My interest in the 19th century comes from researching my family history. Four of my ancestors were soldiers during the American Civil War (1861-1865). This peaked my interest in doing more than just researching names and dates. I have been participating in living history events and reenactments (with my Civil War reenacting unit) and teaching the ways of a typical 19th century Pennsylvania German woman since 2000. I dress the part and strive for authenticity by using reproductions or originals items.
Preparing and cooking 1800s-style food (mostly Pennsylvania German food) became my passion. I first began by making homemade noodles (hence the nickname Noodle Lady) and drying herbs at my tables. Now I can prepare an entire meal using my cast iron dutch ovens and fry pans using a wood fire and coals. At first, I always made some sort of bread at home and brought it with me. Then I began baking potato rolls at events, which are now a staple with my beef vegetable stew, but I've always wondered about the homemade yeast my ancestors would have been using during that time period.
Potato rolls baked in the Dutch Oven
Sticky Buns (of course the "sticky" is on the bottom!)
So this year I began my first sourdough starter and read through almost every sourdough post on theFreshLoaf! Now a “teacup of yeast” in those old recipes makes sense! In June I was brave enough to take my starter with me to an event and bake a couple of loaves. People were fascinated. It sparked a lot of conversations. The loaves came out great. I had to have rye straw baskets to proof the dough in, so I took a class and made my own. This year I even grew my own rye straw to continue making baskets.
Dutch Oven Sourdough
Sourdough in Rye Basket
Of course I can't do a Pa. German impression if I don't have some kind of rye bread. I've made the recipe for Pumpernickel from P. Reinhart's book, "The Bread Baker's Apprentice" and received the greatest compliment...a German exchange student visiting one of my events tasted the bread and remarked that it reminded her of home. I was thrilled!
I now also have the opportunity to do cooking/baking demonstrations at the hearth in a farmhouse at a historic site. It's much better and more controlled when I'm not battling the wind or rain.
I continue to learn as I bake and feel more connected to the family members who came before me. And my collection of old cookbooks and "receipts" continue to grow!
In "Early American Cookery–The Good Housekeeper–1841" the author says, "There are three things which must be exactly right, in order to have good bread–the quality of the yeast; the lightness or fermentation of the dough; and the heat of the oven. No precise rules can be given to ascertain these points. It requires observation, reflection, and a quick, nice judgement, to decide when all are right...the woman who always has good home-baked bread on the table shows herself to have good sense and good management."