2013 At Home in the Adirondacks
Slice of History
Recreating old-time bread
by Hallie Bond
THE YEAR: 1795. The place: the wilds of the western Adirondacks. A small party of surveyors under the direction of Frenchmen Simon Desjardins and Pierre Pharoux is camped on the upper reaches of the Black River. They have come to civilize the wilderness—in their dreams, the track they hacked through the woods will become a highway crowded with commerce leading to a bustling port on the Black River, gateway to the great inland seas of the continent. But ﬁrst things ﬁrst. A community of civilized Frenchmen, even a huddle of log cabins in the wilderness, must have bread.
The Frenchmen ﬁrst tried baking ﬂat “galettes” of ﬂour and water in the ashes of their campﬁres. They found them “very ﬂat in taste,” according to Desjardins’s journal. Then they came up with a better idea, anticipating by over a century a staple of Boy and Girl Scout cookouts. “After kneading the ﬂour on a large piece of bark,” Desjardins reported, “the dough was twisted like a ribbon around a small stick, stripped of bark and smooth, which was stuck into the ground, with one end tilted toward the ﬁre.”
The galettes and ribbons were but poor substitutes for the bread of home. Eventually the pioneers located suitable clay and built a bread oven, a hearth of ﬂat stones which supported a clay dome, hardened by burning a ﬁre inside for three days. Voilà! “Our bread is very superior to that cooked under the ashes,” wrote Desjardins.
Those original loaves of French bread were undoubtedly raised with yeast. Yeast is a living organism, a single-celled fungus, and needs to be tended. How did they keep the yeast alive? I suspect that nestled deep in that ﬁrst barrel of ﬂour Desjardins hauled into the backcountry was a lump of uncooked bread dough from the last farm he had passed.
Storing yeast this way was traditional among the French-Canadians along the St. Lawrence, and it is why colonial housewives used a dough box. (Antique collectors know a dough box as a lidded wooden box on legs.) To modern artisan bakers this lump of dough is a natural leaven. To many bread lovers it’s known as sourdough. The lactobacilli that move in with the yeast create lactic acid that gives the bread a slightly sour taste—but also makes the mixture inhospitable to bacteria and mold.
I’m not sure how long yeast cells will last inside a barrel of ﬂour, but I can tell you that they’ll certainly survive for a week. When I baked a batch this way the result was not the lightest bread I’ve ever made, but it tasted great. Growing enough yeast cells to raise the bread by gradually adding more ﬂour and water to the lump of dough took me three days to come up with a loaf of bread.
In the 19th century not everybody liked the slightly sour taste of naturally leavened bread. Many Adirondackers wanted a sweeter loaf that they could make more quickly. Instead of storing their yeast in a box of ﬂour they kept it active in a slurry of starchy yeast-food, usually grated potatoes and water. That glop would also grow all sorts of molds and bacteria, so the bakers steeped hops in the water before adding the potatoes and yeast.
Hops are mildly antibacterial, which is why brewers traditionally add them to the fermenting mixture that ends up as beer. My white bread leavened with liquid yeast infused with hops I gathered from an old homesite in Newcomb had no beery aftertaste. The next time you’re prowling around a cellar hole in the woods, scan tree trunks and branches overhead. You may see hop vines that were planted there by some long-gone farm wife.
Liquid yeast keeps well and does not need to be fed like sourdough, but it must not freeze. Remember to hold back a cup or so when you get to the bottom of the crock so you can inoculate the new slurry. Then let the yeast cells grow a day or two until the crock is well populated. With either method—sourdough or potato liquid—you need never buy yeast again.
Some Adirondackers brewed their own beer, and they could skip the whole bother of maintaining a crock of liquid yeast. In the 1870s Julia Baker Kellogg brewed beer and baked bread on her farm near Minerva, using the same yeast for both. When she wanted to bake, she scooped up a bit of yeast from the bottom of the beer barrel in the cellar.
Early Adirondack beer was not much like the barley-based English-style ales beloved of modern home brewers. Kellogg’s was less alcoholic and nearly still, with a little ﬁzz but no head, and the sugar she fed her yeast came from molasses, not sprouted grain.
If you are a home brewer, try this method of making bread. Unless you really like the taste of hops, I wouldn’t recommend using the yeast from a batch brewed with commercial home-brew ingredients, but the yeast from a batch of molasses beer works ﬁne. By the time the yeast gets to the bread, you can’t taste the hops at all.
