Maslin, and Being Surprised at How Good it Was

Maslin Bread Cross-Section

In the days before we could hop down to a shop buy a loaf of bread — in the days before you could even hop down to the mill shop and buy a bag of flour — us North­ern European folk had to rely on some­thing a bit more basic. That stuff was called maslin and was, in a fash­ion, bread.

The word — maslin — comes from the French mis­celin for mix. A mix is pre­cisely what maslin was. Wheat, the best of flours, was too expens­ive for South­ern­ers to afford and too not avail­able for North­ern­ers. Bar­ley exis­ted copi­ously since it was essen­tial for the pro­duc­tion of ale, and ale remains essen­tial for the pro­duc­tion of just about any­thing else in Bri­tain. Peas were cheap so were gen­er­ally chucked in in some pro­por­tion. Rye’s a hardy old grain that any eejit can grow, and oats really aren’t that bad.

A mix thus chosen, crudely based on whichever star­va­tion rations were most avail­able, a batch of maslin was star­ted. These batches would be noth­ing if not jolly large. The medi­aeval Brit ate nearly one-and-a-half kilos of bread a day — some eighty per­cent of his diet — so a fam­ily of five would have needed about 42 mod­ern bagged loaves a week. That’s a lot of bread.

The really repel­lent thing about maslin is that it’s got a bit of a glu­ten prob­lem. Wheat, not coin­cid­ent­ally, is just about the most glu­ten rich cer­eal out there. Bread with only a very small amount of wheat is thus lack­ing in glu­ten. Bread without glu­ten has a tend­ency to turn into a sort of baked cake of wall­pa­per paste.

This is cer­tainly what I expec­ted maslin to taste like when I first made it. My mis­giv­ings were pretty big. Quite sur­pris­ingly, how­ever, what I got was far from unpleas­ant. In fact, it was rather good. Doubt­ing my own tastebuds, I took my maslin on tour, offer­ing bits of it to every­one I could find (and, ser­i­ously, I gave bits of maslin to more than a hun­dred people by the end) and an over­whelm­ing major­ity of them com­pletely agreed with me.

Fear­ing that I might be ask­ing a lead­ing ques­tion (‘Isn’t this the best bread you’ve ever tasted? Huh? Huh?’) I told them it was dis­gust­ing, that I’d pay them to eat it, that an old woman had tried some and died shortly after­wards. Still they praised and still they raved.

Unlock then your medi­aeval for­bears’ accu­mu­lated memor­ies and make a maslin for posterity’s sake.

Medieval Maslin Bread

Maslin

  • 200g rye or spelt flour
  • 100g gram or chick­pea flour
  • 50g rolled oats
  • 75g other flours: buck­wheat flour, bar­ley flour etc
  • 5g instant yeast
  • 10g salt
  • 200g water
  1. Begin by put­ting all of the dry ingredi­ent into a bowl and mix­ing them together.
  2. Empty onto a board and make a well in the middle.
  3. Pour the water into this well and begin mix­ing with your fin­gers, work­ing slowly outwards.
  4. When a ball of dough has been formed (it’ll have the con­sist­ency of a firm tooth­paste) begin to knead. Use a machine if you like.
  5. There’s not much glu­ten present to activ­ate, so there won’t be any notice­able change.
  6. After five minutes, place onto a small bak­ing sheet (or prefer­ably into a prov­ing bas­ket) and leave in the fridge for 2448 hours.
  7. Pre­heat oven to 230ºC, then put the proofed loaf into it and cook for 30 minutes.

White Bread and some Highlights from its History

White Tin Loaf

It’s a shame to have to say it, but chomp­ing on grey lumps of peas­ant bread is no way to spend a twenty-first cen­tury life. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for that kind of thing and all that — it just gets a bit wear­ing sometimes.

I bet the folks who get to eat up the leftovers at Poilâné and Tartine know what I’m talk­ing about. Occa­sion­ally, betrayal of our dis­tant ancest­ors’ iron con­sti­tu­tions though it may be, us mod­ern­ers want soft white bread.

