Category Archives: Recipe

Easiest Bread Recipe EVER

One of the reasons I got back to making bread after many years hiatus, is that donning that floury apron and baking bread makes me feel like I’m bonding with my grandmothers.  For all those 18th and 19th century grandmas, making bread wasn’t just some Martha Stewart exercise in being trendy and “artisan.”  If you wanted bread, you baked it! They were not making the easiest bread recipe, but I like to think that somebody discovered an easier way than their usual difficult job.

Easiest bread recipe

Easiest bread , sliced

Great-Great-Great Grandma Bakes Bread

If it was early in the 18th century, you went to the miller and bought a sack of flour, lugging it home in a wagon or on the back of a horse or mule.  And you stopped off at the brewers to pick up some of the yeast that was a by-product of his operation–because packaged yeast was somewhere in the dim future that you couldn’t even imagine. And the easiest bread recipe may not have been part of your repertoire.

You went home and mixed up the magic three ingredients–flour, water, and yeast –or you pulled your sourdough starter from the cool underground icehouse–and stirred up your batter in a big wooden bowl with a carved wooden spoon. (Perhaps you used a different grain, or added salt or even a bit of sugar.

Then you set the dough aside to rise, perhaps covered with a towel made of flour sack.  And you went about your other daily chores–collecting the eggs, milking the cow, sewing the clothes, cultivating your kitchen garden, perhaps “putting up” some fruits and vegetables (canning we call it now) for the winter. All in a day’s work.

Of course, the first thing that morning you had stoked the fireplace fire and from long practice, you knew which part of the hearth made the best place to bake your bread. You took time off from your other chores to give the dough a good workout–kneading, kneading, kneading, and set it aside to rise again (if you were not using the easiest bread recipe). When the dough had risen to perfection, you pulled off a hunk and shaped it into a loaf, and set it on the sweet spot on the hearth to bake.

And the next day–or perhaps two days later–you did it all over again.

The Easiest Bread Recipe

Easiest Bread Recipe

King Arthur’s easiest bread recipe–Peasant Bread out of casserole dish.

While I make plenty of bread that takes a lot of kneading and rising time, I recently found this recipe for peasant bread from King Arthur Flour, and it is the simplest and easiest bread recipe I have come across.  Those ancient grandmas would not have made this exact bread, because it calls for quick-rise yeast, which they definitely didn’t have. However, making a simple bread that bakes without extensive kneading and multiple risings would have been appealing, and might well reach back even to Europe before our ancestors came to North America.

Just mix the flour, water, salt, sugar and yeast.  Let it rise for 1 1/2 hours.  Deflate it a bit, put it in a oven-safe bowl and let it rest for about 15 minutes. Bake for 15 minutes–and you’ve got bread.  No kneading, no fuss no bother. Now isn’t that the easiest bread recipe ever?

(Follow the link to the King Arthur site for the recipe.)

A Bit of Bread History

The History Channel website gives us a fascinating look at the beginnings of bread. I learned that early Egyptians made the first commercial yeast–about 300 B.C. People got around to finely milling grains–thus enabling bakers to make softer breads instead of coarse “peasant breads” in 900 B.C. Another online history of bread tells us that bread was formed free-form on the bricks of the open oven until the 1800s. Finally pans were used. After the Civil War, we finally got commercially produced yeast and baking powder, which led to an easier way to make bread, if not the easiest bread recipe.

I love this Getty Museum article that tells you how to make bread the Medieval way–from growing your own wheat to building your own oven. Follow the link to see the entire process.

Medieval bread

Baking bread in Medieval times. Not much had changed by the time our first Puritan ancestors had harvested their first crop of wheat in the 1620s–or throughout the next two centuries.

Malinda Russell: Here’s To the Women Who Wrote Cookbooks

I do want to celebrate Malinda Russell, because she had an incredible life, and was the first black woman to publish a cookbook in America. However, her cook book is definitely not the equal of the others I have reviewed here. Her post-Civil War cookbook(1866), A Domestic Cook Book,  leaves quite a bit to the imagination.

