Robert May's "To Make French Bread the Best Way"


Robert May's "To Make French Bread the Best Way"

I must smile whenever I reference "bread", because there is a great debate about what differentiates bread from pastry especially in period. I am also reminded of a rather tart blog post that referenced my interpretation of "rastons" calling me out publicly on the fact that I had "incorrectly" referred to rastons as a kind of bread.  Here we have the root of what I like to call “The Great Debate" which at its epicenter is this: all pastries are bread, but not all breads are pastries. The difference between a pastry and a bread (aside from purpose) is fat content. 

At a minimum pastry’s are made of flour, water, salt and fat in different proportions. The leavening agents for most pastries are steam and air except for brioche, danish and croissants which use yeast. The minimal ingredients for bread any bread are flour and liquid. The leavening agent being mostly yeast. 

Bread is defined as a food made from flour and water (also known as a paste). And there you have it, the answer to "The Great Debate".  All pastries are a kind of bread, but not all breads are pastry.  

To make French Bread the best way.

Take a gallon of fine flour, and a pint of good new ale barm or yeast, and put it to the flour, with the whites of six new laid eggs well beaten in a dish, and mixt with the barm in the middle of the flour, also three spoonfuls of fine salt; then warm some milk and fair water, and put to it, and make it up pretty stiff, being well wrought and worked up, cover it in a boul or tray with a warm cloth till your oven be hot; then make it up either in rouls, or fashion it in little wooden dishes and bake it, being baked in a quick oven, chip it hot.

Interpreted Recipe 

1 cup lukewarm water

2 tbsp. dry yeast (or 2 cakes fresh)

1 cup lukewarm milk

1 tbsp. salt

1 egg

6 cups sifted unbleached flour

 Pour water and milk into a mixing bowl mix in the egg, 1 cup flour and then add the yeast.  Allow to sit until a sponge has formed.  Once the sponge has formed sprinkle in the remaining flour until it has all absorbed.  Turn the dough out onto a flat surface and knead it for approximately five minutes.  Put into a cleaned warmed bowl and allow to rise until doubled in size. 

When the dough has doubled in size, turn it onto a floured work surface and knead into a ball. Divide the ball into 2, 4, 8 or more equal parts. Knead each into a small ball, and with the palm of your hand flatten the ball.  Cut around the circumference of the ball halfway between the top and bottom.  Place each roll approximately two inches apart on a floured cookie sheet and allow to rise until doubled in size.  Bake at 400 degrees for approximately 20 minutes.  

I take a couple of shortcuts when I make this bread and a few liberties.  I add an equal amount of honey or sugar (1 tbsp) to the original sponge and then add the salt in when I add the additional flour.  I find that the addition of the honey makes the bread sweet and a little more interesting in flavor.  You may notice that the bread is also darker than expected.  The honey was very dark, and 1/3 of my flour was whole wheat for this loaf.