There are a few basic ways of get­ting soft bread. One, a good 500 years old by now, pro­duces some­thing that we used to all call the manchet. Pretty light­ish, scar­ily white in col­our (espe­cially given that it exis­ted at a time when white flour was a pretty ser­i­ous indul­gence) and made more uneco­nom­ical at any cost, manchet loaves were the height of panary sophistication.

Maybe pre­dict­ably, there aren’t many strong themes that run through the sur­viv­ing recipes. Save for the basic shape of the loaf and the fact that it was white, manchets were basic­ally made from whatever was avail­able — given that it was still scarce enough to be expens­ive and desir­able. Typ­ic­ally though, there’ll be an unusu­ally large amount of but­ter or lard, maybe some cream and maybe some sugar. The fat effect­ively softens the crumb, kind of account­ing for the rel­at­ive soft­ness of bready bit in the middle of a good yeasted bun.

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Fam­ously and recently, the Chor­ley­wood Bread Pro­cess has kindly delivered to us the most glor­i­ously, bril­liantly (and, I’ll pro­pose, dis­gust­ingly) squishy, soft, unsub­stan­tial slices. The super­mar­ket bagged loaf. These use all sorts of clever things to stop them from ever being any­thing but soft.

A vari­ety of pre­ser­vat­ives help the slices (why call it a loaf if its been cut into six­teen pieces?) stay as moist as they were when they left the oven. In fact, as soon as the loaves leave the oven they’re sent on a cir­cuit of a great big, humid­ity con­trolled cool­ing cham­ber. The con­sequence is that, rather than evap­or­at­ing a load of that really hot water that formerly sat­ur­ated the dough, it’s just soaked in.

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Improvers give the crumb its del­ic­ate uni­form­ity — my favour­ite is soya flour since no one in their right mind could con­demn it as a ‘dan­ger­ous chem­ical’. For many years, the same people who com­plained about the sorry state of mod­ern bread would chomp on soya beans instead — a mildly (okay, barely) ironic pon­der­ing. In fair­ness, some of the other addit­ives turned out to be probable/possible/potential carcinogens.

My way of get­ting soft bread involves a tin (to save that daily minute of hard cogit­a­tion, try­ing to work out how to deal with yet another banana-shaped slice), flour, yeast, water and salt. [Incid­ent­ally, fast action yeast is fast because it’s got ascor­bic acid mixed in with it. Yeast likes a more acidic envir­on­ment, so works hard and puffs the bread up faster.] These four ingredi­ents (plus acid and plus tin and plus a heap of time) work bril­liantly and in har­mony to pro­duce the simplest and most bril­liantly soft bread I know how to make.

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Bread: Soft, White and Tinned

To make two, 2lb loaves:

  • 1kg strong white flour
  • 650g warm water (use 50-100g more in North America)
  • 5g fast action yeast
  • 20g salt

OR, to make one 2lb loaf:

  • 500g strong white flour
  • 325g warm water (use 25-50g more in North America)
  • 3g fast action yeast
  • 10g salt
  1. Mix together all the ingredi­ents. If you have a machine that can knead (includ­ing bread machines), use it. Oth­er­wise, knead by hand — prefer­ably without adding any flour to the sur­face — for 1015 minutes.
  2. Place in a bowl, cover with cling­film and leave to rise in a warm place for 1 hour.
  3. Remove from bowl. If mak­ing two loaves, divide. Flat­ten each piece to the size of a din­ner plate, then roll tightly up and place in a loaf tin (with the seam facing down).
  4. Cover tins/tin with a large plastic bag and leave in a cool place (even a fridge if it’s warm — nat­ur­ally or due to any amount of cent­ral heat­ing) for 12 hours — overnight works well.
  5. After­wards, the dough in the tins should have risen nicely and filled the tins. Place in the oven at it’s hot­test tem­per­at­ure for up to half and hour.
  6. Eat fresh, but not fresh from the oven.

How to Improvise a Panettone Tin

How to Improvise a Panettone Tin

Yep, panettone’s mar­vel­lous. Unfor­tu­nately — just like most things — it’s not at its best in long-life, vac-packed, slightly stale long-life form. If you’re recoil­ing in hor­ror at hear­ing that, read on.

