Manchet Bread from The Good Huswifes Handmaide in the Kitchen (1594)

This one of the earliest and most important English bread recipes. The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchen was published in England in 1594. It is one of the first English cookbooks. The anonymous author offers a wide range of recipes, mostly simple, and most reasonably accessible to modern readers. The book includes two recipes for a white bread called manchet. Manchet seems to have been the best of the white breads. It was made in private homes, not sold by bakers. The “fine manchet” is the first of the two white bread recipes in The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchen.

Recipe text from Huswifes Handmaide in the Kitchen for fine manchet

The making of fine Manchet.

Transcription: Take a half a bushel of fine flour twice boulted, and a gallon faire luke warm water, almost a pint of yeast, then temper all these together, without any more liquor, as hard as ye can handle it: then let it lie half and hour, then take it up, and make your Manchets, and let them stand almost an hour in the oven. Memorandum, that of every bushel of meal may be made five and twenty cast of bread, and every loaf to weigh a pound beside the chisel,

Literal redaction: Take a half a bushel of unbleached all purpose flour (20.5 pounds), and a gallon of unchlorinated luke warm water (8.3 pounds), almost a pint of ale yeast in the form of barm or 5 ounces fresh yeast dissolved in that same amount of water  (14 ounces), then mix all these together, without any more liquor, as hard as ye can handle it: then let it lie half and hour, then take it up, and make your Manchets by gently cutting the dough into 8 to 16 ounce pieces, forming into a ball which you then flatten and deeply cut around the waist and then poke in the top five or six times with the point of a knife and then immediately and let them stand almost an hour in a cool oven, approximately 250F or 120C.
[Memorandum, that of every bushel of meal may be made five and twenty cast of bread, and every loaf to weigh a pound beside the chisel,]
Recipe in Baker’s Math: Unbleached all purpose flour: 100%, 39.7% water, 4.3% fresh ale barm or 1.4% fresh yeast dissolved in 4.3% luke warm water.

This is an extraordinary recipe. Its extraordinariness is multi-dimensional. The bread is easy to make, it is fast, and it tastes good. The recipe itself is written with economy and elegance. I think it could be argued that this recipe is the first in a line of bread recipes that now stretch over four-hundred years to our own time that attempt to offer home bakers guidance in the making of breads. Remarkably for such an early  recipe, it is not only a model of literary excellence that cookbook authors could well emulate today — an economical combining of ingredients with precise quantities along with key instructions for critical aspects of the recipe —  but also offers a dough and baking technique that was never subsequently recorded. The recipe calls for a remarkably little 44% liquid by weight of flour. By way of contrast, many of today’s bread recipes call for 70% or even 75% water by weight of flour.

Since we have so few recipes from the 16th or 17th centuries it is impossible to know whether the exceedingly stiff dough was a common or an eccentricity limited to this one baker. I think it is remarkably wonderful that this early recipe so substantively differs  from modern practice. I would take the  the author’s warning not to be discouraged by the stiff dough and to resist adding more water, as a hint that even in its own time this recipe as somehow different from what people normally did. Which makes sense. Why buy a recipe book that doesn’t show you something new? In addition to an unusually small amount of water, the recipe calls for the incredibly short rising time of 30 minutes after which the loaves are formed and without letting the dough proof further the bread is popped into a slow oven and baked for an hour. One certain clarification of the 30 minute rising time is that it will have taken at least 30 minutes to mix the dough by hand in a dough trough. It is also possible, though not mentioned in the recipe, that the yeast was introduced in the form of a sponge. These caveats notwithstanding 30 minutes is not enough time for the dough to double or triple in bulk as we like many of our doughs to do before being formed into loaves.

Today, a big focus in much of the home and artisan baking culture is the use of long and slow fermentations, particular through the use of levain starters, to change  dough texture and to develop flavors. In this recipe, the speed of fermentation means that the yeasts don’t have time to develop esters or to transform the texture of the dough from soft to chewy. Thus, what you get is a bread with a soft crumb that highlights the flavor of the flour. If you use a reasonable fresh flour — and the custom at the time was to use flour that had been milled and refined within no more than a few days of the baking and perhaps even on baking day — you’d have a lovely fresh sweet flour to work with in the context of  a recipe designed to preserve its flavors.

The author of the The Good Huswifes Handmaide in the Kitchen assumes that the reader knows what a manchet is and how to make bread. In parsing the recipe text I also assume that you know how to make bread. I fill in some of the gaps that the author would have assumed you knew about manchets and bread technique in the late 1500s.

