Bread from the 17th Century - Robert May’s French Bread
When you say French bread to me, what first pops up in my mind is long stick like crusty breads like the Baguette or the round rustic Boule. I always think of them being made with the most basic bread ingredients – flour, yeast, water and a little salt.
The Bread Baking Babes “Kitchen of the Month” was Ilva’s and she chose Robert May’s French Bread for us to bake in September. Robert May’s bread is a traditional French bread, a boule actually but one with a twist. Robert May’s French bread recipe asks for the use of egg whites, but no yolks.
One does see the use of whole eggs in enriched bread dough but I’ve never come across the use of egg whites in bread dough.
I went looking for the role of egg whites in bread dough and found that it is a technique that many other well-known bakers have adopted in their French bread recipes. I found mentions of similar recipes in books by Bernard Clayton and Beth Hensperger.
Egg whites help create crispness in the crust as well as help leaven the bread, especially if they have air whipped into them before adding them to the bread dough. Apparently, the protein structure of egg whites helps trap air in it, and this helps the dough rise a little more. Now I’m not sure if French bread was traditionally baked using egg whites or if this was an addition to the French recipe by an English chef.
This recipe for French bread was first published in Robert May’s book of the name “The Accomplisht Cook, or, The whole Art and Mystery of Cookery, fitted for allDegrees and Qualities” though the recipe we baked by comes from Elizabeth David's English Bread and Yeast Cookery in which she gives us her adapted version of the original.
Robert May was a French trained English professional chef who was sent to Paris at the age of ten to start his training. He worked for many noble families and wrote his cook book in his 70s which he claims “Wherein the whole ART is revealed in a more easie and perfect Method, than hath been publisht in any language”
It was considered to be perhaps the most important cook book of its time, a period in England where English food was beginning to be quite influenced by the French aristocratic style of cooking. Robert May’s cookbook was part detailed collection of recipes and part memoir.
To quote the words of his loving friend and well-wisher John Town, who writes an introduction to all readers of Mr Robert May’s book,
“SEe here’s a Book set forth with such things in’t,
As former Ages never saw in Print;
Something I’de write in praise on’t, but the Pen,
Of Famous Cleaveland, or renowned Ben,
If unintomb’d might give this Book its due,
By their high strains, and keep it always new.
But I whose ruder Stile could never clime,
Or step beyond a home-bred Country Rhime,
Must not attempt it: only this I’le say,
Cato’s Res Rustica’s far short of May.
Bv Here’s taught to keep all sorts of flesh in date,
All sorts of Fish, if you will marinate;
To candy, to preserve, to souce, to pickle,
To make rare Sauces, both to please, and tickle.
The pretty Ladies palats with delight;
Both how to glut, and gain an Appetite.
The Fritter, Pancake, Mushroom; with all these,
The curious Caudle made of Ambergriese.
He is so universal, he’l not miss,
The Pudding, nor Bolonian Sausages.
Italian, Spaniard, French, he all out-goes,
Refines their Kickshaws, and their Olio’s,
The rarest use of Sweet-meats, Spicery,
And all things else belong to Cookery:
Not only this, but to give all content,
Here’s all the Forms of every Implement.
To work or carve with, so he makes the able.
To deck the Dresser, and adorn the Table.
What dish goes first of every kind of Meat,
And so ye’re welcom, pray fall too, and eat.
Reader, read on, for I have done; farewell,
The Book’s so good, it cannot chuse but sell.”
I couldn’t make it then but decided I would whenever I could and here it is, a little over two months later. The reason why I wanted to bake this bread so much was that it was a recipe from the 17th century (1660, so that’s over 300 years old!) and that it involved the use of egg whites (unusual for me). The added advantage was that technique –wise, this is very easy-to-bake bread.
Ilva did ask us to get as creative as we could while decorating the bread, and I chose to go real simple with mine. My creativity had flown the coop, and so I finally just rolled out some of the bread dough real thin, cut out shapes with a leaf cookie cutter and stuck them right on the top! This bread turned out so good, with a thick crust and soft interior that I’m adding it to my list of must-bake-regularly breads.
Given below is the full recipe which makes 2 small loaves, but since there was just 3 of us I halved it to make one loaf. The recipe is mostly as given to us by Ilva but I reduced the salt to 2 tsp from the suggested 3 tsp as I do not like very salty bread.
Robert May’s French Bread
(Adapted from Elizabeth David's English Bread and Yeast Cookery)
- Warm about 1/4 cup of the water-milk mixture and mix together the sugar and yeast in it. Keep aside for 5 to 10 minutes till it is frothy. Put the egg whites in a small bowl and beat till they are just beginning to get frothy.
- Knead the dough by hand or using the help of a machine. Put the flours, salt, the proofed yeast mixture, the beaten egg whites and the water-milk mixture in the processor bowl and knead like for regular bread until you have a soft, smooth and elastic dough. Add as much more flour or water or milk to get this consistency.
- Shape the dough into a ball, and transfer to a lightly oiled bowl, loosely cover it and leave it to rise till soft, spongy and almost double in volume. This should take about an hour or so.
- Divide the dough into two equal portions (save a little dough before shaping if you want to make decorations with it), and shape each one into a boule or long rolls. Loosely cover with plastic or a light cloth and leave it to rise for about 30 to 45 minutes.
- Decorate crust with the spare bit of dough or by slashing the crust. Brush the top of the dough with a little milk if you wish and bake 230C (450F) for 15 minutes. Then turn down the oven temperature to 180C (350F) and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes., till the loaf is brown and sounds hollow when tapped.
- Let the bread cool completely before slicing
This recipe makes 2 medium round boules/ loaves.
The Bread Baking Babes: