RedHeadedGirl’s Historical Kitchen: Sally Lunns

At the end of the summer, of my best friends went to Colonial Williamsburg for some teacher something something retreat something thing. That’s not important. What is important is that she picked up the cookbook of recipes from the Raleigh Tavern Bakery, and as I flipped through it, I happened on a recipe for Sally Lunns.

Now wait a second, says I. Isn’t that the name of those Bath Buns that are, like, super well known?

Yes! They are! Only the Sally Lunn recipe that Sally Lunn’s Historic Eating House has is not the same as the one from Raleigh Tavern. Their historic recipe allegedly came to Bath in the 1680s from a French Huguenot woman escaping one of the waves of persecution (and the fact that they don’t have her sneaking the recipe across the English Channel like, sewn into her skirts is a failing in their storytelling, I think). (It’s also pretty much known to be actual bullshit, but don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.)

The finished product.

Anyway, their recipe is more brioche-y (meaning, more butter) than the one from the Raleigh Tavern (and there’s a nose-in-the-air section on the website that enjoins the reader to NOT confuse the Bath Bun of Bath with the Bath Bun of London. THEY ARE VERY DIFFERENT.)

(Side bar: if anyone knows where I can get a Bath Bun of London in London I am ALL EARS and stomach.)

So the Raleigh Tavern recipe is dated as 1770, and is originally from the granddaughter of Governor Spotswood of Virginia:

“Beat four eggs well; then melt a large Tablespoonful of Butter, put it in a Teacup of warm Water, and pour it to the Eggs with a Teaspoon of Salt and a Teacup of Yeast (this means Potato Yeast); beat in a Quart of Flour making the Batter stiff enough for a Spoon to stand in. Put it to rise before the Fire the Night before. Beat it over in the Morning, grease your Cake-mould and put it in Time enough to rise before baking. Should you want it for Supper, make it up at 10 o’Clock in the Morning in the Winter and 12 o’Clock in the Summer.”

I also have a book of cookery manuscripts from 18th Century Britain (Egg Pies, Moss Cakes, and Pigeons Like Puffins, by Vincent DiMarco), which includes one from 1778, from a woman in Bath, which has a recipe for Sally Lun, and… let’s see if you notice what’s missing:

“A pint of cream,  put a piece of Butter about the size of a Wallnut in it, put it on the fire & make it just Blood warm. the yolks of three Eggs beat Fine, put in it one spoonfull & half of Good barm, mix your Cream, Eggs, & yeast together, then strain it through a Sive. Make it as stiff as Dough, then role it out to the size you would have it. Cut it in three, Butter it with a pound of Butter, a little Salt.”

Did you notice? THERE’S NO FLOUR.  (also the “make your dough like dough and roll it out as big as you want” cracks me the fuck up.) Also you have yeast (barm is the yeasty byproduct of brewing) but it doesn’t tell you to let it rise. I suspect this is like many family recipes that only part is written down because of course you know to add flour! Of course you do!

I mostly include the Bath recipe for comparison and hilarious capitalizations. I am going to try to do the Raleigh Tavern Sally Lunns from the original recipe and not use the modern interpretation the book gives me. This could be hilarious.

I beat four eggs, and then melted a tablespoonish lump of butter, mixed it with a literal teacup of warm water, some salt, and yeast.

Beaten eggs, water, butter, and yeast.

I suspect that “potato yeast” means a sourdough starter made from potatoes, which I do not have on hand, and really didn’t have time to make. I used regular dry yeast, and not a teacup, just a scant tablespoon or so.

Then I added in the flour. It ended up being around 3 cups, until it was stiff enough for a spoon to stand up in.

Dough with a spoon standing up in it, as the directions said.

I figured that a reasonable modern equivalent of setting the dough to rise before the fire was putting it in the cold oven overnight.

We're calling this a modern

It worked!

It rose! It's a very slack dough, but it rose!

In the morning, I beat the dough down (I saw some discussion that posited that “beat it down” meant “knead” after the first rise, but I didn’t do that this time), then put it in the tube pan for it’s second rise.  It was around 10 am, and I wasn’t back to actually bake it until 5 pm.

Beaten down dough, in the bundt cake pan.

I chose to use a tube pan because the modern interpretation called for it, and it’s the closest thing to a cake mold I could get at the time.

After being left to rise quietly for several hours. It did rise, some.

I baked at 375 for 45 minutes:

Finished product, cooling on the counter.

The taste is…uh. Well, there’s just not a lot of there there. It’s got a sour taste like it sourdoughed itself (which I think lends credence to the potato sourdough starter theory). It’s also got the chewy, almost tough sourdough texture (and I think I should have pulled it from the oven about five to ten minutes earlier. I’m not a sourdough fan, so I’m not thrilled with this version.

That said, I honestly think I could just do Sally Lunn variations for the next six months.


If you’re in the UK, RHG will be holding informal meetups in York, London, and Edinburgh!

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