sticky initially. Kneading bread is very therapeutic. Anger disappears as the dough is pounded and after thirty minutes it is quite relaxing to feel the dough stretching and releasing and becoming easy to manage.
After 30 minutes of kneading I put the bread back in the washed out bowl. I chose to grease the bowl to keep the dough from sticking later. Again I put the oven on its lowest setting and placed the bowl on top covered with a cloth. I let it rise again and then kneaded it a bit and cut the dough into pieces to put in the bread pans. I ended up with enough for two loaves in bread pans and a large round loaf on a cookie sheet. I covered them again and let them rise for 30 minutes. They went into a 400 degree F. oven for 30 minutes. I let them cool a bit before removing the bread from the pans.
The result was a very good plain white bread. Modern cooks don’t have to go to quite the same trouble to make bread in the 21st century. From quick rise yeasts, dough hooks on mixers, and bread machines it is easy to make a great variety of breads. Early 20th century homemakers were pleased to be able to buy bread from a baker rather than make it themselves. I’m curious why Isabella would be making bread in 1906, unless like modern cooks the family wanted to know more about their food.
Dissolve 2 Fleishman’s yeast cakes in 1 quart warm water add enough flour to make a thin batter. Set to rise over night. In the morning add a pint warm milk, 1 tablespoon butter, 1 of white sugar, 2 of salt, 1 beaten egg and sift in flour enough to make it thick enough to handle. Knead for half an hour. Let it rise again, knead lightly and put into pans. In about half an hour it will be ready for the oven.