Bread to Make a Hungarian Rhapsodic

Today’s weight-obsessed gastronomes, ever mindful of carbohydrates and calories, generally demur when dinner rolls are passed their way. Yet history reveals that such reticence is unusual. Centuries ago, the attitude prevailed that a meal without bread was no meal at all. Even kings made a show of their baked goods. When in 1663 Transylvanian Prince Mihály Apafi invited the entire Ottoman army to dine with him after a battle, he rolled out, among other tidbits, two-score enormous boules. So impressed with this display was the Turkish world traveler, Evliya Celebi, that he recorded it in his journal. “The meadows were covered with Hungarian carpets,” he writes, “onto which forty giant loaves were placed.” The king’s means of conveying the loaves to the hungry soldiers Calebi found equally impressive. “Each one had to be drawn on an oxcart,” he continues, for “each … was twenty paces long, and five paces wide, and as high as a full-grown man.”

The bread of Eastern Europe impressed travelers with more than its size. Writing a hundred years later, another adventurer, Robert Towson, praised the bread of Hungary for its toothsomeness. “Nowhere else did I eat bread that was lighter, whiter, and tastier than this,” he declared. Baking such heavenly bread was no easy feat; this chore peasants performed but once a week, on Saturday, so a fresh loaf would be available for the Sabbath. It was an all-day event. Kneading alone took a good two hours and required considerable strength. The dough had to rise overnight, which meant that it wasn’t until the wee hours the next day that it entered the oven.

As difficult as this chore of baking was, Hungarian families considered it anything but. No peasant woman dared neglect her bubbling pot of sourdough, her bread’s leaven. In fact, each new bride was given a small lump of sourdough by her mother, which she used to bake the first loaf for her husband. So dear were these loaves that only the man of the house could slice them. In Catholic households, he would mark them with the sign of the cross before brandishing his bread knife. If any pieces fell to the floor, they were promptly picked up and kissed in apology.

Baking day wasn’t without its charms. A portion of dough was usually kept in reserve to be baked at the front of the oven, close to the flame. This imparted a smoky, tangy flavor to the resulting bread, which Hungarians call lángos. Some Hungarians still prepare this morsel, though they nowadays typically fry it and serve it with anything from chopped fresh dill to ewe’s milk cheese. The traditional recipe for lángos that appears below is taken from Culinaria: Hungary

Lángos

5 oz mealy potatoes
1 3/4 cakes compressed yeast
3 tbsp confectioner’s sugar
1 2/3 cups milk
3 1/3 cups flour
3 1/2 tbsp oil
Salt

Oil for deep frying

Cooks the potatoes in their skins. Dissolve the yeast and the sugar in a scant 1/2 cup of lukewarm milk, and stand in a warm place for 10 minutes. Peel the potatoes and mash while still warm. Sift the flour into a bowl. Make a well in the center, and pour in the milk and yeast mixture. Adds the potatoes and the oil, and knead to a smooth dough with the remaining likewarm milk, adding a little salt. Sprinkle over a little flour, and cover with a dish towel. Leave in a warm place for about 1 hour until the dough has doubled in size.

Pour some oil in a skillet of about 2 1/2 inches height. Tear off a piece of the risen dough, and shape it into a round flat cake about 3/4 inch thick. Fry in the hot oil (do not cover the skillet) until golden, then turn over carefully and fry the cake on the other side.

Season with salt, and eat while still hot. Delicious spread with sour cream or garlic juice.

Buttery Muffins in Wet, Wintry London

Did the muffin boy trudging through London’s dark, dank streets ever curse the hot, buttery wares that forced him outdoors? Perhaps, though the thought of going penniless no doubt bedeviled him more. And perhaps as means of consolation his mind would settle on a remark made by Charles Dickens, who found that a cold night did wonders for the streets of London. Such wonder-working happened, he wrote, when “just enough damp” fell from the sky to “make the pavement greasy without cleansing it of any of its impurities.” If that falling damp also made the gaslights glow brighter and the small shops that lined the street “more splendid,” then so much the better.

