If you know a bit about me, you’ll know I have a few passions. Jane Austen is obviously one of them. Reading and writing are right up there as well, as is anything to do with history. Also clustered up at the top of my list are music and, relevant to today’s post, cooking.
When you throw some of these together, you discover the wonderful world of historical cooking and food history, and that is where I get giddy with excitement. Yes, I know I need to get out more, but when the result is a dish of Medieval apple pie or a particularly tasty apple fritter, my family doesn’t complain too much. One of these days I’ll bore you with my collection of vegetarian Medieval recipes, but now I’m interested in something closer to the home of our hearts, namely Jane Austen’s Bath.
We have recently discovered a wonderful YouTube channel called Tasting History, and just the other day we watched an episode about Sally Lunn buns. These are a treat available only from a single bakery in Bath. The exact recipe is unknown, being handed down with the deed to the bakery’s building, but these must surely have been enjoyed by Jane Austen and her family while living in that city.
These large buns are slightly sweet and cakey, although they are made with a yeasted dough. They’re quite similar to brioche, made with milk and butter, and are served sliced and warm and covered with jam or preserves. Unlike the common Bath Buns, which are much smaller and denser, these are soft and huge. We first hear about Sally Lunn buns in 1780 in a guidebook to Bath (The valetudinarians Bath guide), where author Philip Thicknesse writes that visitors would breakfast every day on 2-3 pints of Bath water and then “sit down to a meal of Sally Lunns or hot spungy rolls, made high by burnt butter!”
Thicknesse disapproved of this practice since his brother died after eating such a breakfast, and Jane Austen herself seemed to find too many not the best for one’s health. In a letter from her youth, she wrote about “disordering my stomach with Bath bunns.”
In 1798 The Gentleman’s Magazine mentions Sally Lunn in a discussion of foods named after people, “…a certain sort of hot rolls, now, or not long ago, in vogue at Bath, were gratefully and emphatically styled ‘Sally Lunns.’” The earliest evidence of commercial production is from an advertisement from 1819, touting Sally Lunn cakes sold by W. Needes of Bath.
And what of the buns themselves? According to the “original” recipe, from Margaret Dod’s The Cook and Housewife’s Manual of 1826, “Make them as French bread, but dissolve some sugar in the hot milk. Mould into the form of cakes. A little saffron boiled in the milk enriches the colour of these or any other cakes…” That’s a good start, but not terribly specific.
In 1845, Eliza Acton published a recipe for these buns in Modern Cookery for Private Families, where she describes them as a version of “Solimemne – a rich French breakfast cake, or Sally Lunn.” Solimemnes themselves were a sort of brioche that were popularized by Parisian chef Marie-Antoine Carême in a book from 1815. He claimed the breads were Alsatian in origin, but he might have been trying to hide that these buns originated in England, France’s sworn enemy at the time.
And then there’s the name. Who was Sally Lunn? That’s a good question. The origin of the name is shrouded in mystery. A tale goes on about a young French Huguenot woman named Solange Luyon, who ended up working in a bakery in the street known in those days as Lilliput Alley, and originally sold the baker’s wares from a basket in the lanes around Bath Abbey. Her name, Solange Luyon, proved too tricky to pronounce (especially before coffee) and she was renamed Sally Lunn.
Another story claims that the name is a corruption of the French term Sol et Lune, meaning Sun and Moon, which describes the darker yellow top and pale white bottom of these buns.
Either way, I was intrigued. Also, I’ve never met a bread I didn’t like, and so I started cooking. I used Max Miller’s recipe, which he talks about in his video. Purely in the interest of research. Of course.
I’ll let you enjoy that here, and then I’ll post some pictures of my progress with these rather delicious Bath-based balls of bready beauty.
And as for my day of culinary research? How did I make out with them?
Here are some pictures with captions.
Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and so the proof of the bun. And these? Delicious! The recipe suggests making 3 large or 6 small buns, and even the small buns were enormous. Next time – and there WILL be a next time – I’ll make at least eight smaller buns from this recipe.
Here is some of the information from Max Miller’s video, if you feel like trying your own hand at some yummy Sally Lunn buns. If you do, let me know how they turn out.
SALLY LUNN BUN “ORIGINAL” RECIPE (From The Cook and Housewife’s Manual by Margaret Dods; 1826)
Make them as French bread, but dissolve some sugar in the hot milk. Mould into the form of cakes. A little saffron boiled in the milk enriches the colour of these or any other cakes
- 1 ¼ cup (280ml) whole milk
- 6 tablespoons (85g) of butter at room temperature
- ¼ cup (50g) sugar
- 3 3/4 cup (450g) of bread flour (or all purpose)
- 7g instant yeast or active dry yeast.
- 2 eggs (Plus an extra egg for the egg wash)
- The zest of 1 lemon
- 1 ½ teaspoons of salt
- 2-3 saffron threads (optional; for color only)
- Warm the milk over low heat.* Add the sugar and dissolve. Once warm, add the butter and melt in. If you are using saffron for color, add the threads to the milk and set mixture aside to cool to 110° or cooler before adding it to the other ingredients. **If you are using instant yeast, heat the full amount of milk. If you are using active dry yeast, warm only 1 cup on the stove. Take the other 1/4 cup and mix with the yeast and a sprinkle of sugar to activate the yeast.
- Sift flour into a large bowl or a stand mixer. If using instant yeast, whisk in to flour. Once milk mixture is cooled to 110° add to flour and mix (remove saffron threads with a strainer). Add lemon zest, eggs and salt and mix. If you are using active dry yeast, add that last. Work dough until it comes together and forms a smooth sticky dough. (About 8 minutes on medium speed) It will not form into a ball.
- Cover and let rise for 60 – 90 minutes or until doubled in size.
- Once doubled, punch down dough and put out onto a lightly floured surface and separate into 3 or 6 pieces, depending on the size bun you would like. Form dough into balls and place on lined baking sheet, slightly flattening into a cake. Cover and let rise for another 45 – 60 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 400°F / 200°C and make an egg wash with either a whole egg or egg white (if you used the saffron for color).
- Bake buns for 15 minutes, tenting them if they begin to brown too much. An instant read thermometer should read 190°F-200°F (approx.90°C). Cool on a wire rack and serve warm with butter, jam or clotted cream.