Recipes for Seminar #23 — An English Bread Manuscript from the 1550s.

Recipes for Bread History Seminar #23

Recipes from the Manuscript by T. (only name we have so far), circa 1550

I am posting this Tuesday evening, April 20. I will be revising this text prior to the workshop, but this will give you enough to get started. I would like to acknowledge Jeff Pavlik. He worked out the recipes and will be presenting them on at the Thursday Seminar. I will be adding recipes. All you need for these recipes is white flour, water, salt, and yeast AND for the sourdough recipe, a batch of bread dough that you can use as the mother for the recipe.

Note: I normally share the original recipes with you. Unfortunately, the one time I shared a recipe from this manuscript on my website I found that it had been taken without attribution and was republished someplace else. I am going to be publishing this manuscript in its entirely first in book form.. In the meantime, I am not going to distribute the original text. I am sure you understand. The recipes that I include here are a re-telling of the original recipes for a modern audience. No change have been made to ingredients, quantities, or the order of instructions as given. As these are manuscript recipes they did not go through the kind of proofing steps they would have to prepare them for publication. If I have added any steps to the recipes I do so in brackets. 

None of the recipes include water, so the hydration is an educated guess. Period English-grown wheat absorbed less water then our modern wheats.  While commercial bakers will certainly have been very precise in their hydration, these are recipes for the home baker. While we have worked with a small-scale recipe by Henry Howard from the early 18th century, most published Early Modern bread recipes were in bushel-scale. Given that T’s recipes are for very small batch sizes, one recipe calls for ¾ pound (roughly 330g) flour I think it is fair to assume that the bakers brought the hydration to levels that pleased the people who were eating the bread — meaning that you have leeway to feel your way to make a bread you like. With this proviso. Unless the recipe specifically calls for high hydration, which one does, I would use hydration in the range of 55% to 70%. 

T.  does not always mention salt, or if he mentions it, he doesn’t often give a quantity that we can follow. How much salt do you use for “three eggs?” If the recipe doesn’t mention salt, then I give the salt as a range from 0% to 2%. If it does mention salt, then I give a range from .5% to 2%. 2% salt is the modern standard for many bakers. I tend to keep my loaves below that — around 1.5% — but there is no question people nowadays prefer bread that is heavily salted. 


How many different  recipes to make at the seminar?

For this talk, I would like as many of you as possible to prepare at least one of these breads. I know some people like to make them in advance, others prefer mixing while we are together, and then baking afterwards. Actually attempting to make historic loaves helps us with understanding cultural nuance. I also think that making historic breads an keep us grounded.  I think most of us have this very strong sense of progress, that something from five hundred years ago must be clearly different from something today. I think that way too! It hard not to, even when one knows that it is ridiculous. I remind myself every time I fry an egg that while some things, like the recent announcement that a helicopter has now flown on Mars, are different today, that deep down inside, we are just people, like all those people who came before, and a fried egg is a fried egg. 

A couple of these breads are, well, “just bread.” Like the fried egg, nothing special to write home about! Except making “just bread” from words that someone wrote five hundred or so years ago is something very special. 

What makes the manuscript recipes by T. so important is not just that they are the earliest bread recipes that we know of in English. It is also the biggest and most detailed set of Early Modern English bread recipes. There is a breadth and depth to this culinary manuscript that marks it as truly outstanding.. 

The recipes I have chosen for today include a basic manchet, two older style breads — the symnell and the cracknel — and the first, and I believe only sourdough recipe in English prior to the twentieth century that can be tied to an authentic English sourdough practice. I will explain further during the seminar. 

If you are going to mix dough at the seminar/workshop, then please get your ingredients together before hand, mise en place style. 


The manuscript we are dealing with mentions a bread called “manchet.” Manchet is probably a concept more than it is a prescriptive recipe. It was a bread made with the finest flour. This flour is defined in this manuscript as weighing 16 ounces (450g) for 1 quart (1 liter) of flour. This is the weight of flour milled on stones and then through a bolting cloth or mesh screen that has openings in the range of 50 mesh or 300 microns. That is ⅓ of a mm. The finest manchet flour was double sifted. The double sifting process lets one gather the very finest smallest starch particles without going to an impractically fine sieve. Double sifting proces a flour that might be equivalent to a high grade unbleached pastry flour. Pastry flour also has a lower gluten content than all purpose or bread flour, which is more like the flours that these recipes were written for. I would not, however, use commercial cake flour. That is too fine, and it is always bleached. 

Making your own. If you want to make your own manchet flour then mill white wheat through a 300 micron screen. Your final product will weigh 16 ounces (450) per quart (liter). I have made manchet flour many times to test the concept, but the finished bread is not different enough from one made with standard unbleached white flour to make refining it worth it for me. 

