Fannie Farmer brings us a variety of corn-related foods: corn cakes, corn soup, green boiled corn, and corn a la southern. SO many options. What is apparent is that corn was a food staple. Her cornbread is hearty with a nice salt bite, making it pair beautifully with honey butter. Her cornbread differs in other ways as well.
Her cornbread differs in that it has WAY more baking powder. That women loved to use some baking powder. I mean there is a definite trend in her recipes using larger than normal quantities of baking powder. So I decided to investigate Fannie Farmer’s obsession with baking powder.
As it turns out, back in Fannie’s time a women was judged and given merit based on the quality of her bread. The high pressures of being a good women… I mean making tasty bread had women looking for other leavening agents than yeast. And let’s face it folks, yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) is pretty damn finicky. It likes very specific temperatures, pH, and it likes some oxygen but not too much (sheesh.. high maintenance). Then came the birth of baking powder – the quick, easy, and consistent leavening agent.
Now I feel like I understand Fannie Farmer’s Corn Cakes.
- 1 cup corn meal
- 3/4 cup flour
- 3- 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 cup molasses
- 3/4 cup milk
- 1 egg
- 1 tablespoons melted butter
Mix dry ingredients together until well blended. Add wet ingredients and mix. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes or until golden brown.
Okay, okay, okay I know what you are thinking. What is wrong with dudes back then? Why place such a high importance on bread? And what roadblocks did these women really have with bread-making? So here are my theories:
- Temperature. Olden houses were not temperature controlled as they are today making the very specific temperature of yeast growth an issue. You may have to build a fire in an old cast iron stove to get the house or an area warm enough for yeast propagation.
- Yeast viability. According to Wikipedia (Yes, I’m putting my trust in wiki), it wasn’t until 1846 that you bought yeast specifically designed for bread. Pre-1846 you would have to buy yeast from your local brewery (Lack of drinking and specifically beer drinking is more of a post prohibition thing). The first commercial yeast was sold as a yeast cake and it wasn’t until Wold War II that yeast became granulated making this fungus easier to use. Yeast being packed in cakes may have caused issues as this little picky fungus does like some air… just not too much.
- Yeast mutations/Contamination. Fannie indicates that women can keep liquid yeast to make goodies. Well this could be a problem, if your yeast die, if you get a different strain of yeast from the air, if the yeast starts producing acetic acid, or if your yeast mutates.
- Local Diet. If you look at the diet of people around this time, it is no wonder bread making was so important. Bread, specifically corn bread, was a major food staple comprising a great deal of the diet. The industrial revolution just happened sending men off to the city for work. In the city a man may get lunch but when he returned home, he generally got a thin soup or stock and a slice of bread. Not much to satisfy hunger other than bread.
- Lack of Knowledge. Fannie claims that that “the temperature best suited for its growth is from 65-68F” for yeast. This is most likely due to the fact that she is using beer yeast. This is simply not the best temperature for bread yeast. Beer yeast and bread yeast are not the same. Look a the back of any Fleischmann’s yeast packet and they will tell you that the best temperature is between 80-85F.
- Competition. Even with the new miracle ingredient there were issues. The new leavening agent, baking powder, gained a huge market in a short amount of time. According to Wild Crispy’s blog many different producers of baking powder sprung up creating some stiff competition. This lead to bribery and widespread negative ads confusing consumers as to which baking powder was safe to use.