Malinda Russell Cook Book

Malinda Russell’s Domestic Cook Book 1866

*If you come here for the recipes, rather than the history–skip down to Soft Gingerbread.

Soft Gingerbread

Amanda Russell’s soft gingerbread

Malinda Russell’s Life

Her family was set free from the plantation where her grandmother had been enslaved and at nineteen she traveled to Liberia. That did not work out and she returned to work for a family in Virginia, where she married. After four years of marriage, her husband died, leaving her with a crippled child. She moved to Tennessee where she ran a boarding house and later started a pastry shop. She fled Tennessee in 1864 when a gang of guerrilla rebels raided her home and took all her accumulated wealth.

Living in PawPaw Michigan apparently did not suit her. She yearned to return to Tennessee and self-published a cookbook to try to raise money. Shortly after the publication, however, the town of PawPaw burned and no one knows what happened to Malinda.

The lack of specifics in the recipes may be explained by her comment in the introduction that “I cook according to the plan of Mary Randolph (Virginia Housewife)”  Therefore, the cooks using Malinda’s book had better have Randolph’s book at hand as well.

THE CURES

The very short book includes some home cures as well as recipes–in fact mixed in with the recipes, since there are no chapters or headings to separate things.  I found her recipe for Magnetie Oil (apparently not a typo for magnetic, although there are connections) in a book of quack medicine published in 1863 with more details about how to use it.  But would you like to experiment with this formula?  I would not.

Magnetie Oil

one oz chloroform, one do. laudeman, one do. tincture of colchicum, one do. capsicum, half do. castor oil, three do. alcohol.

This formula, which disturbingly comes right after Roast Pig, might confuse you until you figure out that do. stands for ditto. Laudanum is opium. Colchicum, a plant that yields an alternative medicine still used for gout. Capsicum is pepper. Castor oil was commonly used to keep one regular–made from the castor beans, whose hull is the poisonous ricin you may have heard of.

Russell gives no clue as to how if this oil should be rubbed on or swallowed. However, the “Dr.” whose book I discovered on Google Books recommends rubbing it on sore teeth and gums, and on other aches and pains and claims to have cured a stomach ache by having a woman swallow a small amount diluted in water.

The Recipes

soft gingerbread unbaked

soft gingerbread dough cut for baking

Desserts dominate the list of 265 brief recipes.  I decided to try out her recipe for “soft gingerbread”.  Although the word cookie popped up in earlier American cook books, Malinda sticks with the term cake.

Since Malinda mixes recipes for what we think of as pancakes, which are not always a dessert, with the other cakes she bakes, I thought perhaps the cookie evolved slowly from full-sized cake, to smaller cake baked on a sheet instead of in a pan.  That does not take a large leap since many books talk about baking hoops–circles of metal on a flat pan to contain cake batter rather than a pan.

This gingerbread surprised me by changing colors as it baked. Instead of getting darker like most baked goods, these little cakes got lighter, as you can see below.

Soft gingerbread changes color

Soft gingerbread changes color when baked

Today when we say gingerbread we are generally referring to a loaf cake. If we mean cookie–we say cookie.  As for soft–gingerbread evolved from very hard and crispy slabs that were highly decorated starting in the middle ages.  The evolution to “soft” or cake gingerbread happened in America.

soft gingerbread cooling

soft gingerbread cooling

As usual, the Domestic Cook Book gives scant guidance on numerous things that it would be nice to know.  In trying to replicate her soft gingerbread, I believe I got it mostly right, but added too much flour.  Therefore the recipe below (following Amanda Russell’s recipe with my comments) reflects a more reasonable amount.

Malinda Russell’s Recipe for Soft Gingerbread

One quart molasses, one cup sugar, 1/4 pound lard, 3 eggs. [Sounds like a lot of molasses!] Beat sugar and eggs together. [But what about the lard? Since I did not have lard, I used butter.] 1 gill sour milk [1/2 cup. I could have soured milk with vinegar, but I had buttermilk on hand so used that.] 1 tablespoon soda dissolved in warm water. 1 tablespoons of ginger. [That is a lot of ginger compared to other recipes of the time, but I thought it was about right for modern tastes.]  Flour enough to make a soft dough. [Oh boy–how vague can you get?] Knead well, roll and bake in quick oven. [So the soft dough must be at least firm enough to roll. No clue as to how thick to cut the pieces, assuming she is thinking of small round cakes. No clue as to how long to bake.] [Experts vary on what a quick oven is. Probably 375 to 400. I used 375 successfully.