The French community of Castorland died a’borning, but soon other groups of people, including many Yankees, moved into the Adirondacks and stayed, bringing their taste for bread with them. Most preferred bread made with wheat ﬂour, which, because of its gluten, rises well into a soft, light loaf. Wheat ﬂour was sometimes hard to get and expensive. The answer was to use other grains, either by themselves or to stretch the wheat ﬂour. Milled rye, corn, oats, barley and buckwheat all found their way into Adirondack loaves. Fans of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books will remember that a delicious part of Malone “Farmer Boy” Almanzo Wilder’s Sunday dinner was rye ’n’ Injun bread —“Injun” here being “Indian meal” or cornmeal.
The ﬁrst thing you will notice if you try baking bread with grains that have no gluten is that the loaf is heavier. These mixed-grain versions are not so much frames for sandwiches but stand-alone foods.
In November 1908 farm wife Lucelia Clark gave her 16-year-old daughter Gladys a big responsibility: keep house for husband and father Henry Clark while Lucelia was away from their isolated farm near Cranberry Lake. On the 28th, Gladys confessed in the farm diary, “We did not set emptyings this noon so I did not mix bread to night.” This was a serious problem: it seems that Gladys had run out of yeast and had meant to make what is commonly called “salt-rising bread.” Even that failed.
Salt-rising bread works through the action of a bacterium rather than a fungus. The emptyings were probably a mixture of cornmeal, ﬂour, salt and hot milk. When left in a warm place (105 degrees or so) Clostridium perfringans will move in and start fermenting. When the mixture becomes puffy (and begins to smell like ripe soft cheese), you can carefully mix in more ﬂour, rise again and bake loaves. Don’t lick out the bowl. C. perfringans, ingested live, can cause food poisoning.
Making salt-rising bread is tricky. The key is to keep the culture warm enough, long enough, for the bacteria to take hold. This is around 115 degrees for eight to 10 hours. I had to set up a Rube Goldberg–like arrangement of blankets, a Coleman cooler and a gooseneck lamp to incubate my bacteria overnight. Gladys Clark had it easier. She had a wood-ﬁred cookstove, probably with a warming oven close to the stovepipe, a great place for C. perfringans to get a start.
So how did Henry Clark get the carbs so essential in a farmer’s diet when his daughter couldn’t produce a loaf of bread? What about the river drivers or hunting parties? Loaf bread, with its temperamental leavening and its long rising time, was impractical for them. They could stoke up on pancakes, pan breads and biscuits, all leavened with saleratus, the forerunner of baking soda. Campﬁre corn bread, cooked in a cast-iron Dutch oven amid the coals, uses baking powder but faithfully replicates traditional backcountry fare.
We may think of pancakes as food for a leisurely weekend breakfast, but Adirondackers of a century ago ate them at any time. Pancakes made of buckwheat are probably a legacy of the French-Canadians who came to the mountains to farm and work in the lumber woods; traditional ployes are thin, buckwheat crêpes eaten by the basketful as part of every meal. The Yankee version appears to have been heavier; Keene Valley guide Bill Nye made some that a client called “dog-chokers.”
Around 1910 the Sisson and White Lumber Company hired Beatrice LaVigne to cook for the lumberjacks at its camp near Colton. The company paid her more than anyone else in camp for feeding its 100 men. This involved baking 200 loaves of bread every other day—a daunting task, but easier than it had been for cooks a couple of generations before. In 1910 Mrs. LaVigne could use “magic yeast,” a commercial product packaged in little rubbery cakes that had been developed by the Fleishman Company. Compressed yeast was reliable and produced uniform results and certainly helped Mrs. LaVigne hang on to her lucrative job. Can you imagine what 100 hungry lumberjacks would have said if she, like Gladys Clark, had failed to deliver the bread?
Sourdough Buckwheat Pancakes (a variation of traditional ployes)
Yield: 4 servings
2 cups sourdough starter
2 eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup buckwheat flour
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ginger
In large bowl, mix the sourdough starter, eggs, vegetable oil, sugar and vanilla together.
Stir in the salt, buckwheat flour, all-purpose flour, baking soda and ginger. Mix until just combined.
Adjust consistency with more flour or some water, depending on how thick your starter is. The batter should be pourable, but not runny.
Heat a griddle to 400˚. Lightly grease griddle and ladle ¼ cup of batter onto hot greased griddle. Cook for about 3 minutes or until top is full of bubbles.
Use a spatula to turn over and cook the other side for an additional 2 minutes or so.
Hallie Bond is former curator at the Adirondack Museum, in Blue Mountain Lake. She and regional chef Stephen Topper coauthored an upcoming Adirondack cookbook, to be published by Gibbs Smith in spring 2014. More of the pair’s recipes for historical Adirondack breads can be found at www.adirondacklife.com.