Potatoes in Baking

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

Using vegetables in baking

Over recent weeks I’ve been experimenting with vegetable-themed baking, and, returning to baking and bread-making, have been exploring ways of using starchy vegetables in bread and pastry. Denis has a gluten allergy and makes pastry using mashed potato (we’ll post about this another time), so the practice is not entirely unknown to us.

I returned to my bible of bread-making, Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery, (the Penguin 1979 edition) and read up on the use of potato. She talks of potato bread being associated with times of grain shortage or times of economic necessity and of 19th century writers advocating it as the best bread for toast. Apparently it makes moist, light toast that holds the butter very well!

David suggests a bread recipe from Our Daily Bread (Richard Tames, 1973; Penguin) might be from war-time; described as a ‘cheap recipe’ the proportions are 1lb each of flour and potatoes; the potatoes are boiled after peeling, which would make them mushy as they would absorb water in the cooking. The potatoes were then added to the flour with no additional liquid and baked as round loaves. I haven’t used this proportion, but might give it a try.

Another vegetable bread referred to by Elizabeth David, is Pumpkin Bread. This account is from The Family Magazine:
‘To make bread that will keep moist and good very long

Slice a pompion, and boil it in fair water, till the water grows clammy, or somewhat thick; then strain it through a fine cloth, or sieve, and with this make your bread, well kneading the dough; and it will not only encrease the quantity of it, but make it keep moist and sweet a month longer than bread wetted with fair water only’.
The Family Magazine, London, 1741

Quoted in Elizabeth David,1979, English Bread and Yeast Cookery, Penguin; London p.292.

So, to our experiment.
Vegetable Bread

Using Elizabeth David’s Potato Bread recipe p.288 as the base:
To 1lb of strong white bread flour, the proportion of potato is 1/4lb mashed v.smoothly, completely dry, used while warm.
We used 1/4lb cooked (baked and skinned beetroot), Sanguina, which is very red as it’s name indicates. Beetroot added to the dry flour in a food mixer and blended to a dampish mix.
Other ingredients:

1/2oz fresh bakers yeast or 1/4oz dried yeast
1/2pt milk and water mixed in ratio 1:2, warmed to blood heat ( you can’t feel the temperature when you dip your finger in the liquid – same temperature as your blood!)
minimum 3/4oz salt

Metric measures
450g white flour
120g potato
15g/10g yeast (fresh/dried)
300cl milk/water
20g salt
Use a tin with 1.5 litre capacity

Warm the sifted flour in the oven
Activate the yeast in 1 or 2 tbsp warm (blood heat) water for approx 15mins.
Mix the dough, leave it to rise after initial kneading, covered in a cool place for approx 4 hours – vegetable bread does take longer to rise than usual because of the density created by the vegetables.
Knock dough back, knead well, shape and put into a 2.5-3 pt tin; cover with a damp cloth and leave until the dough reaches the top of the tin.
Bake in a hot oven 425oF/220oC/gas 7 for about 45 minutes – take care not to allow the crust to get too dark or hard. It is finished when the loaf sounds hollow when tapped with your knuckles

We used a round, deep cake tin approx 6”x4” (15cmx10cm)
We used Maldon sea salt and found 3/4oz was too much; have used 1/2oz in subsequent loaves.
For the loaf above we sprinkled with poppy seeds before baking.
Cover the dough with a damp cloth while it is rising the 2nd time to prevent a hard skin forming. This will inhibit the loaf from rising when it’s put in the oven and result in a tough crust.
I think any vegetable could be used as a substitute in the same proportions; however, we have concluded that potato bread is the most successful; parsnip and carrot are quite distinctive, but other variations are curiosities and don’t warrant repeat.
January 1st 2012, Brighton