From the Hearth: Seed Buns

“Nothin’ says lovin’ like something from the oven.”

That old commercial jingle came to mind this past weekend as I returned to the 1820 Colonel Benjamin Stephenson House, the site that inspired my series of the building of Illinois. With the cold temperatures here in Southern Illinois, the idea of spending an afternoon by a roaring hearth fire experimenting with a period recipe, was just too tantalizing to resist.

So, I hauled out my stash of heritage cookbooks to pour over possible recipes to make. This idea had been brewing for a while. Perhaps with the holiday frenzy of baking was now over and the last bit of Christmas goodies a mere memory I yearned for some baking time again. Thus, to banish winter doldrums, and also to find something suitably interesting for blog readers, I devised a plan to try my hand at some archaic “receipt”, as they were called, perhaps one that my book characters, Ben and Lucy Stephenson, might have eaten, or served at table, or even labored themselves over a hearth to cook. What fun would that be!

I love the challenge of cooking over a bed of hot coals, keeping a fire stoked throughout the process and seeing what results. So, putting those Girl Scout and family camping skills to use, I flipped through my stash of pioneer and historical cookbooks and chose a recipe and gathered supplies. Then donning my Federal Era gown, day cap and apron and headed out on a cold January day to bake the way our ancestors did some 200+ years ago, before there was electricity, microwaves, freezer dinners and even box mixes at their disposal. Come along with me to the 1820 kitchen and see what there is to learn from the hearth.

Baking Seed Buns

My most recent heritage cookbook purchase was one featuring English Regency recipes that seemed suitable to the 1820 site that inspired my own book series. Plus, this one had a few references to Jane Austen, and thus, had potential for research in writing Regency/Federal Era historical fiction, as my characters were indeed contemporaries to the 19th century novelist. So, what better way than to begin my new year of blogging than delve into hearth cooking?

My first recipe adventure would be the baking of Seed Buns. Originally, they may have been called Bath Buns, named for the seaside resort town in England where they were first invented by a local doctor and served to tourists at the health spas. Jane Austen is believed to have enjoyed these while visiting with her aunt and uncle on holiday. And fans of Jane Austen novels might imagine Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey nibbling a few during her escapades in Bath. I wondered if Lucy Stephenson might have tasted something similar to this, so I adapted my recipe from a common dinner roll recipe and combined it with one for Bath Buns from a period source cookbook to make a suitable dinner roll or tea bun that may have been served in Jane’s English resort town or possibly, Lucy Stephenson’s Illinois.

Seed Buns Ingredient List

1 cup heavy whipping cream                   1 egg, separated
1 tablespoon active dry yeast                   1 tablespoon of water
2 cups of all purpose flour                         2 tablespoons caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon salt                                           1/8 cup sugar

Caraway seeds were often an ingredient of choice in breads aptly named “seed cake”. For this recipe we needed to coat them in sugar. “Carraway Comfits”, as they were sometimes called, are just sugar-coated caraway seeds, probably the 19th century version of candy sprinkles. These would be for mixing in the dough as well as creating a pleasing “seeded bun” topping.

                                                  Caramelized Comfits

According to one source, they are a bit tricky to make. An 18th century confectioner would painstakingly coat batches of the tiny seeds in a multi-step process. For my purposes, I found a shortcut method that suited hearth cooking quite nicely. Just 2 tablespoons each of water, sugar and 3 tablespoons of caraway seeds, which I happened to have on my pantry shelf, in addition to all the other ingredients listed above. So, this looked to be a worthy project to start my heath cooking adventure.

hearth fires
Preparing the hearth for baking

As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one scheduled for hearth cooking at Ben’s house that Saturday; so I took my time gathering up the ingredient list at home, hunted down my period clothing (because if I’m going to cook the Early American way, I have to look the part too). It was nearly 1:00 pm by the time I got rolling with cooking, plenty of time for the morning crew to finish up. And a nice hearth fire was already built for me as the two other young bakers were just finishing up their morning bread baking. The kitchen was mine for the rest of the day. However, bread baking can’t be rushed. I had a narrow window of 3 hours to mix, knead, let rise, knead, shape into buns, let rise again and finally bake. Not a problem in my modern kitchen, but with the unstable baking conditions of the hearth, it would be tight. And then there were those tricky caraway comfits to make too.

                                                Rolling in the Dough

preparing dough
Dough mixed by hand and ready for kneading

I am certainly no novice in the way of bread baking and I’m a born multi-tasker. So, first mix the dough and while it’s rising, sugar coat the caraway seeds. All this is to be done over the fire and I was determined to do this the old-fashioned way. No shortcuts of heating the yeast in hot tap water or “nuking” it in the microwave. The yeast was to be warmed in the cream rather than warm water. I used heavy whipping cream heated over the fire till it was about 110 deg. F, or “blood warm” as my Mom used to say. This means it feels comfortably warm to the touch, or just about  the temperature of a nice hot bubble bath. I suppose I have that in common with yeast, because they like a nice warm relaxing soak too! Maybe that’s why bread baking comes so easily to me.