I don’t buy molasses by the barrel, so had to make do with a pint instead of a quart. That amount in the adjusted recipe made a good-sized batch of cakes (more than two dozen).  Here is my recipe.

Soft Gingerbread

Serves 30
Prep time 30 minutes
Cook time 40 minutes
Total time 1 hours, 10 minutes
Allergy Egg, Milk, Wheat
Meal type Dessert
Misc Child Friendly, Freezable, Pre-preparable, Serve Cold
From book A Domestic Cook Book 1866
An 1866 recipe for "soft" gingerbread made into small cakes comes from a very early cookbook, A Domestic Cook Book by Amanda Russell.

Ingredients

  • 1 pint molasses
  • 1/8lb butter (or lard or vegetable shortening)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup buttermilk
  • 1/2 tablespoon baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 6 cups flour (51/2 cups in dough, 1/2 C for rolling out.)

Directions

1. Heat oven to 375, Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.
2. Mix molasses and sugar, stir in softened butter.
3. Beat 3 eggs and then beat them into the sugar mixture
4. Add and stir in the milk
5. Add and stir in soda and ginger and three cups of flour.
6. Add flour as needed Mixture will be very sticky. Stir and knead in bowl until the texture will allow it to be rolled out.
7. Flour a sheet of parchment paper on your prep surface and your rolling pin.
8. Roll out the dough to approximately 5/8 inch thick.
9. Cut in shapes you prefer. I used a 3 1/2- inch round biscuit cutter. (Roll the scraps and cut them also.)
10. Transfer individual cakes to baking pans. They do not spread sideways, so you can place them fairly close together.
11. Bake about 12 minutes. Watch to be sure the bottom does not brown too much. A toothpick inserted in the cake will come out clean. The cakes become much lighter in color than the dough.
12. Let cool a few minutes on pan and then transfer to cooling rack. Although Amanda Russell does not mention frosting, I believe that decorative icing would improve the cakes.

Note

This recipe yields a soft cookie that is similar in texture to a pancake. Since the original recipe does not specify the amount of flour, you can experiment to change the end texture of the cookies/cakes.

Be careful not to add too much flour. Even though the dough seems sticky, you can work more flour in as you roll it out. Mine wound up tasty too much of flour.

Other recipes for gingerbread add currants or raisins and that would be a nice addition.

See the other cookbook authors we have celebrated during Women’s History Month.

Hannah Glasse

Amelia Simmons

Mary Randolph

Thanks for reading and Happy Cooking.

Eggplant

Mary Randolph: Here’s To the Women Who Wrote Cookbooks

Forget the old chestnut “Who was buried in Grant’s Tomb?”  Today we talk about the first person to be buried in Arlington Cemetery. Civilian, woman, cookbook author Mary Randolph. Follow that link to learn more about her life, because I’m going to concentrate on her cooking and household management.

MARY RANDOLPH, BEST COOK IN VIRGINIA

In a book titled The Virginia Housewife: or Methodical Cook, published in 1842, Mary Randolph addressed the well-to-do ladies who managed homes and plantations in Virginia. These women wanted advice suited to the new world, rather than having to depend on cookbooks from England. Had Mary read those early books? The books by Amelia Simmons aimed at “the poor orphans” and by Hannah Glasse, writing from England and addressing servants, did not help her compatriots in Virginia, apparently.

Most cookbooks of the time, as we have seen countless times in my various food posts, did not believe exact measurements were necessary.  The authors assumed a basic knowledge, that Mary Randolph admits she did not possess when first married.

