During the grain shortages that occurred in the course of the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815) as well as throughout the 1840s, before the repeal of the Corn Laws (regulations governing the import and export of grain that had existed in England since the 12th century), potatoes were used to bulk out flour to produce bread.
Scottish and Irish Potato scones tended to be mashed potato mixed with milk and a little oatmeal, reflecting the foods available for ordinary households. Potato bread is therefore not such an odd idea but has its origins in local availability and use of food stuffs that were affordable, or home grown, as well as a good bulking carbohydrate to feed hungry families. Victorian bakers often used a small proportion of potato mash in their dough as a fermenting agent, a tradition that emerged during the 19th century as home brewing declined; this is the reason potato bread rises so well – potato is a natural fermenting agent and increases the yeast activity to produce bread with a good crumb structure. Potato also helps to keep baked bread moist.
The following recipe for Potato Bread is an echo of the many regional festival yeast cakes and fruit breads referred to by Elizabeth David:
In no branch of English cookery is there a richer variety of recipes than in the making of cakes, scones and bread; it is of extraordinary interest to discover how large a proportion of these recipes is for yeast-leavened spice cakes and breads; it is also easy to see how many more there must have been before the days of the chemical raising agents and baking powders […] for it is obvious enough from the composition of many modern English fruit cakes that they were originally yeast-leavened and subsequently adapted to the use of baking powder.
Elizabeth David, 1979, English Bead and Yeast Cookery, p.425.
Potato Saffron Bread
This recipe is an adaptation I’ve made after trying out several that proved unsatisfactory. In the end I returned for guidance to Elizabeth David; although she provides no recipes that are directly similar, the principles she outlines apply.
9oz/250g floury potatoes (cooked and peeled)
9 floz/250 ml potato cooking water (still warm)
A large pinch of saffron strands
15oz/425g strong white bread flour
½ oz/15g rock or sea salt
½ oz/15g bakers’ yeast or ¼ oz/ 7.5g dried yeast
2 tbsp honey
2.5oz/75g unsalted butter
2 egg yolks
4 oz/125g raisins (or other dried fruit)
1tbsp black poppy seeds
Steep the saffron strands in a small amount of the potato water for ½ hr
Activate the dried yeast in ¼ of the warm potato water and leave for approx 15 mins
Push the cooked potatoes through a potato ricer into a large mixing bowl
Add the saffron strands and water, plus the remaining potato water and mix well.
Sieve the flour into a large bowl, add the salt and rub in the butter.
Add the honey, raisins and egg yolks to the potato, mix well, then add to the flour, salt and butter mix.
Add the activated yeast and mix well to form a soft but firm dough.
Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead well for 10 mins.
Return the dough to the mixing bowl, dust with flour, cover with a damp tea towel and leave to rise for approx 1.5 hrs until it has doubled in size.
Knock down the dough and turn onto a floured work surface, knead well for 5-10 minutes.
Cut in ½ and form into 2 loaves and put into 2 greased and floured loaf tins.
With a very sharp knife make chequered crosses on each loaf.
Cover loosely with damp tea towels and leave to rise for a further 45-60 mins until doubled in size.
Sprinkle with poppy seeds and bake in a preheated oven (400oF/200oC/gas 6) for 40 minutes or until the bottom of each loaf resonates when tapped.
Cool on a wire rack and eat within 5 days; this loaf freezes well for up to 1 month.
January 2nd, 2012, Brighton