Breads of the World: The Sally Lunn, an American Colonial Bread

Ask Chef Phyllis:
It was interesting to see other bread recipes on your website. I love bread, and I liked the recipe for Portuguese sweet bread, which is famous in the Boston area. But I noticed not a mention of many other American breads. Have you ever heard of a Sally Lunn? My grandmother, who claims she can trace her lineage back to the 1700s, somewhere near Plymouth, said that she made this bread, but only with yeast. Have you heard it can be made as a quick bread too? Can you help?
—Charlene Wrighton, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Indeed, Sally Lunn bread has a history! This early bread recipe can be traced back to a Solange Luyon, who fled from France to England to avoid persecution in about 1680. The original French name was soleil et luna, meaning sun and moon, for its exceptional golden outer crust and creamy inner crumb. Voila!

Legend has it that early in the morning, the street vendors in Bath, England, would bark out “Sally Lunn” as they sold their wares, and hence it came to America as Sally Lunn instead of soleil et luna. I can guess that the vendors were just too lazy-tongued to bother with the correct pronunciation, or perhaps they didn’t think their customers would understand the French. Or maybe it was it just their cockney accent that changed it! We may never know the real reason.

But Charlene, the bread or cake version can be made with yeast or baking powder, with excellent results. This specialty loaf can be formed into a large 10-inch bun, small rolls, or a loaf for slicing, or you can enrich it with cream and eggs for a cake. It’s versatile and similar to a French brioche, but not as rich. It’s usually served thickly sliced, sometimes toasted, topped with butter and jam or marmalade if you like. Yum.

Whatever its beginnings, Sally Lunn came to America much later than the Pilgrims. It was popular as a night before Christmas bread as you could conveniently let it rise in front of the yuletide fire. The Raleigh Tavern Bakery in the Colonial Williamsburg Resort in Williamsburg, Virginia, sells it today under the name Shaker Sally Lunn and claims their recipe dates back to 1720. I don’t know another American bread with such a past, except maybe anadama …but that’s another post.

Sally Lunn (Soleil et Luna)

Chef’s note: This is the yeast bread recipe. See below for the quick bread version with baking powder. Both recipes have merit, but in my opinion the original yeast recipe is worth mastering. It takes a little longer since it must rise twice. The crust is golden brown and the interior crumb is pure white and creamy. What a delightful bread to serve with afternoon tea, accompanied by clotted cream (light whipped butter) and jam. Makes 1 large loaf.

Ingredients
1 cup milk or light cream
1 package active dry yeast
½ cup butter (1 stick), softened to room temperature
⅓ cup sugar (I used coconut sugar)
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon salt
4 cups all-purpose flour (see note below)
A note on the flour: I use King Arthur’s white whole-wheat, an unbleached whole-wheat flour milled from hard white winter wheat. This is a lighter-colored grain than traditional red wheat that yields milder-tasting baked goods.

Instructions

  1. Heat milk or cream and cool to lukewarm. Sprinkle in the yeast and stir to dissolve.
  2. Cream butter and sugar. Beat the eggs in well. In a separate bowl, combine salt and flour. Alternatively add flour and milk to butter-sugar mixture.
  3. Place dough in a greased bowl and cover with a tea towel. Set in a warm place until doubled in size.
  4. Grease a 10×1½-inch deep pan. Beat dough down hard and place it in buttered pan. Let it rise again until doubled. This takes about 1 hour.
  5. Bake in a preheated 350°F oven for 45 minutes or until nicely browned. Cool before slicing and serving.

Sally Lunn “Quick” Bread

— This recipe is a baking powder “quick” bread, if not authentic. Makes 2 (9×3-inch) loaf pans.

Ingredients
1 stick butter, softened,
⅓ cup sugar (I used coconut sugar)
4 teaspoons baking powder
4 cups flour (see note on flour above)
1 cup whole milk
2 eggs
½ cup fresh blackberries or currants (optional)

Instructions

  1. Cream butter and sugar. In separate bowl, mix together baking powder and flour. Alternatively add flour and milk to butter-sugar mixture.
  2. Add eggs and bake in 2 buttered (9×3-inch) loaf pans.
  3. Preheat oven to 350°F. If fresh blackberries or currants are available, dust them slightly with flour so they won’t fall to the bottom of the loaf. Stir ½ cup into the batter just before baking. Do not overmix.
  4. Bake for about 45 minutes, then test for doneness with a toothpick.

Image by Phyllis Quinn.

Phyllis Quinn

Phyllis Quinn is a chef, food writer, and founder of Udderly Cultured, a class that teaches how to make homemade fresh mozzarella, butter, yogurt, cottage cheese, and other cultured products. Private lessons are available. For a reservation, call Phyllis at 970-221-5556 or email her at [email protected] Rediscover nearly lost cooking methods and get one-of-a-kind recipes in her books The Slow Cook Gourmet and Udderly Cultured: The Art of Milk Fermentation.

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