“The difficulties I encountered when I first entered on the duties of a house-keeping life, from the want of books sufficiently clear and concise to impart knowledge to a Tyro, compelled me to study the subject, and by actual experiment to reduce everything in the culinary line, to proper weights and measures.”

Sometimes, she sounds a bit like Benjamin Franklin in her ‘rules for living.’

Early rising is also essential to the good government of a family. A late breakfast deranges the whole business of the day, and throws a portion of it on the next, which opens the door for confusion to enter.

Her introduction gives us an interesting peek into the lives of the female head of household in a slave-owning culture.  You may be surprised when you read the introduction to her book to see her strong moral stand against leaving the servants and slaves to their own devices.  Whatever happens in the household can be credited to the management practices of the lady of the house. However, there is no hint of concern for the workload or improvement of the life of the slaves and servants–just the reputation of the lady.

Mise En Place

I find something to love in all these old cookbooks, and my favorite advice from Mary Randolph is this:

Before a pudding or cake is begun, every ingredient necessary for it must be ready; when the process is retarded by neglecting to have them prepared, the article is injured.

The French call it “mise en place” and if I could give only one piece of advice to fledgling cooks, it would be prepare everything in advance.  It saves you from getting into a recipe and discovering a missing ingredient.  It saves you from having the cake in the pan while the oven is still cold.  It saves you a whole lot of work and makes things seem effortless.

Eggplant

Common purple eggplant or aubergine. Photo by Petr Kratochvil, Google images

MARY RANDOLPH’S RECIPE FOR EGG PLANT

The purple ones are best; get them young and fresh; pull out the stem, and parboil them to take off the bitter taste; cut them in slices an inch thick, but do not peel them; dip them in the yelk of an egg, and cover them with grated bread, a little salt and pepper–when this has dried, cover the other side the same way–fry them a nice brown. They are very delicious, tasting much like soft crabs.

I love eggplant, and cook it frequently.  One of my go-to side dishes is the simple breaded, fried eggplant slices.  So I wanted to see if Mary Randolph’s technique could improve on my usual way of doing things.  Spoiler: It Did.

How could such small changes in a simple recipe make such a difference?

COMPARING EGGPLANT METHODS

Eggplant

Inch thick breaded eggplant slices fried

First, I generally cut the eggplant way thinner than one inch, partly because thicker slices do not cook in the middle before the outside gets browned, when you only cook them in the skillet.

So although horticulturists have bred out the bitterness, removing the need for pre-salting and parboiling, I cut the slices one inch thick as directed, and parboiled them as directed

Second, it sounds as though she might be using a much younger eggplant than mine.  I generally peel anything other than the tiny Japanese eggplants because the peel is too tough to eat. I couldn’t figure that out for sure, but nevertheless, hesitantly followed her instructions not to peel the eggplant.

Panko

Kikkoman® Panko Bread Crumbs

Third, because I do not bake bread every other day as they probably did on the plantation, I did not have appropriate crumbs, so I cheated and used Panko.

There were no negative effects in using Panko.  I would question her using only one egg “yelk”. The one yolk did not quite coat all five of the slices that I got out of my eggplant.

 

Fourth: In the past, I have dipped, breaded, flipped over and dipped, breaded the other side.  I learned that it works much better to let one side dry before dipping the second side.

RESULT

Who would have thought that I could learn so much from such a simple recipe?

The parboiling not only ensured that the inch thick slices (much more satisfying than my thin slices) cooked all the way through, but amazingly, we could easily cut the skin with a knife and it was a delicious addition.  I will definitely be cooking eggplant the Mary Randolph way in the future.

LEARNING FROM THE OLD MASTERS

My experiment with this recipe convinces me that Mary Randolph did indeed know her business. By the way, last week’s cookbook author, Amelia Simmons suggests straining an egg after beating, and although Mary Randolph doesn’t mention that trick, it seems to me it would be a good idea for the “yelk” used for dipping breaded foods. So, now I am not only getting favorite hints from these women who wrote cookbooks, but beginning to combine those hints from the past to improve today’s cooking.

Randolph’s book is available in many formats. I recommend Project Gutenberg, where you can get various formats free.