Mak­ing the stuff — as I’m about to explain in lots of detail — requires noth­ing that super­mar­kets don’t sell and will cost less than buy­ing it, will taste bet­ter and will make a proper present. The prob­lem? They’re a stu­pid shape. Who keeps a cake tin that’s six inches in dia­meter and near enough fif­teen tall? No one sain.

How to Improvise a Panettone Tin

You could make it in a nor­mal cake tin, but that’s a bit of a com­prom­ise. What you need to do is find some­thing — nay, any­thing — that’s metal, round and about six inches wide. I found an alu­minium milk pan. Oth­ers use cut­lery drain­ers, cof­fee tins or just clever arrange­ments of paper and string. I’m not clever, get cof­fee in bags and, as far as I know, our cut­lery drains itself.

How to Improvise a Panettone Tin

So, start with your round con­tainer. Don’t auto­mat­ic­ally write off sauce­pans with plastic handles, by the way — many of them look placky but are actu­ally heat res­ist­ant to some degree. Obvi­ously, don’t try any­thing silly without check­ing with the man­u­fac­turer first… (etc, sorry for the self-interested back-covering babble).

Inside this tin/pan you’re going to need an office stapler and some greaseproof paper. If you’ve got thicker brown pack­ing paper, that’ll help too. Begin by cut­ting about 25 inches (65cm) of brown or greaseproof paper. Fold it in half, along the long edge, then fold over the long, loose edges by about a cen­ti­metre to bind them together. Roll this around a rolling pin to make it easier to fit to the pan. Feed one end of this strip inside the other, so that you get a big cyl­in­der whose size you can change pretty easily.

Put it into your tin and adjust it so that it fits, then take it out and staple it in pos­i­tion — once at the top and once at the bot­tom. Return the paper to the tin then cut a 20 inch (50 cm) length of greaseproof paper. Use this to line the paper col­lar as you would a nor­mal cake tin, fold­ing the bot­tom edge in to give it a base and fold­ing the top over to give it the right height. Staple this in place. Fin­ish with a circle of greaseproof paper at the bottom.

And there you have it. Proof the dough, and through it the oven — just don’t go too hot or you’re paper will start to smoulder. (Below 180°C or 355°F shouldn’t present any issues.)

How to Improvise a Panettone Tin

A Bewitching Bun and the Simple Things

Brioche buns

There’s some­thing slightly spe­cial about bread. Eliza­beth David puts on her stern-and-matronly voice when she says some­thing along the lines of, ‘there’s no demand for cakes and sweet things in a house where good, fresh bread is always avail­able’. From an unlikely corner, David Mitchell comes out in sup­port of the gen­eral prin­ciple, prais­ing the immor­tal deli­cious­ness of bread and but­ter in favour of the fash­ions and fads of caviar and sugar.

This is cer­tainly my philo­sophy. A lump of incred­ibly decent bread will always trump that sickly great big Star­bucks muffin, reek­ing of bak­ing powder and mar­gar­ine. Let’s point out the dif­fer­ence between fla­vour and taste. Taste is what the tongue picks up: sweet, sour, salty and so on – a bit of a blunt instru­ment, but it can tell the dif­fer­ence between bacon and chocol­ate. Fla­vour is alto­gether more inter­est­ing. Fla­vour is the sum of all our senses, work­ing together to build a pro­file of every food (whether eaten or not). Smell is prob­ably the most import­ant com­pon­ent – far out­weigh­ing ‘taste’. Fla­vour is the dif­fer­ence between a salty strip of leather and a rasher of bacon.

The major­ity of sweet goods have heaps of taste. The premise, really, is to pro­duce a kind of taste over­load. Take Snick­ers bars. They com­bine sweet and salty – some­thing that just doesn’t hap­pen in nature – and are riot­ously pop­u­lar by con­sequence. What bread has is very little taste but the most fant­ast­ic­ally com­plic­ated fla­vour. Bread is infin­itely more mys­ter­i­ous and bewitch­ing than wine is, but has suffered too much abuse from unin­ter­ested pop­u­la­tion that’s allowed the his­tor­ic­ally over reg­u­lated bak­ing industry to stag­nate. If we all cared about the fla­vour of our bread, we’d attach value to that fla­vour and the baker­ies would soon find that fla­vour was the route to big­ger profits.

