Historical Food Fortnightly #9 The Frugal Housewife: Victory Bread
I’m joining The Historical Food Fortnightly late. The spirit of the challenge is to create a dish or edible consumable from a pre-1960 recipe every fortnight until May 31st, 2015. Documentation and research are key, which is what I do here, so I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take part in the challenge. Aside from the opportunity to see others’ work, the challenge will also give me the push I need to work on historical recipes, which has been very much on the back burner lately. For more information on the challenge, please visit the challenge’s blog.
Now on to the challenge.
The Challenge: “Throughout history, housewives and housekeepers have kept a close eye on their budgets and found creative ways to pinch pennies while providing delicious and nutritious food. Create a dish that interprets one historically documented method of frugal cooking.”
The Recipe: The recipe is a bread formula from the 1918 book “Foods That Will Win the War and How to Cook Them” by C. Houston Goudiss.
The Date/Year and Region: 1918, United States.
How Did You Make It: Made the dough, and let it rise twice, then baked it.
Time to Complete: Approximately 3 hours and 45 minutes.
Total Cost: Not sure as all the ingredients were in my pantry.
How Successful Was It?: This is up to interpretation. I suppose that it served its purpose in its period, which was to produce an edible bread with less wheat flour than normally used. It did that and contemporary people would have probably eaten the bread, but it was definitely not terrible appetizing for us modern folks.
How Accurate Is It?: I used modern yeast in equivalence to one fresh yeast cake, but other than that, it’s accurate.
I first became interested in food politics and it’s use as part of the war effort during the early 20th century when I was brainstorming the term paper for my junior seminar in college. The topic of the seminar was Nations and Nationalism and I knew I wanted to somehow tie that into food. Serendipitously, at the time I was also taking a class titled “US Food History” and I had been exposed to the Four Freedoms by Norman Rockwell, specifically the Freedom From Want. This lead to other similarly themed posters created during the two world wars for the same purpose. Ever since then, I’ve collected books, both primary and secondary sources, on food during the two World Wars because I’m fascinated by the subject. But I digress.
The recipe I used for this challenge is not a named recipe in Foods That Will Win the War and How To Cook Them, but rather it’s a formula for how to make bread in such a manner that would save wheat flour. Saving flour was, after all, one of the main concerns of the period as wheat was needed to send to the troops overseas and even to feed other countries. There are a myriad of wartime posters urging the people in the home front, particularly women, to save wheat because wheat was one of the “foods that will win the war.” This relationship between food and actual weapons is what I find most fascinating about the food saving and food rationing campaigns. So, for the purpose this recipe, being frugal with money was not the point, the point is being frugal with wheat. As Goudiss explains, “do not expect that the use of other cereals in bread-making will reduce the cost of your bread. That is not the object. Saving of wheat for war needs is the thing we are striving for, and this is as much an act of loyalty as buying Liberty Bonds. It is to meet the crucial world need of bread that we are learning to substitute, and not to spare the national purse.”1 This is a tug at the conscience’s strings of every housewife of I ever saw one.
The formula is as follows:
3 1/2 cupfuls of flour (this includes added cereals)
1 cupful of water of milk
1/2 tablespoon shortening
1 1/2 teaspoons of salt
1 cake of compressed yeast2
The first question this formula posed was what to use as flour substitute. I wanted to use rye flour but I couldn’t find it locally. Goudiss notes that “potato flour or mashed potatoes can be used to extend the wheat, it being possible to work in almost 50 per cent” so, with that in mind, I opted to use potato flour, which I had in my pantry already.3 Goudiss also recommends that some of the wheat flour be saved for the second kneading as this combination of wheat flour and potato flour makes for a very dense, very wet dough.
The second issue was the yeast. I don’t have cake yeast and I don’t where to get it, or even if you can still get it, but I do know that there is an equivalent amount in modern yeast. One compressed yeast cake is equal to three teaspoons of modern active dry yeast.
For the preparation method, which is ignored in the formula, I looked to other recipes in the book for guidance, though I found them predictably sparse. I have made bread many times before, but I wanted to ensure that I was proceeding in a way that was as period accurate as possible. I even made the dough by hand and kept my very convenient but very modern Kitchenaid mixer put away. I had forgotten how tiring kneading dough could be!
The recipe as carried out by me:
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup potato flour (unmodified)
1 cup water, plus an optional 1 tablespoon for kneading
1/2 tablespoon vegetable shortening
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 teaspoons active dry yeast
In a large bowl, combine 2 cups of the all purpose flour and one cup of water along with the rest of the ingredients. Mix well with a wooden spoon and turn out on to a counter and begin to knead. The dough will be very short, you can add the extra 1 tablespoon of water if you feel you need it, but the dough will come together. Knead for 10 minutes if by hand. This dough will not pass the windowpane test.
Return the dough to the bowl, cover with a towel or plastic wrap, and let it rise in a warm place until doubled in size, approximately 90 minutes.
After the dough has risen, scatter the remaining 1/2 cup of all purpose flour on your working surface. Turn out the dough onto it and knead until most of the flour has been incorporated. Shape into a loaf, place onto a baking sheet, and let it rise in a warm place for about one hour.
In the mean time, preheat the oven to 425 F. Once the dough is risen, cut some slashes on the top if so desired, and bake for 45 minutes.
Allow to cool completely before cutting.
Goudiss wasn’t kidding when he said this was a dense bread! It rose just fine during proofing but not at all in the oven. The result was a very crusty, very dense bread. As for taste, it actually tasted good. It was not the best bread I have ever had by any stretch of the imagination but it was not inedible. The day after, however, it was hard as rock and could have possibly broken a few teeth.
I’m torn on whether to rate this recipe as success or not. For what it was intended, the creation of edible bread that used less wheat flour than traditional breads, it worked, but it wasn’t terribly appetizing. Then again, it was wartime and at such times you must make do with what you have. The bread would have probably been softened by dipping it in some broth or soup, and this could have been done even the day after the bread was baked. So, I suppose, it was a success all things considered.