While the yeast was soaking in a luxurious cream bath, I melted the sugar in a cast iron skillet. This was the one ingredient I didn’t take from my modern kitchen. Instead, I used the sugar cones at the site. Sugar came in solid cones in the 18th and 19th centuries, wrapped in blue paper and kept airtight with a wax seal before purchase. This was one item every General Store would have kept on hand, an item imported from the West Indies. White sugar would have been highly prized and more expensive.

1820 sugar cones
Sugar cones came wrapped in blue paper and nippers were a handy way to render the amount needed for sweetening food.

What today we call, “raw sugar” and consider healthier, was more common and less expensive, but would not do for something as elegant as Bath Buns. Nippers were used to scrape off bits of sugar for use. In my case the sugar was already partially shaved down, leaving just enough sugar shavings for my purpose. I find the nippers a bit unwieldy to use, perhaps something I need to practice with more. A serrated knife works equally well in scraping off small amounts of sugar. I wondered if 19th century cooks improvised as well?

The comfits actually turned out rather well, in just one coating of caramelized sugar, despite how they look below. Someday I might attempt the more complicated method as described above.  Some of the comfits went into the dough as it was mixed and the rest were saved for sprinkling on top later before baking.

Caraway seeds caramelized with white sugar in cast iron skillet over hot coals.

The dough took exactly an hour to raise, even with trying to rush it in the Dutch oven near the coals. The clock was ticking and it was now going on 2:30 pm. The house officially “closes” for tours at 3:00 pm but the director stays till 4:00 pm. Since tours take a minimum of 1 to 2 hours (depending on how chatty the tour guide or visitors are) we won’t start any tour after 3:00 pm, or else we’d never go home. Since there had been no tours all day, I was allowed to bake uninterrupted but it meant I still had only 1.5 hours to let the dough rise again, formed into buns, and then bake. It was do-able, but still tight. Baking over the hearth is trickier, being at the mercy of the coals with no way to set the temperature with complete accuracy. No dial to turn up with a consistent heat to flash bake them at say 450 degrees for 20 minutes, like in a modern gas, electric or convection oven. It takes bread about twice as long to bake in the Dutch oven over the coals versus baking in a modern oven. Hence, I figure baking temps over the hearth are no more than 200 to 300 deg. That meant I needed every minute possible to bake before the end of day at 4:00 pm or I’d be heading home with soggy doughy buns (erm…. that doesn’t sound good, but you get my meaning)

With the low temps of the Dutch oven and slow baking time, I decided to combine the last step of letting the buns rise before baking and just let them slow rise and then bake all in the same Dutch oven, since one process leads to the other anyway. So long as the yeast gets time to activate and expand the dough before being baked solid, that’s really all that matters. It might mean they are a little less puffy, but there was always another day to try this again, perhaps in my modern oven at home. By 3: 15, they were sufficiently risen but still a bit too doughy to brush on the egg and water mixture before topping with comfits. The other problem was, the historic kitchen had no pastry brush. Did they have them in the 19th century? The site director didn’t’ seem to know either. Something else to research, perhaps. So, I applied them carefully with the back of a wooden spoon. Not the easiest method, especially when the tops were still a bit doughy and easily damaged. But I got the job done and let them bake for the last 20 minutes by placing the oven to the far back of the hearth where some nice glowing coals were in full glory. That likely increased my “oven” temperature to 350 to 400 degrees and the best way I could “dial” it up. I smiled thinking of one of the house servants possibly needing to hurry along a batch of rolls for a company dinner where Colonel Stephenson might be entertaining Governor and Mrs. Edwards.

buns in oven
Rolls baking in Dutch oven over hot coals. Ashes scooped over the lid help create a full bake oven effect.

At 3:45 pm, I was needing to pack up and head home. Because I cleaned the kitchen as I went along (including cleaning up a mishap of a broken olive oil bottle, we won’t discuss) I had everything put back in order with only the buns in the oven still not quite half baked. Fortunately, they were just done enough they would not “fall” in the frigid temps on the car(riage) ride home. I had to “cheat” and finish browning them once I got home, but hubs and I enjoyed a rare treat with dinner. Regency seed buns are delicious! Named for the resort town of Bath, that was the setting for Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey,  these “tempting concoctions” definitely live up to their reputation as something Jane, is said to have indulged in, to the point of “disordering” her stomach by eating too many on occasion. I found nothing “disordering” about either baking or eating these buns, although I don’t know that I’d want to do either on a regular basis. But I am game to try my hand at another hearth cooking recipe for a future post. Hope you’ll join me then too!

bath buns on woodstove
Baked seed buns with egg coating and topped with comfits.

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