Bogs, Windiness and That Anna

I've become a bit obsessed with historical baking, November's theme for our bread group. What interests me most is the availability of ingredients in colonial Philadelphia, the subject I focused on. It never occurred to me before baking with the City Tavern Cookbook that our port city in the late 18th century would have had it's own fusion culinary trend.

Clearly, what you ate depended on your wealth. Oranges were a status symbol, displayed abundantly in homes of the wealthy, while the average family would have barely even known about them.

Ships arrived three times a week from the West Indies bringing spices and fruits. Bread-wise, the British brought scones and breads, the Germans all manner of baked goods, African and West Indian slaves brought spices, and the French brought their pastry chefs and confectioners.

All of these cultures mingled with our native food stuffs. Substitutions were made and use of New World foods so abundant was encouraged by Benjamin Franklin.

Cranberry Bread
When the pilgrims came to the New World, they found cranberry bogs extending from New England down to the shores of New Jersey. These seasonal berries were harvested for use in juice and relishes as well as to flavor breads such as this one.

What struck me most was how similar the quick breads of the late 18th century are to what seem so common to us today. Cranberry, pumpkin, apple breads among biscuits, scones and muffins. They are, however, upon study of the recipes from the City Tavern, richer and less sweet.

This Cranberry bread recipe making one 8-inch loaf calls for four eggs, 4 1/2 ounces (1 stick plus 1 tablespoon) butter, 2 cups cranberries, yet only 3/4 cup of sugar. This is really more like a slightly sweet pound cake.

Rye and Caraway Seed Bread
Rye and caraway seeds were believed by the English to promote digestion and "dissolve all windiness," according to John Gerrard's, The Herball, circa 1597. These flavorful ingredients also were favored by German and Eastern European cooks who would have brought them to the New World.

The sampling of yeast breads is a little more unique--richer and more heavily flavored than the lighter hearth breads we have become accustomed to. For example, this rye and caraway seed bread calls for 1/4 pound (1 stick) butter, yet only 1 teaspoon salt. I couldn't resist slashing my loaves--I'm just so used to doing it, however, the recipe did not say to do so.

Anadama Bread
This bread's name comes from a hand-me-down colonial story about a fisherman whose wife would send him off every morning with a breakfast of cold cornmeal-molasses porridge. One bitterly cold day when his wife wasn't there to serve him his breakfast, he mixed some yeast and flour into his porridge and put it into a warm oven, creating a slightly sweet, deliciously filling bread. He exclaimed, "Damn you Anna!"--as in, "I could have been eating this all along." The name of this popular eighteenth-century bread has evolved into "Anadama."

While this is by no means bread of the elite, this recipe contains six tablespoons butter, delicious, but still pretty rich, especially when toasted and buttered like I had this morning!

Of all the recipes in the bread chapter, this one interested me the least, something about the cornmeal and molasses in a yeast bread didn't call out to me. I gave it a try because it appears in so many American cookbooks as such a popular bread of it's time. I'm glad I made it after all--I found the combination of sweet, heavy molasses and just a little cornmeal really worked. Somewhere between gingerbread and pumpernickel with a slight crunch. This bread uses a lot of yeast (2 packages--1/2 ounce).

The Tavern would have served, as the book has made clear, the finest foods available in the New World. All the flavorings throughout the bread chapter seemed to be used prominently, even more so than our recipes call for today.

In my recipe sampling, my observations lead me to think that breads were in general richer with eggs and fat, more fully flavored with herbs, spices and fruits, yet less salty and far less sweet.

I've just discovered that the City Tavern has several other books of interest, including one devoted to breads and desserts. When I've worked my way through this chapter, I may have to learn a little more.

I wish I could have baked my way through history classes in school. I think I might have actually learned more about our history this way than by memorizing dates and battles! Maybe I'll go have a pint at the Tavern and take in a few more facts.