It’s likely that the muffin boy did not notice this trick of light and vapor, but he was not insensible of the evening’s other, decidedly less oneiric effects. He did his best business on wet, chilly nights. Ensconced in the warm comfort of their homes, customers listened for his bell’s gentle report. Their muffins they preferred warm and slathered with butter. “I only wish good butter was a site cheaper,” one muffin seller complained. “That would make the muffins go. Butter’s half the battle.”

That battle went better in the suburbs, good butter or bad. There frowzy housewives hovered expectantly near doorsteps. Once the muffin boy’s approach was certain, they lit the kitchen fire for tea. His muffins they bought by the dozen to cheer their husbands bone-weary after a “dirty walk” home from the docks. Only for the “nine-o-clock beer man” would they open their door again.

If a cold damp winter’s evening has you hankering for a warm, buttery snack, and there’s no muffin boy in sight, try one of these recipes for the item in question, which appear in Mrs. Clarke’s Cook Book (1899).

Muffins

Muffins.—Two eggs lightly beaten, one quart of flour, one teaspoonful of salt, three teaspoonfuls of Durkee’s baking-powder, one tablespoonful of melted butter, one pint of milk and two teaspoonfuls of vanilla extract, if liked. Beat up quickly to the consistency of a cake batter; bake in buttered gem-pans in a hot oven.

Muffins, No. 2.—One cup of home-made yeast or half of a compressed yeast cake, one pint of sweet milk, two eggs, two tablespoonfuls of melted butter, two tablespoonfuls of sugar. Beat the butter, sugar and eggs well together; then stir in the milk, slightly warmed, and thicken with flour to the consistency of griddle-cakes. When light, bake in muffin-rings or on a griddle. If wanted for tea, the batter should be mixed immediately after breakfast. Muffins should never be cut with a knife, but be pulled open with the fingers.

Rice Muffins.—Take one quart of sour milk, three well-beaten eggs, a little salt, a teaspoonful of soda, and enough of rice flour to thicken to a stiff batter. Bake in rings.

Hominy Muffins.—Substitute hominy, well cooked and mashed, for the rice, and proceed as above.

Bread Muffins.—Cut the crust off four thick slices of bread; put them in a pan and pour on them just enough boiling water to soak them thoroughly. Let them stand an hour, covered; then drain off the water and stir the bread to a smooth paste. Stir in two tablespoonfuls of flour, a half pint of milk, and three well-beaten eggs. Bake to a delicate brown in well-buttered muffin-rings.

Graham Muffins.—One quart of Graham flour, two teaspoonfuls of baking-powder, a piece of butter the size of a walnut, one egg, one tablespoonful of sugar, one-half teaspoonful of salt, milk enough to make a batter as thick as for griddle-cakes. Bake in gem-pans or muffin-rings in a hot oven.

Corn Muffins.—Mix two cupfuls of corn-meal, two cupfuls of flour, one cupful of sugar, half a cupful of melted butter, two eggs, and one teaspoonful of salt. Dissolve one teaspoonful of soda and two of cream tartar in a little milk, and beat it through. Add milk enough to make a moderately stiff batter, and bake in rings or gem-pans.

Café Au Lait: A Beverage Unfit for the Roll

Whether congregating in the Café de Paris on the Boulevard de Italiens or the Cabaret de la Mère Saguet at the barrier du Maine (a favorite of Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas’), Parisians of all ages and walks of life made a point of conspiciously sipping coffee or cocoa as regularly as their circumstances allowed. They did this not merely to get a jolt of caffeine, but to see and be seen. “We require publicity, broad daylight, the street, the cabaret,” M. Alfred Delvan writes about himself and his fellow urbanites in his Histoire Anecdotique des Cafés et Cabarets de Paris (1862), “well or ill, we desire to exhibit ourselves from home.” Delvan considers this desire the sine qua non of the Parisian character. “We delight in attitudinising,” he continues, “in making a show of ourselves, in having a public, an audience, witnesses of our lives.”