By custom, the finer the flour the smaller the loaf. The maximum loaf size for a manchet seems to have been 1 pound (450g). It was made into smaller “loaves” or rolls of 8 ounces or 4 ounces but I don’t think one should get too programmatic. Anything between 4 ounces (100g) and a pound will be perfect. 

All of the recipes by T. use manchet flour, either single pass fine flour or double pass finest flour. As a rule, derived from a few published manchet recipes, our understanding is that manchets were always  baked in a slow oven. T’s  instruction does include one in which the oven is “half hotte.” The reason for a half-hotte oven it to produce a bread that is baked, but not brown. Others of the recipes call for a hot even and a very fast baking — thirty minutes, or less. Besides the fast bake time telling us that the recipes are for rolls, it is also likely that breads baked in hot ovens hand their crusts chipped off before serving. 

Forming loaves and rolls. While there is definitely a 16th century manchet form in which the bread is formed into a ball, flattened, scored around the waist, and pricked with six pricks on the top, none of the recipes give final production advice. In paintings one commonly sees rolls what have a deep cut down the middle, so they open up completely when baking, or that have a deep cross that also causes a deep split in the bread. 

Manuscript Recipe (1)

These are baked at the lower temperature for 30 minutes. Higher temperature will give you a dark crust which would probably have been chipped off before the breads were consumed. 

Take three quarters of a pound of finely sifted flour, 2 rounded tablespoons of barm, or 24 pennyweight, 36g, by weight. Work this with water above blood heat, cover and let stand in a warm place for an hour. After it has risen, degas, then work the dough with a brake, or in a mixer with a dough hook, until the dough is elastic and forms a window. Form into rolls. Bake in a hot oven 30 minutes, or less. 

Bakers Math

100% fine flour defined in the original as flour weighing 16 ounces per quart, or roughly 450g per liter. If you mill and sift your own flour, then use white wheat if you can get it, and condition it to a 15% moisture content.

60%  warm water. As we cannot test with period flour so the hydration is based on using modern flour. What we know is that the dough should be supple, and yet workable with a brake so it cannot be super soft much less sticky. The crumb will have been smooth, like sandwich bread, and not open crumbed, like a rustic French bread. In other words, no big air holes. No big eyes. Today’s sandwich loaves tend to be made with dough that has roughly 60% hydration. If you have access to a period wheat grown in Western Europe, then you may want to start with a 50% hydration. 

0% to 2% salt. Salt is not mentioned in this recipe. We also have period recipes from the 16th and 17th centuries where salt is mentioned and measured with the total salt coming to small percentages, like .5%. We also have recipes in which the salt works out to amounts more customary today, which are often around 2%. So, as always, I think that the baker had latitude with salt levels. 

1% yeast. The recipe calls for two spoonfuls of barm  with the spoon volume defined as 12 pennyweight, or roughly 19g. If you have barm, then use that. Otherwise, 1% dried yeast is roughly equivalent. The focus here should be on time, not the exact amount of yeast, as the barm used can be assumed to have been of variable quality. Barm is liquid so if you use barm, take that account regarding total dough hydration. 

100% unbleached pastry flour, unbleached all purpose flour, or flour you mill yourself, ideally from white wheat, and sift through a 300 micron screen such that one quart (1 liter) of flour will weight 16 ounces (450g).    

Measured Ingredients as per flour specification in the original recipe. This is the size of the batch called for in the manuscript. 

340 g / 12 ounces flour

200 g water

3 g/  1 scant tsp instant yeast OR 30g/ 2Tbs barm (subtract that amount of liquid from total)

Up to 4g salt. 


  1. Combine the ingredients, mixing well, and then cover and set aside in a warm place to rise for approximately one hour. 
  2. After the dough has risen, degas, and then work with a brake or in an electric mixer with a dough hook. Substitute working with a rolling pin for four minutes, or knead by hand — stretch and fold — for four minutes. The dough will develop quickly.
  3. Divide into 4 rolls each weighing 129 g/ 4.5 oz. Modern practice is to let rest and rise for 30 minutes or longer prior to baking in a “proofing” stage. It is not clear what period practice might have been — but I suspect that after a short rest the bread was slid into the oven. 

While the formed loaves are proofing, preheat oven to 176° C/ 350° for a white crust, and up to 220C/425F for a dark crust. T’s instruction to bake in a hot oven for 30 minutes or less may be saying that you take them out as soon as they are baked, but not yet browned, OR he might be saying bake hot and when the crust is dark enough to chip, remove from the oven. I usually interpret 175C/350F as a moderate oven and as there is recipe that calls for an oven “half hotte” I suspect that this bread is baked hotter than 175C, but 175C is a hot oven compared with “half-hotte” so I think you should either go for a pale crust or a dark crust that you can chip off. 


