April of 2012 we did an episode on 18th century simple biscuits — a wonderful little snack that is somewhere between our modern day cookie and cracker.
Here is the recipe from “The Compleat Housewife” by Eliza Smith 1758
Our modern interpretation:
4 Cups of Flour
1/2 Cup of sugar
1 Tablespoon of caraway seeds
4 oz of butter
approximately 2 Cups of milk
Take 4 cups of flour and add to that 1/2 cup of sugar. To that add the caraway seeds. In a different bowl whisk the egg, and add that to the melted, but not hot, butter. Stir the wet and dry ingredients together, and slowly add enough milk until a stiff paste is formed. Roll out on a floured surface to about 1/8″ thick. Cut out shapes as you please and place on greased baking tin. Prick before placing in oven to keep the biscuits from puffing up. Bake at 275 degrees (F) for about 10 minutes.
Here is one of the examples of making yeast in the 18th century where they prepare a batch of flour with some boiled hops, then a small batch of barm is added which turns into a large batch of leaven. And note the saving of a piece of “old dough” for the next baking.
The process of making yeast as practised at Edinburgh is as follows: Take two ounces of hops boil them for an hour in two gallons of water and boiling hot scald eight or ten pounds of flour and stir it very well into a paste. Do this about eleven in the forenoon. Let it stand till fix o clock in the evening then add about a quart of yeast to forward the fermentation and mix it well together. Next morning add about as much more flour and water sufficient to make it into dough and in the afternoon it will be sit for setting spunge and baking. Reserve always a piece of the old dough to mix with the new batch instead of the yeast which is necessary only the first time to hasten the process The above quantity of hops will suffice for an hundred and twenty quartern loaves.
From the “The Seaman’s Guide” John Cochrane 1797
Buttermilk in the 18th century was different from what is typically available in grocery stores today. It was the dairy by-product left over from the churning of butter. The terms “buttermilk” and “whey” were interchangeably in many texts and period dictionaries.
Today’s buttermilk is typically milk inoculated with a lactic-acid bacteria. It has a thick viscosity and a tart flavor. The same bacteria exists naturally in traditional buttermilk, giving it a tart flavor as well. Traditional buttermilk, however, is usually much thinner than modern cultured buttermilks. The lactic acid in both traditional and cultured buttermilk makes both ideal reacting agents for such chemical leavens as Baking Soda and Baking Powder. That is why many pancake, biscuit, and soda bread recipes utilise buttermilk. But chemical leavening wasn’t in popular use until the very late 18th century, and more like the early 19th century, so buttermilk would not have been used in baking for that purpose in the 1700s.
Very few references exist in the original cookbooks regarding the use of buttermilk. The “Dictionaire Oeconomique” by Noel Chomel (1725, London) suggests that buttermilk should not be discarded, but rather, it should be given to the poor.
William Ellis mentions in “The Country Housewife Family Companion” (1750, London) that some bakers would use buttermilk in place of water or milk in the baking of bread dough. This is of particular interest, as one strain of lactic-acid bacteria (Lactobacillus) that is sometimes present in buttermilk is the same genus of bacteria that is cultivated to produce sourdough bread.
In our 18th Century cooking episode on “Which Yeast” we mentioned several instances of wild yeast cultivation in the late 18th century. Here is one dating from 1800. Notice that the author needs to explain this process as if it were not already known to the readers and it origin is Persia.
The preservation of yeast having been a subject of much research in this country the following particulars may perhaps deserve attention. On the coast of Persia my bread was made in the English manner of good wheat flour and with the yeast generally used there. It is thus prepared take a small tea cup or wine glass full of bruised or split peas pour on it a pint of boiling water and set the whole in a vessel all night on the hearth or any other warm place the water will have a froth on the top next morning and will be good yeast. In this cold climate especially in a cold season it should stand longer to ferment perhaps twenty four or forty eight hours. The above quantity made me as much bread as two sixpenny loaves the quality of which was very good and light
from the “ANNALS of AGRICULTURE and OTHER USEFUL ARTS”, 1800
Here is the complete text of the reference I mentioned in the video. As you can see from the text. Most of the western Europeans thought that the bubbling action on the yeast has something to do with fire, or heat.
From the Eighth Volume of the Transactions of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts Manufactures and Commerce. 1790
Food is a universal connection between people of differing cultures, locations, and ages. It’s easy to take for granted the foods we regularly enjoy, giving little thought to the origins of our favorite dishes or how they may have impacted history or evolved over time. The dinner table has always been a place for friends to gather to exchange ideas and engage in dialog ever since…well…ever since there were dinner tables.
While producing our video series called “18th Century Cooking with Jas. Townsend & Son,” we quickly realized there was simply too much interesting food history and information to share in our 10-minute productions. So we’ve started SavoringThePast.net as a means to share authentic recipes, foodie history, and all of the details we found most interesting from our research and experimentation. We invite you to join us at the table as we savor the flavors and aromas of centuries past.
By the way, if you’re unfamiliar with our video presentations, you can watch them on our channel at Youtube.com/jastownsendandson.