One particular Parisian café witnessed much in the way of history-making. Opened in 1724 by a Sicilian emigré who lent his establishment his name, the Café Procope was the favorite haunt of such estimable philosophical and literary figures as Diderot, Fontenelle, Rousseau and Voltaire. Yet the Café Procope achieved notoriety of a different sort in an event that happened after the establishment had passed from its namesake to his successor.

The event involved one Poulain de St. Foix, a dramatist of declining fortune and popularity. As if cognizant of this fact, St. Foix was often found to be in a foul mood when he took his daily coffee at the Café Procope. One morning he appeared especially saturnine. A play of his performed the evening before had been savaged by critics. It was as he was brooding over this flop that a guardsman of King Louis XV entered the café for a hasty dinner of café au lait and a roll. Overhearing the guardsman’s order, St. Foix abandoned all self-restraint. Perhaps still smarting from the opinions critics aired about his latest play, he felt compelled to register one of his own. “That’s a poor dinner,” he snapped at the guardsman, who tactfully ignored him. This only encouraged the latter to voice his opinion again … and again. St. Foix’s behavior soon got the better of the guardsman. He asked the playwright what he meant by his outbursts. “You won’t prevent me, however,” St. Foix returned defiantly, “from thinking that a cup of coffee and a roll are a poor dinner.”

To prevent St. Foix was exactly what the guardsman intended. He drew his sword and challenged the querulous dramatist to a duel. St. Foix accepted. The two men exited the café and crossed blades. During the ensuing swordplay the playwright received a small wound to the arm, the sight of which caused the guardsman to relent. Expecting the customary amende honorable, the guardsman instead received only further insolence. “Yes sir,” St. Foix exclaimed, “I maintain that a cup of coffee and a roll make a very poor dinner!”

Incensed by this breach of etiquette, the guardsman went to renew his attack, when out from the crowd of onlookers stepped two marshals, who apprehended the combatants to bring before the senior marshal of France. The guardsman accounted for his actions, explaining to the senior marshal that St. Foix had insulted him several times. “My lord, I had no intention of insulting this gentleman, whom I consider a brave man and a gallant soldier,” St. Foix blurted out, thus insulting the guardsman once more by interrupting him, “but even your rank will not prevent me from saying that a cup of coffee and a roll are a very poor, shabby, sneaking, miserable dinner!”

The senior marshal burst out laughing. Indeed, just about everyone who witnessed or heard tell of the failing dramatist’s perverse insistence found the whole affair wonderfully droll. Even Louis XV is said to have cracked a smile when word of the event reached him.

Should you wish to discover for yourself whether café au lait and a roll make for a shabby, sneaking, miserable repast, the recipes below can aid you in making this assessment. The first is taken from The Godey’s Lady’s Book Receipts and Household Hints (1870) and the second from  The Successful Housekeeper (1882).

Café Au Lait

The French are justly celebrated for this breakfast coffee, which may be made as follows: Use an infusion, made as directed, or in a cafetière, only of double the strength, and when clear, pour it into the breakfast cups, which have been previously half or three-quarters filled with boiling milk, sweetened with loaf sugar.

French Rolls

Into one pound of flour rub two ounces of butter and the whites of three eggs well-beaten; add  a tablespoon of good yeast, a little salt, and milk enough to make a stiff dough, cover and set in a warm place till light; cut into rolls, dip the edges into melted butter to keep them from sticking together, and bake in a quick oven.

A Recipe for Victory: Wartime Cornmeal Waffles

The year 1918 saw the the publication of the Twentieth Century Club War Time Cook Book, an elegant, informative tome filled with useful and tasteful economical recipes. The federal food administrator of Pennsylvania praised the book, deeming it instrumental in winning “the war that is being waged to guarantee the safety of American home” and in ensuring the “permanency of American institutions.” Though he cautions that “much more will be demanded before we can hope for victory, as much perhaps as has been demanded in England and France,” he assures readers that “there is no more important war activity in which women may engage than the careful conservation of our food supply which is altogether inadequate to the needs our own men and our allies at the fighting front.”