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That’s not going to hap­pen though. In the Fif­teenth Cen­tury, Bri­tons ate about one-and-a-half large loaves of bread a day. Hardly sur­pris­ingly, that fig­ures been fall­ing for some time now.

…and even I’ve got a bit bored of plain bread and but­ter. So, I trumped for the next best thing: yeast buns. Fla­vour – as I’ve kind of hin­ted – is what this dough is all about. Sim­pli­city of ingredi­ents is what’s really import­ant here. All the fla­vour comes from but­ter, eggs, flour and the action of vari­ous microor­gan­isms. A really slow fer­ment lets that yeast work won­ders, cre­at­ing an almost savoury, light grass­i­ness that’s genu­inely unlike any­thing I’ve ever come across.

Solilem from Le Livre de Pâtisserie

In a past life, these might have been called Sally Lunns a Geor­gian cor­rup­tion of the French ‘solei­lune’, itself basic­ally a bri­oche. By way of evid­ence, here’s a table in the style of Emma [from Poires au Chocolat] that just about illus­trates my point.  Michel Roux’s is at the top with his fairly ubi­quit­ous for­mula for bri­oche. Jules Gouffé recor­ded some­thing he called Solilem in 1873 book, Le Livre de Pâtis­serie, to be cooked in oval moulds. Mrs Rundell is an Eng­lish cook­ery book writer whose recipe from 1806’s A New Sys­tem of Domestic Cook­ery is amongst the old­est around.

/gFlourYeastMilkSaltEggBut­terSugar
Michel Roux500157030035030
Me1605703505035
Mrs Rundell90730568227
Jules Gouffé100030202040025030
Ratios
Michel Roux1.000.030.140.000.600.700.06
Me1.000.030.440.020.310.310.22
Mrs Rundell1.000.030.630.000.000.250.00
Jules Gouffé1.000.030.020.020.400.350.03
AVERAGE1.000.030.310.010.330.380.08
/g2006612667615

(Yeast is fresh; milk and cream are used inter­change­ably; 1 egg is assumed to weigh 50g [not an entirely sens­ible assumption])

My cakes have the most in com­mon with Mrs Rundell’s, with the addi­tion of a panettone-like sugar level. I don;t have a sweet tooth, and these cakes don’t taste espe­cially sweet, but they are ‘sweet cakes’ so deserve a decent por­tion of the stuff. They’re for eat­ing on their own, not with but­ter and jam — that would mask the, and I’ve not said it enough yet, fla­vour

Bewitch­ing Buns

    • 160g strong white flour (1 cup + 2 or 3 table­spoons) — please use scales though
    • 3g instant yeast (half a teaspoon)
    • 70g milk (a third of a cup)
    • 1 egg
    • 35g sugar
    • 50g but­ter

(If you’re not European and dead set against using scales: 1 cup + 3 table­spoons white bread flour; half a tea­spoon of instant yeast, a third of a cup of milk, 1 egg, 3 table­spoons sugar, 4 table­spoons butter.)

  1. Place all but the but­ter in a bowl and mix to a sticky dough or bat­ter. A stand mixer would be a really use­ful tool here.
  2. Add the softened but­ter after 5 minutes and mix in. If knead­ing by hand, turn onto a lightly floured sur­face and knead gently. Very con­ser­vat­ively, add flour to inhibit stick­ing — try­ing to scrape up the dough that sticks to the table first.
  3. Once a glu­ten struc­ture has clearly developed, return to the bowl and cover with cling film.
  4. Refri­ger­ate for 1224 hours.
  5. Remove the bowl from the fridge and place in a cool place to rise for another 1224 hours.
  6. Gently scrape the dough out onto a floured sur­face. Divide into eight equal pieces, care­fully shape each by pulling the edges round to give it a taut top.
  7. Put the dough pieces into a muffin tin, cover with a large plastic bag and allow to rise again for up to 12 hours.
  8. Pre­heat an oven to 180°C (360°F). Bake the ovens for 1015 minutes. They’ll brown quickly and will still feel soft when done. You may want to remove them from the tin for the last 5 minutes so that the sides brown.
  9. These cakes are so light that they cool in about two minutes. If you want, top them with glacé icing or a sugar syrup before serving.