An American Apple Bread circa 1860

A very light pleasant bread is made in France by a mixture of apples and flour, in the proportion of one of the former to two of the latter. The usual quantity of yeast is employed as in making common bread, and is beat with flour and warm pulp of the apples after they have boiled, and the dough is then considered as set: it is then put in a proper vessel, and allowed to rise for eight to twelve hours, and then baked in long loaves. Very little water is requisite; none, generally, if the apples are very fresh.
The Practical Housekeeper (p 469)Mrs. Ellet, NY 1857

The Practical Housekeeper is a big book. One of Mrs. Ellet’s purposes was to be the first to American author to publish an encyclopedic work on domestic economy. She pointedly refers to current French sources for some of her text thus offering a cosmopolitan gloss to the work. Her chatty, “A very light pleasant bread is made in France by a mixture of apples and flour,” brings a head-note type comment to her apple bread recipe. She both romances the recipe and offers some provenance. We are very used to cookbook authors telling something about where a recipe comes from, but this was not common when Mrs. Ellet was writing. In this case, it implies that the bread was not well known and that then, like now, associating it with France would be seen as a good thing.

Mrs. Ellet places the recipe (Number 1445) between Egg Biscuit and Johnny Cakes. Until the mass digitization of libraries by Google it would have been nearly impossible to evaluate the recipe. For example, is there any truth in Mrs. Ellet’s statement that “it is made in France.” I have run across this bread in the context of late 18th and early 19th century French texts proposing it as a bread for the rural poor along the lines of potato bread. By replacing 1/3 of the flour in bread with apples for even few weeks a the year a subsistence farmer would save enough flour to make a real difference in a bad crop year. Mrs. Ellet offers the bread as good tasting bread, which it is, but was it common in any part of France in the 1860s?

Probably not. Mrs. Ellet cribbed the recipe, verbatum, from an 1824 book of essays on agriculture called The New England Farmer. It was published in Boston and the apple bread recipe was in volume 2.

A very light pleasant bread is made in France by a mixture of apples and flour, in the proportion of one of the former to two of the latter. The usual quantity of yeast is employed as in making common bread, and is beat with flour and warm pulp of the apples after they have boiled, and the dough is then considered as set; it is then put up in a proper vessel, and is allowed to rise for eight or twelve hours, and then baked in long loaves. Very little water is requisite none generally, if the apples are very fresh.

The chatty tone is, in fact, a hint that the the recipe wasn’t hers!Her source, the anonymous contributor to the New England Farmer, doesn’t mention that this is a poverty bread. Perhaps the report is already second- or third-hand. An indication that the recipe source was not rooted in actual French practice is that the only leavening system suggested was yeast, whereas it is more likely that in France it was made with a sourdough starter, a levain. I’d guess that the 12 hour rise was an artifact of the levain system as a yeasted bread using the “usual quantity of yeast” in a dough filled with sugars from apples does not require that much time.

For me, this recipe asks the question, was it ever made? Why does it keep showing up in cookbooks? Is this the recipe that is the preternatural good idea? The kind of recipe that book buyers notice when browsing that induces them to buy the book because it seems as if it must be filled with good ideas? As I write this I have a surfeit of apples. It is early October and my apple trees are still producing. I’ve been thinking about this recipe for a couple weeks already during which time I still haven’t baked the bread. As an author, it certainly does seem like a good bread to include in a book and it seems likely to work as written which seems to have been the assumption of many other authors, in addition to Mrs. Ellet. Here is an apparently more worked out version from a How to cook apples: shown in a hundred different ways of dressing that fruit By Georgiana Hill published in 1865.

5. Apple Bread.

Weigh seven pounds of fresh juicy apples, peel, core, and boil them to a pulp, being careful to use an enamelled saucepan, or a stone jar placed inside an ordinary saucepan of boiling water, otherwise the fruit becomes discoloured; mix the pulp with fourteen pounds of the best flour, put in the same quantity of yeast you would use in common bread, and as much water as will make it into a fine smooth dough; put it into a pan, and stand it in a warm place to rise; let it remain for twelve hours at least; form it into rather long-shaped loaves, and bake it in a lively oven. This bread is very much eaten in the south of Europe.

At the least, Mrs. Hill thought through the initial details of preparing and boiling the apples. Her work includes many French recipes, though she offers no evidence that this is an independent discovery via “the south of Europe.” Northern France is its apple region, not the South.

The last apple bread recipe I offer still seems rooted in Mrs. Ellet’s source. This is reference takes us to Britain. It was published in The new system of making bread, by Robert Wells, 1903. It links the bread to the poverty breads, where its origins lie, but while the author seems never to have made it “is a bread said to be superior to potato bread” he nonetheless concludes that it will be sweet.

APPLE BREAD is a bread said to be very superior to potato bread, and has been made from common apples with meal. Boil one-third of peeled apples; while quite warm bruise them into two-thirds of flour, including the proper quantity of leaven, or yeast; knead without water, the fruit juice being quite sufficient. When this mixture has acquired the consistency of paste, put it into a vessel to rise for about twelve hours. By this process very sweet bread is obtained.

This is clearly a very simple bread. Was it ever actually baked by cookbook readers? Was it ever sold in bakeries? If you any sources that might suggest an answer, please leave a comment.

Here is what I can add to this. The recipe works as written. The only additional advice I’d offer is to be sure to butter the form before putting the dough in it. It is also a good idea to line at least the bottom with parchment paper. The dough sits in the form for the full leavening period of 12 hours. I’d make the bread the night before. Bake in a moderate oven for at last one hour.

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