Elsewhere the federal food administrator of Allegheny County writes of the “most bountiful variety of foodstuffs” that the United States produces and to which “allies turn”in order to correct their being on “the verge of starvation.” Whether those allies were making such delightful recipes as war-time cornmeal waffles remains a matter of speculation. But should you wish to create a tasty treat for you and the troops, the following recipe, contributed by one Mrs. W.H.R. Hilliard, will ensure that breakfast meets with victory.

Wartime Cornmeal Waffles

1 cup cornmeal
1 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons fat, melted
2 eggs
1 scant cup milk

Beat eggs separately and add yolks to flour, corn meal, baking powder, salt, and milk, into which the melted fat is poured.
Fold in whites last and bakes
This quality makes about 16 waffles.

Spiced Dutch Bread for a Starry Night

Between 1883 and 1885 Vincent van Gogh lived in Nuenen, a small village in the Brabant district of the Netherlands where his father was the church pastor. There Van Gogh immersed himself in his subject — the lives of local peasants — with a gusto uncommon even among passionate artists. Not only did he paint the villagers; he lived as they lived, enduring harsh weather, toiling in the fields, partaking of their rustic fare. Indeed, so thoroughly did Van Gogh adopt the folkways of Nuenen that his appearance, speech, and mannerisms changed, much to the alarm of his friends and family.

Yet this alarm ultimately proved unwarranted; Van Gogh drew from his life among the peasants of Nuenen great inspiration, which he bodied forth in a remarkable series of cottage scenes. One of his most famous paintings from the series, The Cottage at Dusk (1885), features the home of the De Groot family, who would eventually figure in another notable work, The Potato Eaters (1885). The Cottage at Dusk shows a straw-roofed building huddled darkly against the evening sky. A single candle burns in the window, a sign of the warmth and humanity within. Outside a lone figure makes her way to the door. One imagines that she is hurrying to dinner, perhaps a thick vegetable stew paired with sour wheaten or rye bread.

The Cottage at Dusk, 1885

For his part, Van Gogh professed an indifference to food. A close acquaintance describes him as sharing family meals “in a strange fashion.” The painter, with “eyes often inflamed from staring at objects in the sun,” would inevitably be “absorbed in studying a newly painted canvas which stood facing him on a chair. With one hand he would shade his half-closed eyes, while eating with the other.” He preferred simple food, and “cut his own bread in thick, heavy slices, which since a child he had preferred eating dry.” But meals were no matter for thought; Van Gogh seemed “hardly conscious of what he ate,” consumed as he was with “the absorbing problem of how to contrast one color with another or how to balance them.”

If you also prefer to eat your bread dry but are not wholly indifferent to flavor, try baking ontbijtkoek, a traditional Dutch spiced rye bread from the 1895 cookbook Recepten van de Haagsche Kookschool. Serve it in thick slices buttered — or plain, as Van Gogh himself would take it.

Ontbijtkoek

8 eggs
500 grams Javanese sugar
500 grams wheat flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
15 cloves, ground
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
30 grams breadcrumbs [preferably from rye bread]
75 grams candied peel
50 grams roughly chopped almonds
1 teaspoon baking soda

Preparation: Mix the egg yolks with the sugar for five minutes. In a separate bowl, sift flour and baking soda together. Add to the egg and sugar mixture. Then mix in the remaining ingredients until everything is well incorporated. Place the mixture in a buttered form and bake in a moderate oven until done, or a knife inserted comes out clean.

