Eliza Acton Household Bread, 1857, a bread of today


By the time Eliza Acton began writing bread recipes, there was a very established bread recipe tradition. The tradition was to write the bread recipe out as a narrative. Basically, bread recipes were texts answering the question, how do you make bread?

While this recipe is primarily a narrative, the ingredients are pulled out and listed at the end of the recipe in a format that is now standard. Unfortunately, Eliza Acton’s copy editor was asleep at the wheel when this manuscript passed through his or her desk. The narrative calls for half a bushel of flour—more or less, according to the consumption of the family—but at the end of the recipe, the quality of flower is listed as one bushel. So, there is twice the flour in the list. This error is compounded by the liquid in the narrative portion of the recipe being given as a minimum of 4 quarts, but in the list of ingredients being listed as only 2 quarts. So, the list of ingredients doubles the flour and halves the water.

A bushel of white flower prior to modern roller milling weighed 32 pounds per bushel (34 for roller mill white flour). You need at least 50% water to create a workable dough. Thus, a 32 pound bushel of flour needs a minimum of 16 pounds of water. 2 quarts of water weights roughly 4 pounds. You don’t need to try to make the recipe to see that the ingredient list is wrong.

As interesting as it is to find mistakes in a publish recipe, I think that the real value to this recipe is seeing how the approximate language of the narrative is reduced to a systematized listing of ingredients. In real life, there is leeway when making bread to make small adjustments within the structure of the recipe one is using. The narrative recipe form allows authors to empower bakers to think for themselves, while the rigid lists of ingredients imply a more fragile recipe, one that must be made using exactly the quantities of ingredients listed.

The innovation we see here—the listing of ingredients like in an inventory—took until the end of the century to really take hold.

Household Bread from Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families, 1875

Put half a bushel (more or less, according to the consumption of the family) of flour into the kneading tub or trough, and hollow it well in the middle; dilute a pint of yeast as it is brought from the brewery half the quantity if it has been washed and rendered solid, with four quarts or more of lukewarm milk or water, or a mixture of the two; stir into it, from the surrounding part, with a wooden spoon, as much flour as will make a thick batter; throw a handful or two over it, and leave this, which is called the leaven, to rise before proceeding further. In about an hour it will have swollen considerably, and have burst through the coating of flour on the top; then pour in as much more warm liquid as will convert the whole, with good kneading, and this should not be spared, into a firm dough, of which the surface should be entirely free from lumps or crumbs. Throw a cloth over, and let it remain until it has risen very much a second time, which will be in an hour, or something more, if the batch be large. Then work it lightly up, and mould it into loaves of from two to three pounds weight; send them directly to a well heated oven, and bake them from an hour and a half to an hour and three-quarters.

Flour, 1 bushel; salt (when it is liked), 4 to 6 oz.; yeast, 1 pint unwashed, or 4 pint if purified; milk, or water, 2 quarts : 1 to 11 hour. Additional liquid as needed. [Note! Eliza Acton’s copy editor was asleep! The text calls for ½ bushel of flour, not 1 bushel! And, compounding that error, the recipe calls for a minimum of 4 quarts water or milk, the choice or the mix being up to you, but the summary ingredient list only says 2 quarts.]

Obs.-Brown bread can be made exactly as above, either with half meal and half flour mixed, or with meal only. This will absorb more moisture than fine flour, and will retain it rather longer. Brown bread should always be thoroughly baked.

Remark.-We have seen it very erroneously asserted in one or two works, that bread made with milk speedily becomes sour. This is never the case when it is properly baked and kept, and when the milk used for it is perfectly sweet. The experience of many years, enables us to speak positively on this point.

Eliza Acton’s recipe in baker’s math

100% flour

52% milk or water or a mixture of the two

12.5% barm

salt optional — 0% to 2%

Eliza Acton’s recipe in baker’s math using modern dried yeast

100% flour

60% milk or water or a mixture of the two

1% dried yeast

salt optional — 0% to 2%

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