Fannie Farmer’s German Caraway Bread
It has been several months since quarantines due to Covid-19 began across the United States, and since half of the country – if not the world – appeared to suddenly discover bread-baking with their newfound at-home time.
I, a long time on and off bread baker, was often miffed by my inability to procure flour pretty much anywhere. So I didn’t bake much bread (one modern recipe for a not-so-good prosciutto ring excluded).
But, fast-forward to early June and I was suddenly obsessed with bread baking and I have spent I don’t even know how many hours with my hands wrist-deep in dough. I had been making mostly modern breads when it occurred to me to try something historical.
This, I knew, would be tricky for two reasons.
First, historically, bakers and cooks have been completely different people and even different guilds, and so most historical cookery books or manuscripts do not include bread recipes.
Yes, it is true that sometimes people prepared the bread at home and then took their dough to be baked at a communal oven, but recipes are still pretty scarce.
Second, until pretty much yesterday in historical time, bread bakers used barm, the foam on top of fermenting beer, to rise the dough since yeast as we know it, whether fresh or dry, is a modern invention.
I can’t source barm. I don’t have a brewery nearby that I can get barm from, and even if I did, we are still practicing social distancing so that would have been out of the question anyway.
Without using barm as intended in the recipes, I might as well just make modern bread.
So, if I wanted to make bread from a historical recipe, it would more or less have to be a recipe no older than the late 19th century.
After much looking through countless books and PDF files, I settled on an interesting rye bread from a 1912 book called A New Book of Cookery by Fannie Merritt Farmer.
At the time the book was published Farmer was the owner of Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery, where she taught nutrition, food science, and food as medicine among other things. More impressively, Farmer often lectured on nutrition at the Harvard Medical School.
Prior to opening her own cooking school, she was a student and then staff at the renowned Boston Cooking School, an institution that she made known worldwide when she published her first book, The Boston-Cooking School Book.1
Farmer found a successful career, respectable for the time period, at the height of the domestic science movement in the late 19th century. The field of domestic science made it possible for women like Farmer to be allowed, however nominally at times, into spaces that had been traditionally male. But, at the same time, it reinforced long-standing gender boundaries with the discipline’s explicit goal of training housewives to be better managers of the home.
And now to the food!
The recipe is a pretty straightforward recipe for a 75% by volume rye content, which is pretty high, but more on that in a bit.
German Caraway Bread
2 cups scalded milk
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 yeast cake
1/2 cup lukewarm water
2 tablespoons caraway seeds
6 cups rye flour
1 1/2 cups entire wheat flour
Add sugar, butter, and salt to the scalded milk. When mixture is lukewarm add yeast cake dissolved in lukewarm water, caraway seeds, and rye flour. Turn on a board and knead, while incorporating entire wheat flour. Return to bowl, cover and let rise until mixture has doubled its bulk. Shape into loaves, put in buttered bread pans, again cover, let rise, and bake in a hot oven.2
The only wildcard in this recipe is the yeast.
I had never baked with fresh yeast, which comes in cakes, but I knew of its existence. But, like our modern use of “a stick of butter” in the US might stump future bakers as it stumps modern people in other countries, a “yeast cake” can be a bit confounding.
I did some research and learned that fresh yeast comes in cakes of two sizes: 0.6oz and 2oz. A Two-ounce cake, I also learned, is the equivalent of three packets of active dry yeast, which I KNOW is a lot of yeast. So, I concluded that the yeast cake called for in the recipe must have been a 0.6oz cake or something along that weight.
But, were yeast cakes the same in 1912 as they are now? It’s likely, but I needed to know more.
To find out, I searched through countless historical newspapers and ads to see if I could find answers. None of them gave specific weights for the cakes, but many had pictures or drawings of people holding yeast cakes, which allowed me to more or less guesstimate their sizes.
One of them specifically had a person holding three yeast cakes that looked like if they were put together, they’d be the size of a 2oz cake, give or take.
After all that, I decided that 0.6oz was close enough.
But that was half the battle. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to find fresh yeast these days? It is highly perishable, must be refrigerated at all times, and lasts something like two weeks from packaging.
I knew my local bodega (I live in New York City) would absolutely not have it, but I read online that Whole Foods did carry it.
So, I dragged myself to Whole Foods, one of the only large supermarkets in my area, and tried to find the fresh yeast on my own.
Then I asked three different employees where the fresh yeast was, since I could not find it myself, and got three different answers, all of which were wrong.
I had given up when I walked past the refrigerator with the pre-made pie pastry and, what do you know, that’s where the fresh yeast was. They only had 2oz cakes so I bought one.
All that is to say that, if you want to make this bread, just use active dry yeast. One packet of yeast, which is 7g or 2 1/4 tsp, is the equivalent of 0.6oz fresh yeast. It will be easier to find and less of a pain to work with.
The recipe does not mention rising times, but the first rise took about 1 hr 20m in my kitchen, and the second rise took a bit less time.
This dough is extremely sticky, as is normal in bread dough with such a high percentage of rye flour, and do not expect it to rise as much as other doughs in the second rise. It just won’t happen.
Currently, rye breads like this are usually sourdough-based or have some type of acid added to it. The acid provides help in the building of the structure of the bread since rye flour does not have enough gluten, which is what gives wheat breads their strength. Since there is none of that here, the structure suffers and the bread is dense.
But there are breads this dense eaten in Germany and the Scandi countries still, so I would not say this is necessarily a flaw of the recipe.
The other thing to figure out was the temperature, but I settled on 390°F, which is what I normally use for sandwich loaves. I baked it for 50-55 minutes.
I only made half of the recipe because there was no way we could eat two whole loaves of this rich bread.
The bread had pretty much no oven spring and it was dense, as I expected, but it was also really good and flavorful.
I ate it with pastrami and mustard for lunch the day I took the photos, but it tasted even better the next day.
I probably would not make this recipe again for the simple fact that it is just not something I would enjoy eating an entire loaf of, but it was definitely an interesting experience both in the research and the execution. It challenged my taste buds and my skills, what more could I ask for?
2. Fannie Merritt Farmer, A New Book of Cookery (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1912), 15.