Barley Nut Bread: Feeding the Crowds at Columbia University and Elsewhere

In her 1918 cookbook One Hundred-Portion War Time Recipes, Bertha E. Nettleton, former manager of Columbia University’s Horace Mann Lunch Room, shares tips for feeding a crowd. “In the effort to plan menus which comply with suggestions and requirements of the Food Administration and which at the same time meet financial ends, the resources of the Institutional Manager or Lunch Room Director are taxed to the utmost,” she writes.

A nation at war taxes these resources all the more. Nettleton thus published her cookbook with “[t]he aim and purpose [of furnishing] recipes and suggestions helpful to those who are trying to cope with the present situation by increasing the variety of dishes which are palatable, nutritious, economical and practicable.” American doughboys could ship for Europe well-nourished, while noncombatants back home could do their part for the cause.

The recipes in her book, Nettleton writes, “are chosen from those used and found popular at the Horace Mann Lunch Room, Teachers College,” and she considers them a success if “they prove of value to others,” for only then “the purpose of the writer will have been accomplished.”

With that in mind, here’s a recipe from Nettleton’s book for barley nut bread intended to feed a hungry crowd.

Barley Nut Bread

Barley flour… 8 lbs.
Rolled oats … 3 lbs.
Baking powder … 8 oz.
Salt … 3 oz.
Milk … 4 1/2 qts.
Sugar … 2 1/2 lbs.
Walnuts … 4 lbs.
Eggs … 14
(No fat)

Scald milk and pour over oatmeal, let stand one-half hour or more, beat eggs and add, mix and sift dry ingredients, and combine the two mixtures. Put in bread pans and let rise fifteen minutes before baking. Bake in moderate oven about an hour. Keep eight to twelve hours before cutting. Yields eight loaves weighing three pounds each.

Workhouse Soup and Cottage Loaves

The workhouses of Edwardian England served a most excellent split pea soup. Or so claims the 1906 Report of the Department Committee on Vagrancy. Under the Order of 1882 vagrants who intend to be short-term workhouse guests can dine on a spare dinner of bread and cheese, but to those planning to spend more than a day in the workhouse a dinner of bread and soup is offered — in rather exact and somewhat less than lavish portions. Six ounces of bread and a pint of soup go to warm the soul of the beggar, a person otherwise considered to be “a nuisance [who] infests the roads and threatens women and insists on having food when their husbands are absent, and all that sort of thing.” Such minutely observed economy must not divide the beggar from some basic sustenance, as meager as this might be.

And what goes into this bone-warming bit of comestible charity? According to the “Dietary Order” the “ingredients for pea soup in the workhouse are to each pint, three ounces of raw beef free from bone, two ounces of bones, two ounces of split peas, half an ounce of oatmeal, one ounce of vegetables, salt, pepper, and herbs to taste.”

As the Report indicates, workhouse soup goes well with bread. Try serving it with a cottage loaf, like this one from the 1905 Still Room Cookery: Recipes Old and New.

Cottage Loaf

Cottage loaves are formed from two balls of dough, a smaller and a larger, placed one on the top of the other. A hole is made through the top to connect the two, and 4 slits cut in the sides. The oven shelves must have been scrubbed previously and floured and the dough set down on them.

The loaves should stand in a warm place for 1/2 an hour and are then baked in a good oven, for the first 1/4 of an hour on the top shelf, and then moved to the centre shelf to bake another 1 1/4 hours. The loaves must stand on their sides to cool.

This recipe has been used for many years without a failure.

Household Bread (No. 2).

Another recipe made with Barm [the foam on top of beer and other fermented alcoholic beverages].

4 Ib. flour
1/2 pint warm water
1 pint of barm.

Put the flour into a basin, mix in a pinch of salt, make a hole in the centre and pour in the warm water, stir the barm in with it, shake a little flour over the top. Cover the basin with a cloth and let it stand in a warm place all night. At about 9 o’clock in the morning mix it with enough warm water to make a nice dough, and knead it well. Cover again with a cloth and let it stand for 2 hours. Make into loaves and bake.