Editor’s note: Merry Post has lived in Sullivan on Flanders Pond for two years. She worked as a book editor for more than 25 years. She has a master’s degree in museum studies, has worked in historic house museums and has published articles on regional Civil War history and on Shaker history. A member of the Culinary Historians of Boston, she is currently researching and writing a book on New England recipes and food fads of the 19th century.
By Merry Post
If your resolutions for the new year included a vow to eat healthier, here is a recipe for a traditional American bread that complements hearty vegetable soups or stews.
“Thirded bread” gets its name from the proportions of its main ingredients: roughly one-third cornmeal, one-third rye, and one-third wheat flour. This mixture of grains was popular in the first half of the 19th century as a way to stretch the more expensive wheat flour.
European settlers found it difficult to grow wheat, which is a somewhat fussy plant, in thin, stony New England soil. They were more successful with barley, rye and corn. Eventually, the colonists found places where they could cultivate wheat, e.g., along the Hudson River, in Pennsylvania, and in parts of Vermont.
But wheat flour remained expensive until sometime after the Erie Canal opened in 1825, which drastically reduced the price of shipping the grain from large, Midwestern flour mills to the East Coast.
Rye has less gluten than wheat flour, and cornmeal has no gluten at all. The strands of gluten proteins trap carbon dioxide bubbles given off by the fermenting yeast. Carbon dioxide bubbles expanding in a hot oven make bread rise and give it an airy texture. Fewer trapped bubbles result in denser bread.
So do not expect this dough to rise quite as much as an all-wheat bread. Thirded bread is sometimes dense but always flavorful and pleasantly redolent of molasses and corn. It tastes great toasted and buttered and goes particularly well with black bean or split pea soup.
The following recipe comes from “Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cookbook” of 1883, which was used as a textbook at the famous Boston Cooking School. Mary Lincoln (1844-1921) was the principal of the school; her instructions on bread-making echo advice of the dietary reformer Sylvester Graham.
Graham (1794-1851) was a Presbyterian minister who was influential in the temperance and vegetarian movements. He believed that eating meat and other stimulating foods led to unbridled lust and that unsifted whole wheat was essential to a healthy diet. Bread flour should be milled at home to eliminate the possibility of chemical additives, he instructed, and mothers should remain at home baking the family bread.
Only the mother of a family “appreciates the importance of good bread to their physical and moral welfare,” Graham declared. Mrs. Lincoln also exhorted women to bake their own bread and not to delegate this task to a servant or to purchase bakery bread. She resorted to flattery to persuade her readers, “There is no mechanical operation in cooking more fascinating than the deft, quick touches a natural kneader gives to a mass of dough.
“Young ladies with pretty hands can display them there quite as well as with embroidery, but the rings and bracelets should be left in the jewel case.”
Mrs. Lincoln also warned against wearing the tight dress sleeves that were fashionable in the 1880s when working with bread dough. “Perfect freedom for the muscles of the arms and chest is absolutely essential to the making and kneading of bread.”
1 envelope or 2½ tsps. active dry yeast
1 cup lukewarm water
½ cup rye flour
½ cup white bread flour such as King Arthur’s all-purpose
2 Tbsps. molasses
The cornmeal mixture:
1½ cups yellow corn meal
1½ cups boiling water
2 Tbsps. molasses
The bread dough:
1 cup rye flour
1 cup unbleached white bread flour
1 tsp. salt
Additional white flour for kneading, about 1 or 2 cups
Mix the yeast and 1 cup lukewarm water in a small bowl and stir until the yeast granules dissolve. Let it rest in a warm place until the yeast gives off bubbles.
Meanwhile, whisk together ½ cup of white flour and ½ cup rye flour in a medium bowl. Add the yeast mixture to the flour mixture to make a sponge and add the remaining 2 Tbsps. of the molasses. Cover and let it rest in a warm (not hot) place for 2 hours.
When the sponge is quite bubbly, mix 1½ cups yellow cornmeal and 1½ cups boiling water in a medium bowl and stir just enough to make all the lumps disappear. Stir in the second 2 Tbsps. of molasses and the cornmeal mixture cool for 15 minutes.
In the meantime, whisk 1 cup of rye flour, 1 cup of white flour, and salt together in a large bowl until well mixed. Add the sponge mixture and stir with a sturdy spoon. If necessary, add a little lukewarm water, just enough to be able to work the dough with your hands.
Dust a counter, pastry cloth, or clean board with white flour. Form the dough into a ball, dust the dough with white flour, and knead it with your pretty hands. To knead, you fold the mass of dough in half toward you, then push it down and away starting with the heels of your hands, then give the dough a quarter turn.
Repeat these motions at least 90 times or for about 10 minutes until the dough is smooth and starts to bounce back a little when you push it. Rye flour and cornmeal make the dough sticky. Keep dusting your work surface and your hands with white flour as you knead to keep the dough from sticking.
Depending on the flours you use, the dough may absorb another 1 to 2 cups of white flour during kneading. Frugal early Americans used less liquid so that their dough absorbed less wheat flour or they dusted their work surface with rye and not wheat flour. Their resulting bread would be denser.
Even more frugal was the early bread known as Rye and Indian, which had no wheat flour. Indian was another name for cornmeal — a reminder of the contributions to our foodways made by Native Americans. Rye and Indian was the original brown bread of New England, not the sweetened, raisin-studded steamed bread that originated in the second half of the 19th century.
Put your dough in a large, greased bowl and butter the exposed surface to keep it from drying out. Place the bowl in a warm place and cover the top loosely with a smooth, damp towel. (At this point you could cover the dough in the bowl with plastic wrap sprayed with oil and refrigerate it for several hours or overnight if that is more convenient.)
You could put the bowl on a rack in a cold oven with a pan of very hot water at least an inch below it to make a good environment for the yeast to grow to leaven the dough. Let the dough rise for at least one hour or until almost doubled in volume. The poke test: When you poke the dough gently with your finger, the indent will stay and not fill in when it has risen enough.
Punch down the dough and fold it to fit in a bread pan 9-by-5-3 inches. (Here is another good stopping place: you could cover the dough in the pan with plastic wrap sprayed with oil and refrigerate it for several hours or overnight if that is more convenient.) Then butter the top, cover it loosely, and allow it to rise again in a warm, moist place for about 1 hour or until the indent fills in slowly when poked with your finger. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Bake the loaf in the middle of oven at 375 degrees F for 50 to 55 minutes. When it is done, the bread will have pulled away from the sides of the pan a little and will resound with a hollow thump when you thwack the bottom of the loaf with a finger. Allow it to cool on a rack before you attempt to slice it. You can wrap it in a tea towel or put it in a paper bag, but do not wrap it with plastic for several hours so that steam can escape.