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Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

“Of Baking Manchets,” from Gervase Markham’s The English Hus-wife (1615)

Manchet bread, a 1615 light wheat loaf

This recipe dates from a time when wheat was scarce and the bread made with it was therefore regarded almost with awe. Manchets are the name for the finest type of wheat bread. In his discourse on brewing and baking, Markham also offers "cheate" bread, the next level down from manchet in terms of the coarseness of the grains used. The lowest of all is not given a name, but Markham describes it as "bread for your hinde servants which is the coursest bread for mans use."

Certainly Markham, like many aristocrats of his day, had no compunctions about asserting a social—and a bread--hierarchy! Nevertheless, he was on to something as to the excellent taste and texture of the manchet. And he wasn't alone in his preferences. As one sixteenth-century Englishman exclaimed, “I do love manchet breade, and great [loaves] the whiche be well mowlded and thorowe baken, the [bran] abstracted and abjected [i.e., removed]; and that is good for all ages.” Young and old, had they the means, could enjoy their manchets.

In New England, settled by English people shortly after the publication of Markham’s book, the region’s proverbially rocky soil, along with periodic destructive fungus infestations, called "the blast," made for disappointing wheat harvests. So on this side of the Atlantic as on the other, manchet bread continued to be a rare and precious treat. In our age of wheat abundance, light wheat bread may no longer seem so special. But we’re here to tell you that a “well mowlded and thorowe baken” manchet loaf is still, almost four hundred years later, worth the effort to make it. Its texture strikes a perfect balance between the lightness of white bread and the firmness of whole wheat. We can testify that its aroma as it bakes and cools is virtually irresistible!

The Ingredients
We followed the recommendations of the editors of an eighteenth-century English manuscript cookbook, cited in our commentary on this recipe in Northern Hospitality, to create the wholemeal base for our manchets. To get this light but still sturdy whole wheat mixture, we combined 60% all-purpose flour with 40% whole wheat flour. This produced a blend from which about 17% of the bran had been removed. In other words, the whitest bread of those earlier times when white bread was esteemed above all other types wasn’t really (from our point of view in a world of mechanized milling) white at all!

3/5 lb. (272 grams) all-purpose flour
2/5 lb. (182 grams) whole wheat flour
½ heaping tsp. ground sea salt
1 pkg. or 5/16 oz. (8.75 grams) Hodgson Mill active-dry yeast
½ heaping tsp. brown sugar
1 cup warm water

The Flour Mixture
We sifted and weighed the all-purpose flour, weighed the whole wheat flour, mixed them together, and then mixed the salt into the flour blend.

The Yeast
We dissolved the yeast and sugar in half of the warm water. After the yeast had been sufficiently activated, in about 8 minutes, we added the remaining water.

The Dough
We made an indentation in the flour/salt mixture and poured in our barm (activated yeast), proceeding first to work the barm and flour/salt together by hand, then to knead it with our standing mixer’s dough hook for 7 minutes.


Now that the dough was “well mowlded” into the rounded form that manchets took, it was time to let it rise. We placed it in a lightly floured mixing bowl and covered it with a dish towel. After 2¼ hours, we gave our dough a good punch, rekneaded it for 2 minutes, and returned it covered to the mixing bowl for 1¾ hours additional rising. 

About 20 minutes before the rising time was to be completed, we preheated our oven to 450º. At the conclusion of rising, there were two more steps to be taken before the loaf was ready to be “thorowe baken.” Markham says that to assist further rising while in the oven, the dough should be “scorcht about the wast”; that is, lightly cut all around the circumference with a sharp knife. He adds that the baker should also “prick it with your knife in the top”; that is, make several small slits in the top with the same sharp knife. The sharpest knife we had was a box cutter, so that's what we used. 

The Baking
Upon placing our manchet loaf in the oven, we immediately reduced the temperature to 375º and left it to bake, checking every once in a while to be sure that the crust was not burning. After 50 minutes, the loaf looked ready, so we took it out of the oven and tested it for doneness by tapping its bottom. Hearing the telltale hollow sound that means the bread is thoroughly baked, we placed it on a wire rack to cool for 30 minutes.

The Results
Then we helped ourselves to a slice or two. With a slightly nutty, wholemeal taste and a subtly balanced texture, this bread makes it onto our own personal best recipes list. Three hundred and ninety-six years after first appearing in print, Markham's directions for baking manchet bread produce a beautiful loaf.

The original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 351.

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