  1. Take a half a bushel of fine flour twice boulted | I understand this as calling for the quantity of 1/2 bushel of fine white flour that had been processed by being run through two bolting cloths. The bolting would have followed the use of coarser sieves for the larger bran and impurities so that by the time the flour reached these bolting cloths it was already reasonably pure. As there was fine silk cloth in the 1500s there is  no limit on the fineness that this flour could have been. There are ways to mill to maximize the production of white flour. We can assume that that was done in which case you can use a modern white flour in this recipe. An unbleached  “all purpose” or an unbleached white pastry flour would be my choices. A Winchester bushel of flour weighs 42 pounds so half a bushel weights 20.5 pounds. During this period flour was milled and used. It was not stored to oxidize and stabilize as it is now. This is a subtle difference but as this recipe calls for a short fermentation time the flavor of the flour is of unusual importance so I would use the freshest flour you can.
  2. and a gallon faire luke warm water, | At the time, water could be a problem, hence the modifier, “faire.” Well water could be too hard, pond water could be stagnant, etc.  In our own time water can also be a problem as the chlorine in tap water is not good for yeast. In the modern context I’d interpret “faire” as unchlorinated. It should be warm to the touch, but not hot although if it is a cold winter day and your flour is cold use warmer water than you might in the summer. It is crucial to the recipe’s success given the short rising time that the dough be around 75F to 78F (24C to 25.5C). A gallon of water weighs 8.3 pounds.
  3. almost a pint of yeast, | The recipe is calling for ale yeast, the yeast-rich foam that rises to the surface of the vat when ale is brewed. I interpret “almost a pint” as 90% of a pint. A pint of water (2 US cups) weighs 1 pound. If you aren’t using barm that you get from a brewer then stick with the scant 1 pound water and use fresh cake yeast in the amount of 1.5% the weight of the flour or dried yeast in the amount of .5% of the flour. I believe these to be about right in terms of yeast-power equivalents. I have not recently tested this recipe at this yeast percentage. My most recent test was at 1.5% dried bread yeast (7 g for 500g flour). You would get a more authentic result using ale yeast from a home brewing shop rather than bread yeast from the grocery
  4. then temper all these together, without any more liquor, as hard as ye can handle it: | The recipe seems to call for mixing all of the ingredients together at once and as this is so clearly stated this is what I do. But it was common to mix sponges during this period and so I’d take mixing a sponge to be well within the range of possibilities, even for this recipe. In fact, the fact that there is no sponge might have been one reason the author published this recipe — because it is a little different from the norm. This is a stiff dough but don’t despair! I any case, mixing a small quantity by hand is much easier than mixing larger quantities by hand and a dough trough. The Huswife author does not go into detail on the kneading of the dough. Perhaps all that is called for is for the dough to be thoroughly mixed. But it is also possible that the author would have assumed that once mixed you’d work the dough which was placed on a table with a brake — a pole attached to a wall with a pivot or alternatively that you’d work the dough with your feet, either directly, or probably more commonly with dough separated from the baker’s feet by a piece of canvas. From other recipes I surmise that the dough was kneaded long enough to oxidize the dough, whitening the crumb a little. It might even have been over-kneaded, like the American beaten biscuit. There is later precedent for not kneading the dough and here is precedent for thoroughly working the dough so I think that both options are possibilities. I usually work the dough until it is soft and satiny and I sometimes use a 1 inch (2.2cm) dowel in lieu of a brake.
  5. then let it lie half and hour, | It sounds incredible, just 30 minutes to rise. I think one needs to take into account that it would have taken 30 to 40 minutes to mix the dough in the dough trough and then  to work it with a brake or feet and one also needs to take into account the time it took to form the loaves. Manchets ranged from 8 ounces to 1 pound — thus 30 to 60 breads were formed.  One should allocate at least thirty minutes for the forming time. Thus, the total fermentation time was more like 1.5 hours, minimum. I suggest a rise of 1 hour after the initial mixing, then degas and let the dough rise a further 30 minutes before forming. The dough should rise in a warm place and also be well wrapped.
  6. then take it up, and make your Manchets, and let them stand almost an hour in the oven. | In forming these loaves you must handle the dough gently. The small air holes that have formed during the abbreviated leavening time must not be crushed. Gently cut into loaves that are either 1 pound (450g) or 8 ounces (225g). Gently form into a ball and then gently flatten. With an exceedingly sharp knife or razor cut deeply around the dough’s waist. Prick the top of the dough with a knife to make six or eight depressions and then immediately place in an oven that is around 250F (121C). Bake for one hour. I am drawing on other manchet recipes, including the one that follows this one to state that there is no resting period after forming the loaves. In my experience the bread will double or triple in the oven. One reason for the deep cut around the waist is to allow for the vertical rise. There is lots of evidence for a slow oven from references in other contexts of what one put into the oven after the manchet was baked. This was also a bread produced for high status tables at a time when crust was not appreciated by the wealthy. In fact, the crust would probably have been chipped off while the manchets were hot. If you can bake them without even browning, it is possible that you’d have achieved the ideal coloration.
  7. Memorandum, that of every bushel of meal may be made five and twenty cast of bread, and every loaf to weigh a pound beside the chisel, | This memorandum is a short-hand that I have yet to work out. Help me if you have any ideas! I assume that it is a check on the recipe. It may be the way that commercial bakers gave recipes, with many assumptions going along with the short-hand. Harrison, in the bread recipes he published in his History of England thirty years previous to these recipes uses this same form at the end of his recipes. As far as I have been able to tell the Huswife author is both the first and last cookbook author to refer to casts.
    Casts seem to have been a well understood unit of bread measure in at least the later Medieval period as one finds reference to casts in  bequests of casts of bread. If one is going to bequeath someone two casts of bread it must then presumably have had a widely understood meaning. But then, too,what would “bread” have meant as there are many kinds of bread. During this period bread was sold under the price controls  of the assize regulations in which prices never changed, but bread weights did, and different types of  breads in term so flour refinement were sold at different weights. Thus, for example, for one penny a whole wheat bread might weight 35 pounds while a white bread might weight half that much. How could a cast of breads of either weight have referred to more than one bread? Or were casts only of smaller breads?
    In this recipe, the memorandum ends in a comma. Is something missing?
    The recipe itself is for flour but the memorandum refers to meal. I think we can take to mean everything sifted out of the meal to form white flour although it also has a more precise meaning — it is the granular structure American millers call the middlings and the British millers refer to as  semolina.
    If you want to puzzle over this, then here are the technical facts. A bushel of meal weighs the same as a bushel of grain. The bushel referred to is probably the Winchester bushel as that was the official standard in Britain and the recipe is published in a book written for a general (not regional) readership. A bushel of wheat weighs anywhere between 54 and 60 pounds per bushel depending on grade. The Winchester bushel and the  American bushel are the same measure. The water and yeast in this recipe come to 44% of the weight of the flour. A bushel of white flour weighs approximately 42 pounds and is obviously a constant and not affected by what the weight of the grain was that went to make it. Thus, the difference between the weight of the meal and the weight of the flour in the breads this memorandum calls for gives you the extraction rate. Lastly, whatever number of loaves a cast is, if greater than 1 it is presumably an even number  like 2, 4, 6, or 8. Manchets seem always to have weighed between 8 and 16 ounces when put into the oven. Please do let me know if you find light at the end of this tunnel. The key, I think, is what exactly is meant by “every loaf to weigh a pound beside [in addition to OR setting apart] the chisel.”

