Week Thirty-Six: Breads of the United Kingdom
Move over, brioche. King cake, step aside. You too, challah. There’s a new lass in my life, and her name is Sally Lunn. She’s a giant fairy of a bread, softer than down, nearly as tall as she is wide, and my heart’s been conquered.
This teatime treasure from Bath, England is ubiquitous there, but relatively rare throughout the rest of the country. In Bath, you can visit Sally Lunn’s house, which purports to sell the “original Bath Bun”. This isn’t entirely accurate, however, as a Bath Bun and a small Sally Lunn are two different creatures, despite their similarities.
Both are made with a rich, white dough, both are round and tender buns, and both are almost exclusively served at tea. But Bath Buns typically have a dried fruit and sugar topping; Sally Lunns are plain or glazed simply with sweetned milk, but may be split horizontally and filled with clotted cream; then, they are generally called Sally Lunn cakes. Additionally, a Bath Bun is nearly always small, in individual portions; a Sally Lunn is more often as big around as a dinner plate, though they can be made smaller as well.
A French girl with a name anglicized to Sally Lunn, who may or may not have even existed, was supposedly the namesake of these delectable breads. She is said to have arrived in Bath as part of the Hugenot exodus in the 1600’s, a claim supported by the very brioche-esque quality of the Sally Lunn (brioche, of course, being a thoroughly French bread). However, I am always skeptical of any foodstuff that claims to trace its lineage back to a single person, especially so over the course of 300-plus years. Another etymological suggestion is that the name was bastardized from the French “soleil et lune”, meaning “sun and moon”; which is a more reasonable suggestion, but still uncertain.
Whatever the origin of the name, I doubt you’ll find a soul capable of resisting the charms of a vrai Sally Lunn. Are you familiar with the texture of an angel food cake? If you’ve ever sliced one, you’ll remember the trepidation as you cut into it, fearful of flattening the diaphinous cake with even the weight of the knife, let along the force needed to separate one piece from another.
The same worry will come over you as you slice a Sally Lunn, as the ethereal texture is remarkably similar. But don’t be too afraid; the texture seems to bounce back miraculously. Even after storing slices overnight in a crowded plastic bag, they were hardly damaged. I’m not saying you can sit on it and no harm will come, but cutting won’t hurt it one bit.
Though this may be the largest loaf of bread you’ve ever made – it will surely be the tallest – it seems to weigh hardly anything. The egg, milk, and butter, spread out so widely through the loaf due to its airiness, don’t render the same heavy and sometimes even cloying attributes that they can in many similarly-enriched and denser breads. (Brioche, I’m looking at you.) With the barest suggestion of lemon, and the gentlest gluten-pull in each bite, this may just be the pinnacle of its breed.
Here, I’ve used a 10-inch diameter, 2-inch tall springform pan with no problem whatsoever in baking. I dare say the springform pan made the airy loaf easier to remove from the pan as well. The top did “mushroom” a bit, but if you prefer a straighter-sided Sally Lunn, you can use a regular cake pan with a collar (instructions given in note 1 below), or any tall metal pan, such as a bundt pan or angel food cake pan. Individual Sally Lunns can also be baked in muffin tins, if you prefer, and would be an adorably chic addition to any tea party.
The best thing about this bread – aside from the impeccable texture and flavor – was its ease in creation. If you have a stand mixer, it’s about as simple as any other yeast bread. It can be made by hand, but take care not to add too much flour in the kneading process if you do. The ingredients are common and uncomplicated, and the results are astonishing. Who knows? Maybe next year, I’ll have to make a Sally Lunn King Cake.
Apologies to my old king cake recipe, but it really was that good.
Makes one 10 inch round loaf
1 cup milk
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 tablespoons sugar
15 ounces (about 3 1/3 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour, divided
2 1/4 teaspoons (one 1/4 ounce package) instant yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon sugar
1. Scald the milk in a small saucepan over medium heat, heating it until it just begins to steam and small bubbles appear around the edge, or about 180° F. Remove from the heat, add the butter and sugar, and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Let the mixture cool to lukewarm, or about 100° F.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together 10 ounces (or 2 cups) of the flour and all of the salt, yeast, and lemon zest. Add the milk mixture and the eggs. Using the paddle attachment, beat the mixture at medium speed for 4 to 5 minutes, or until well-combined and smooth, scraping the bowl down as needed.
3. Decrease the speed to low, add the remaining 5 ounces (or 1 1/3 cups) flour, and beat until fully incorporated, about 1 minute. Switch to the dough hook, and mix at medium speed for about 7 or 8 minutes, or until smooth and elastic. The dough should look very sticky and wet.
4. Scrape the dough into a large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap, and let sit at room temperature for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until doubled in size.
5. Butter a tall-sided, round 10-inch pan, such as a springform pan (see note 1 below), and line the bottom with a round of parchment paper. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface. With floured hands, kead the dough a few times, deflating it, and forming it into a round ball with a skin stretching around the outside. Flatten it into a disc, dust off any excess flour, and transfer to the prepared baking sheet, smooth side up. Cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let rise at room temperature until well risen and crowning above the pan, about 45 to 60 minutes. Thirty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 425° F, and position a rack in the lower third of the oven.
6. Bake the bread at 425° F for 15 to 20 minutes, or until a rich golden-brown on top. Check the bread after 10 minutes, and tent the top very loosely with aluminum foil if it seems to be over-browning.
7. While baking, heat the milk and sugar for the glaze together in a small pan, until the sugar has dissolved. When the bread is fully baked and just removed from the oven, gently brush the glaze over the top of the bread. You will probably not need all of it.
8. Cool the bread in the pan for 15 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool thoroughly. Slice into wedges and serve warm; alternatively, split into three horizontal layers and fill with clotted cream for an authentic British teatime snack.
1. I used a 2-inch tall springform pan with no problems. If you prefer a straighter-sided Sally Lunn, or are using a short cake pan, you can make a collar out of parchment paper and aluminum foil (as you might for a soufflé). Cut pieces of parchment and foil as long as the circumference of your pan, plus an inch or two (about 33 inches for a 10 inch pan, about 30 for a 9 inch pan). Stack the foil on the parchment, and fold into thirds or quarters lengthwise, so that the foil is on the inside. Wrap the collar around the inside of the greased pan, and secure with tape if necessary. The foil should make it sturdy enough to hold itself up, and the tape will be unnecessary after the dough has risen enough. Alternatively, you can wrap it around the outside of a pan, and secure with kitchen twine. The LA Times has a briefly illustrated how-to about this that you may find helpful.
2. If using an angel food cake pan or a bundt pan, poke a hole through the center of the dough after shaping it in step 5, making a tire or doughnut shape. Place in the greased pan around the center stem, and continue with the recipe as directed.
3. Sally Lunn can be baked into individual portions, using muffin tins; but be aware that this bread is an extremely high-riser. Use much less dough than you think you’d need in each tin. I haven’t made them individually, but I’d say you could get a minimum of 12 out of this one recipe. I make no guarantees, but 16 to 20, of reasonable size, is my educated estimate.