Friday, 16 October 2015

Robert May's French Bread: A Recipe from the Seventeenth Century

I was hooked onto Robert May's French Bread ever since I had seen the recipe as part of a bread baking challenge on several blogs. More than anything else, it was the historic charm of a receipt straight from the 1600's that forced me into baking it. The Accomplisht Cook (Fully titled and tag-lined 'THE Accomplisht Cook, OR THE ART & MYSTERY OF COOKERY. Wherein the whole ART is revealed in a more easie and perfect Method, than hath been publisht in any language'could be considered as the first major recipe book published in England. Till then, most cooks liked to keep the finer details of their vocation heavily veiled. This is apparent from what May, himself a trained chef, writes in his preface 'To the Master Cooks, and to such young Practitioners of the Art of Cookery, to whom this Book may be useful':

"  To all honest well intending Men of our Profession, or others, this Book cannot but be acceptable, 
     as it plainly and profitably discovers the Mystery of the whole Art
     for which, though I may be envied by some 
     that only value their private Interests above Posterity, and the publick good
     yet God and my own Conscience would not permit me 
     to bury these my Experiences with my Silver Hairs in the Grave
     and that more especially, as the advantages of my Education hath raised me 
     above the Ambitions of others, 
     in the converse I have had with other Nations    
     who in this Art fall short of what I have known experimented by you my worthy Country men.   "

Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook (pg. A4v), 1685.

One has to cook at least once from a book written with such convictions, don’t you think?
The recipe for French Bread comes in The Acccomplisht Cook under the section on Baking. Here is how May describes the making of the bread. It is interesting that he recommends the crust to be 'chipped' (that is, to remove it), which I guess is in variance to the French preference at the time.

 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.   "

Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook (pg.240), 1685.

Over the course of the past one year, I have surprised myself with my perseverance with this bread. My first attempt was soon after I saw the recipe. Except for making a few quick breads and even rarer simple yeast breads, I didn't have much experience with baking breads. Apart from the typical mistakes that an inexperienced bread baker is bound to make, the first two times, Ginger toppled the bread box on to the floor (a dexterous way to tackle what would otherwise have been a challenging task for her) and ate almost half of the boule. I'm astounded by the cat's tastes and tricks, to say the very least. The third time around, when everything including the colour on the loaves were passable, I couldn't shoot it; the weather was just incredibly moody and there hardly was any light. Shortly afterwards, my oven broke down and I couldn't use it for a long time. The fourth time, I decided to make some patterns on the bread and they turned hideous to look at. The fifth time is a charm and here it is! (Apart from a single trial, I halved the recipe in all other cases.)
Well, the whole experience certainly was a learning curve for me. One could undeniably say this is the loaf with which I learnt to bake bread. To knead the dough without tearing it, to not being heavy handed with flour, to shaping the dough without causing it to spread out, to finding a wash that will bring enough colour to the crust to compensate for the use of the fan forced mode of a convection microwave oven... It is also why the recipe didn't get posted before - I wanted to be sure of what I was doing before publishing it.

Robert May's French Bread

Adapted from Ilva Beretta's Lucullian Delights. (The recipe originally appears on Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery, 1977 as an adapted version of Robert May's French Bread. I had also referred to Aparna's My Diverse Kitchen for some of the details.)

  1. Flour, preferably a mixture of all purpose and wheat flours in equal quantities - 4 cups 
  2. A mixture of Water and Milk, preferably in 3:1 ratio.) - 300 ml (See Notes.)
  3. Active Dry Yeast - 2 tsp., slightly heaping. (Or use 15 gm of fresh yeast)
  4. Egg Whites - 2
  5. Sugar - 2 scant tsp. (Not in the original recipe. You most probably won't need it. See Notes.)
  6. Salt - 2 scant tsp.

Warm the water and milk mixture over a gentle heat. Take a portion of it in a small bowl and dissolve the yeast and sugar in it. Leave aside for about ten minutes for the yeast to proof. (Since the quantity of liquid is fixed, as opposed to the original recipe, you might as well proof the yeast in the entire water and milk mixture.)

In a small bowl beat the egg whites till they just begin to froth. Once the yeast has proofed, combine it with the beaten egg whites,  the rest of the liquid, salt and about three quarters of the flour mix in a large bowl.

Mix and add just enough flour to make a shaggy mass. Now place the dough onto the counter and knead as usual for a bread, taking care to add just enough flour. (For the type of flours that I used, there always has been a little flour left over.)

Leave the dough to rise for 45 minutes to an hour, by which time it should have turned soft, light and almost doubled up. Set apart a bit of dough, if you plan to make patterns on top of the bread. (I didn't, as my decorating skills are questionable, not to mention objectionable.) Now, divide the dough in two, shape each into a boule (or a long roll). Cover with a light cloth or round bowls and leave to regain volume. I leave the dough to rise on top of a parchment paper placed on a flat pan, covered with a large bowl. This should take half an hour to three quarters of an hour.

Depending on how long your oven takes to preheat, preheat it to 230°C at a suitable time. (I do mine to 220°C since my oven won't go higher than that.) 

Once the dough has risen, decorate it with the dough that was set apart or just make slashes. (The knife that I chose was not up to the mark and I had to sort of plunge it back and forth through the dough as is evident from the photos. Use a thin and very sharp blade for the job.) Apply a wash if needed immediately before the loaves are going into the oven. (I do a milk wash as it is otherwise impossible to brown the crust in my oven.) 

To mimic a progressively falling oven, I baked the bread at 220°C for the first ten minutes, 200°C for the next ten minutes and 180°C for the last eight to ten minutes. (The bread should be done by about that time. You might need to check at around 25 minutes. Also see notes.)
Slice the bread only once it has cooled completely. I like to finish it off on the same day as it is baked.

  1. The original recipe calls for warming the flours along with salt in a very tepid oven. Except for one previous trial, I skipped this step.
  2. The original recipe calls for a varying amount of liquid (0.5 pint to 12 oz (1 to 1 and a 1/2 cups.)) . It doesn't work well for me to do it that way. I always work with a fixed liquid amount and variable flour quantity to keep myself sane. However, you can adapt it to suit your comfort.
  3. Traditional French breads are 'Flour, Yeast, Water, Salt' affairs. However, I add a bit of sugar (A scant two teaspoons) in the recipe so as to achieve a better crust in my oven. You won't need it if you are using a normal oven.
  4. The original recipe specifies a baking temperature of 230°C for the first fifteen minutes, after which the loaves are recommended to be covered with bowls to prevent the crust from getting too hard. (As mentioned above, I took a slightly different path.
  5. The recipe can be halved very easily and that is how I have made the bread most of the time.
  6. The post is part of the 10th Edition of 'World Bread Day - 2015(on October 16) event hosted by Zorra at 1x umr├╝hren bitte aka kochtopf.


  1. All I can say is "WOW"!!! That is a hell of a bread... seriously! First of all it look so pretty... love its crust, and love that it is healthy as well... I don't know if I would bake a bread like this, especially at home when nothing moves apart from the normal white sandwich bread... :)

    1. Thanks a lot, Rafee.

      I know. French bread might not be everyone's choice and we all like our white flour. Ha ha ;) It is good freshly baked though.

  2. Thank you for this very interesting post and of course for the wonderful loaf for World Bread Day!

    1. Thanks a lot, Zorra. It was fun participating in it and of course, thanks for hosting it.

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