Manuscript recipe (5)

(Start 8-10 hours before baking (or overnight))

Finely sift your meal using a sieve around 250 to 300 microns, or 50 wires per inch, or use the nearly equivalent unbleached all purpose white flour from the grocery, and place in a bowl. Then with warm, but not hot water, make a whole in the flour and mix the water with some dough held back from the previous baking, pulling in roughly half the flour in the bowl to form a batter. Sprinkle with flour, cover, keep warm, and let stand 9 or 10 hours or until it is well risen, then work it well in the bowl, then work under a brake or work in an electric mixer with a dough hook until the dough is mouth, elastic, and forms a window. Form into loaves, between roll size and a 1 pound loaf. Bake in a hot oven. Period practice is likely to have been to then chip off the crust.

  1. As this is made from a dough held back from a previous baking, if you don’t have a starter, which you can use in the recipe, make a basic yeasted bread as soon as possible, leave it out for a couple hours and then put in the refrigerator. On baking day, take out of the refrigerator, and then use some of that to start the sourdough loaf. Note: A yeasted bread left in the refrigerator of a week will begin to sour. This is my nontraditional way that I sometimes start my starters. 

100% flour 

60%  water

0% – 1.5% salt [Note: based on a text from the 1640s in a medical book where this basic recipe is published in which the recipe specifically says not to add salt I think that the absence of salt in this recipe is intentional.

10% sourdough/old dough

Ingredients measured

500g flour  (see 1st recipe)

300  warm water

0g – 7g salt (see 1st recipe)

50g old dough from a sourdough or yeasted loaf


  1. Put the warm water into a bowl. Break the old dough into pieces, add to the water, and then whisk to mix as best you can.
  2. Add half the flour, mix well, springle the remaining half on top, and let rise for  9 to 10 hours. 
  3. When the dough is risen, then work with a brake, knead by hand, or work in an electric mixer with a dough hook.
  4. Remove 50 g of dough and set aside for your next baking. Keep in a refrigerator wrapped in plastic so it does not dry out. 
  5. Form into loaves no bigger than 1 pound (450g) or rolls. 
  6. Preheat oven to 190° C /  375° F at the same time you let the formed loaves proof before baking. Bake 45 minutes for loaves, 35 minutes for rolls.

Manuscript recipe (13)

Symnells (Simnels) and Cracknels.

Manuscript recipe (13) 

Make less dough than you usually do for manchet, and modify your manchet recipe by making a softer dough, mix ingredients letting them rise for an hour before your work it, and in working it, make it weak, and soft, like baby food, [so adjust water as necessary], and it will rise quickly, then work the dough with a brake keeping it moving quickly over the dough “so that it catches no cold,” [the dough is sticky so you have to move quickly]  or use the stretch and fold technique, and mold your symnells and cracknells, and drop them into boiling water, and as soon as they rise, take them out with a skimmer and transfer to a bowl of cold water to stiffen up the dough, as soon as they sink to the bottom, take them out, dry the water with a clean cloth and brush with a feather dipped in saffron water, then bake. 

Symnells and Cracknels

100% flour (see flour for first recipe)

75% water

1% yeast (see yeast for first recipe)

1.5 % salt (see salt for first recipe)


Saffron 15-20 threads) of crushed saffron threads in 120 g/ ½ cup water and boil, set aside

455g pastry flour (not cake, all-purpose is fine) (see flour, adove_

340g warm water

4.5 g/ 1 tsp instant yeast OR 30 g/ 2 Tbs barm  (see yeast above)

6g/ 1 ½ tsp salt  (see salt above)

  1. Mix ingredients, cover, let rest in a warm place for one one. 
  2. When the dough has 15 more minutes left to rise,  start boiling a pot with 3 quarts of water & at the same time, prepare another container with 2 quarts of cold water.
  3. After the hour, when the dough has risen, degass and then either brake dough with a rolling pin for 4 minutes, stretch and fold for 4 minutes, or work with an electric mixer with a dough hook. The dough will develop quickly.
  4. You will need to add small amounts of flour to dust the wet dough as you form the simnels and cracknels. 
  5. Divide dough into 10 pieces of 72 g / 2.5 oz each. Make some into simnels and some into cracknels.
  6. Cracknels: Roll into a rope and form into a circle
  7. Simnels: Shape into a ball, press to flatten into a cake. 
  8. Note: Moistening your hands makes picking up the dough easier.
  9. Preheat oven to 190°C / 375 ℉ so it is heating while the breads are boiled. 
  10. For both simnels and cracknels, after they have rested for five minutes, begin placing a few at a time  into boiling water. [Do not do too many at once!] The dough will first will sink. Release them from the bottom of the pan if they stick.  Remove with a skimmer when they float to the surface and place in the cold water. Remove from the cold water. Remove from the cold water when they sink. Place simnels and cracknels on a clean towel to drain and pat dry.

Symnells should be brushed with the saffron water then placed in the oven and baked 30 minutes.
Cracknels can go immediately into the oven and bake for 40 minutes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s