“Bunns” from the Boston Cook Book of 1883

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This week, my quest for retro ways to carbo-load for the modern endeavor of marathon running brought me to the Boston Cook Book of 1883. Its author, Mary J. Lincoln, principal at the Boston School of Cookery, taught cooking as a “household science”. That meant standardized measurements instead of “a lump of butter the size of a walnut,” as previous cookbooks often stated. Her successor, Fannie Farmer, became far more famous for writing The Boston Cooking School Cookbook, first published in 1896.

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In her day, Mary J. Lincoln’s fame equaled that of Fannie Farmer. Along with running the school, she Imagelectured to women’s clubs around the country on topics including “economic buying.” How much needlework would it require to stay awake during that one? Mrs. Lincoln was also culinary editor of The American Kitchen Magazine, which seems more like a forerunner to Popular Science than Bon Appetit and other slick variations on the “food, beautiful food” theme. American Kitchen talked about the adulteration of food, the disposal of garbage, and home science in Japan. An essay contest gave readers a choice between writing about the “nutritive value” of bread; home versus public laundries; or income and expenditure from an economic and moral standpoint. Wonder how Martha Stewart would answer that?

I found Mrs. Lincoln’s recipe for “Bunns” a lot more appealing than her magazine topics, and a step forward from lumps of butter, but not too scientific. It doesn’t suggest how long to let the dough rise or how to make a glaze with sugar and milk. Just before baking, when I tried to cut each bun on top to make the hot cross buns, the dough simply sprang back into place. I decided to use an egg white-sugar glaze and slivered almonds instead. Nobody was the wiser that these were NOT cross buns. I guess a Jewish girl should know better than to expect immediate success with a traditional recipe for Lent, no matter how scientific it claims to be. Here is the recipe as I adapted it to include rising and baking times. I also changed “saltspoonful” to teaspoon.

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Boston Cooking School “Bunns” (1883)

Makes 6 buns

1 cup milk, scalded and cooled to about 110 degrees F
2 tablespoons sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon salt
1 package active dry yeast
2 cups flour, plus additional as needed
1/4 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup currants or raisins
1 teaspoon nutmeg or cinnamon, or a mixture
1 egg white
1/4 cup slivered almonds

  1. Place the milk in a mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, beat together the egg and 1 tablespoon of the sugar, and add to the milk.
  2. Sprinkle the yeast on top of the milk mixture, mix with a fork, then let stand until the yeast is foamy, 5-10 minutes.
  3. Add the flour and salt. Mix together with a wooden spoon or your hands until all the flour is incorporated. Cover the bowl with a clean dishtowel and let it sit overnight.
  4. In the morning, sprinkle a countertop or other work surface with flour. Turn out the dough and begin kneading, adding flour a little at a time to make a stiff dough. Continue kneading for 15 minutes, adding a little more flour at a time as needed to keep the dough smooth and elastic.
  5. Pour a little vegetable oil into a clean mixing bowl, put the dough into the bowl, and flip it so the oil coats both sides of the dough. Cover with the dishtowel and let rise until light, about 2 hours.
  6. Punch down the dough. Knead in the butter, currants, and cinnamon or nutmeg until well incorporated. Place the dough in a clean, lightly oiled bowl as in Step 5, cover, and let rise 1-2 hours more.
  7. Butter an 8-by-8-inch baking pan. Divide the dough into six equal pieces and shape each one into individual rolls. Place each roll in the baking pan, lined up in two even rows with a bit of space in between. Cover the pan and let rise 45 minutes.
  8. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl using a fork or a whisk, beat together the egg white and the remaining tablespoon of sugar. Brush the egg white mixture over the tops of the rolls and sprinkle with almonds.
  9. Bake until golden brown on top, about 35 minutes. Serve warm with jam and butter.
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About heritagerecipebox

I am named after my great-grandmother, who only prepared two dishes, according to anyone who remembers: hamburgers shaped like squares and peanut butter sandwiches. Fast forward 100 years and 500 miles north from my hometown of Richmond, Virginia to Boston, Massachusetts. Somehow, I ended up with a cooking gene as well as an interest in history and family stories. I have worked as a journalist and published three cookbooks plus a memoir. This blog gives me a chance to share family recipes and stories -- and other American recipes with a past. What do you have to share?
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