Oven Cakes

Alyssa once called me a “yeast whisperer.” I love baking with yeast — no-knead bread and flatbreads make regular appearances in my kitchen and challah, herb-speckled dinner rolls, baguettes, and babka emerge from the oven on special occasions. A few weeks ago I was looking over the recipes I’ve made over the course of this project and I realized I hadn’t pulled out my yeast once. It was high time to correct this oversight.

This recipe for “Oven Cakes,” fluffy leavened rolls, comes from Ms Codex 644. I wrote about this manuscript a few weeks ago about in our “Cheape Soupe” post and these rolls would certainly pair with that soup.

The Recipe

oven cakes

Oven Cakes                            Mrs: Metcalfe

2 pound flour, dissolve a 1/4 pound of Butter
in as much warm milk as will wet the
flour. Beat 2 eggs, yolks, & whites very
light, in a spoonful of good yeast mix all
together. let it stand to rise when risen
make it into flat cakes, the size of a Muffin

Our Recipe

This recipe makes a delicious and versatile roll that could accompany soup, add to a dinner spread, provide a foundation for a fierce sandwich, or make a mean midnight snack. As a yeast baking aficionado, I need to do additional research on the status of yeast in the eighteenth century, before Pasteur identified it as a living organism. My normal sources had very little information on how one would add a “spoonful of good yeast” to this recipe in the 1700s. I assume wild yeast and something like a sourdough starter may have been involved. The dried yeast I rely on certainly would not have been available. In addition, what we now call “English muffins” are (still) simply called “muffins” in the UK. I flattened the cakes into round disks based on what I know about muffins and the recipe’s clear instructions.

The only thing I added to this recipe was salt. (And, honestly, I’ll likely add some more salt the next time I make them.) I halved the original here and it made eight rolls.

1lb flour (3 2/3 c)
1/8 lb unsalted butter (4 T)
1 egg
1 c milk
1 t yeast
1/2 t salt (I plan to try 1 t next time.)

Measure all ingredients. Melt the butter, heat the milk, and lightly beat the egg. In a large bowl, mix together flour, butter, and milk until combined. Add the egg, then the yeast. The mixture will be sticky, moist, and somewhat unmanageable. I didn’t knead this dough, but I did stir it vigorously. When everything is well-combined and the dough is smooth, if unwieldy, cover with a towel and leave to rise in a warm place for an hour and a half.

When the dough has risen and springs back to the touch, preheat oven to 400 F. My dough didn’t quite double in size, but it did plump up nicely. Divide the dough into eight rolls and pat into round disks. Butter two baking sheets. Leave ample room between rolls.

Bake for 10-15 min, until golden on the top and firm on the bottom. Try to let the rolls cool down before eating them. Serve warm.

The Results

I devoured these. I ate the first one hot out of the oven. It smelled vaguely yeasty, but it was buttery and delightful. After the first few bites, I brought out my current favorite spreads: Lydia Pyne‘s strawberry jam and “Three Citrus Marmalade” made by the local Fallen Fruit from Rising Women project. I ate some rolls with almond butter for breakfast: I ate some more with leftover chilli for dinner. This is a recipe that will make a return appearance in my kitchen. I look forward to making a batch with chopped fresh herbs, nuts and dried fruit, sprinkled with seeds, and/or brushed with an egg glaze.

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