One thought on “Manchet Bread from The Good Huswifes Handmaide in the Kitchen (1594)

  1. The statutory bushel established under Henry VII was 8 gallons of 8 Troy pounds each or 64 Troy pounds. Henry’s Winchester bushel was set in 1497 by a bronze vessel of 2144.81 cubic inches. This remained in effect until 1601 when it was replaced by a bronze vessel of 2148.28 cubic inches. In 1775, Henry Norris published an inquiry into historical weights and measures used in England (Philosophical transactions, Volume 65, pages 48-58). Norris demonstrated that 8 Troy pounds of wheat would produce a gallon of 239.5 cubic inches and a bushel of 1916 cubic inches. Both the Winchester measures of Henry and Elizabeth contain roughly one extra gallon making the true weight of the Winchester bushel approximately 72 Troy pounds. The difference between the statutory bushel and the Winchester bushel is likely explained by the statutory bushel being a “stricken” bushel and the Winchester bushel being a “heaped” bushel. The stricken bushel became the standard in 1670. Using the heavier Winchester bushel does make a difference in the results.

    A caste of bread is two or three loaves, each loaf being a pound and each loaf being equivalent to two manchets.

    Chesill is the finer dross that is removed in the second bolting. According to Best’s Farming Book (1641): “in every bushell of meale that commeth from the mill there is neare a peck of chizell drossed out.” As there are four pecks to the bushel, one quarter of the flour, as it comes from the mill after the first bolting, is dross to be removed to produce finer flour to be used in white loaves.


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