Monday, October 31, 2011

Snow Bread.

Today is a very special day. I am referring not to Halloween – which is special in its own way, of course – but to the birthday of this blog. This day is the sixth birthday of The Old Foodie. My birthday treat to myself is to explore the interesting topic of snow-raised bread.

I was most intrigued when I came across the idea of using snow as a leavening agent.  The concept is impossible for me to test, as I live in the sub-tropics, so I will have to rely on the advice of those of you who live in the cooler parts of the world. 

It seems that the idea captured some interest in the 1850’s and 1870’s, in the United States. The Water Cure Journal (an early ‘healthy lifestyle’ publication) in 1854 had this to say:

Snow Bread. - All persons where snow abounds, are not, perhaps, aware of the value of the "fleecy flakes" in making light, delicious, and wholesome bread. There is no "raising" in the world so perfectly physiological as good, fresh, sweet snow. It raises bread or cake as beautifully as the best of yeast, or the purest acids and alkalies, whilst it leaves no taint of fermentation like the former, nor injurious neutral salt like the latter. Indeed, it raises by supplying atmosphere wherewith to puff np the dough, whilst the other methods only supply carbonic acid gas.
During the late snow freshet with which our city has been favored, (for all other uses in a city snow may be regarded as a nuisance,) "our folks" have experimented somewhat extensively in the matter of snow-raised bread and cakes. One of our kitchen amateurs gives us the following recipe as the result -the eureka -  of his numerous mixings and minglings of the "celestial feathers" with the terrestrial meal:
"Snow Bread.—Mix equal parts of light, dry snow and flour or meal quickly together, (using a strong spoon or stick to stir with.) When well mixed, pour the mass into a pan, and bake immediately. A rather hot, "quick" oven is essential. Bake from twenty minutes to one hour, according the thickness of the loaf."
Many forms of bread and cake can be made by slightly varying these proportions, according to the other ingredients: the rule being to have a due degree of moisture. If too much snow is used, the bread or cake will be heavy.
A little corn meal and pulverized sugar may be mixed with dry flour, and then the snow stirred in, if a short and tender, as well as light sweet cake is desired.

Apparently the method works well for corn bread too. I give you a snippet from the New York Times of  September 13, 1908:
It is not probable that every one knows that corn bread made with snow is delicious. It is the bread of the epicures. Naturally, it must be made in Winter. It is served hot for breakfast or luncheon.
Take a quart of meal and stir into it half a teaspoonful of soda and a tablespoonful of good suet lard. Add a teaspoonful of salt. Stir in a quart of light, clean snow, doing it in a cool place, where the snow will not melt.

A contributor to the English Mechanic And World Of Science in 1879 wrote of his experiences with snow bread, briefly described how it was made, and attempted a scientific explanation:

I have this morning for breakfast, partaken of a snow-raised bread cake, made last evening as follows: The cake when baked weighed about three quarters of a pound. A large tablespoonful of fine, dry, clean snow was intimately stirred with a spoon into the dry flour, and to this was added a tablespoonful of caraways and a little butter and salt. Then sufficient cold water was added to make the dough of the proper usual consistence (simply stirred with the spoon, not kneaded by the warm hands), and it was immediately put into a quick oven and baked three quarters of an hour. It turned out both light and palatable. The reason appears to be this: the light mass of interlaced snow crystals hold imprisoned a large quantity of condensed atmospheric air, which, when the snow is warmed by thawing very rapidly in the dough, expands enormously and acts the part of the carbonic acid gas in either baking powder or yeast. I take the precise action to be, then, not due in any way to the snow itself, but simply to the expansion of the fixed air lodged between the interstices of the snow crystals by application of heat. This theory, if carefully followed out, may perchance give a clue to a simple and perfectly innocuous method of raising bread and pastry, and stop the discussion as to whether alum in baking powders is deleterious to health or otherwise.

OK, you food science geeks out there. Is this it? Does it work? Is snow bread simply a form of soda bread?  Please, do let me know if you try this.

Quotation for the Day.

Nothing on Earth is as beautiful as the final haul on Halloween night.
Steve Almond


Mike said...

"Is snow bread simply a form of soda bread?"

It's not that because you're not using soda.

Presumably it's just a way of introducing voids in the cake since the batter would cook to a certain extent before the snow would melt. (This would be why it says to use a hot "quick" oven.)

Dorothy Hartley (_Food in England_, 1954) mentions snow pancakes:

I guess it's the same idea. She says use an ordinary pancake batter and stir in a spoonful of fresh snow just before frying.

Obviously, a pan- or griddle- cake cooks a lot faster than an oven-baked cake. So this, again, is "quick" cooking.

I've never tried it. I guess crushed ice would work just as well. One could put some ice cubes in a plastic bag and smash them with a rolling pin.

It would be an interesting experiment. On the whole I think bread is better raised with a (long) yeast fermentation -- or even better leavened with sourdough. The latter is (mostly) a lactic fermentation (but there are also some wild yeasts present in sourdough cultures) as opposed to an alcoholic fermentation (which is what you get with yeast).

Lactic-fermentation is good because it deals to some extent with "anti-nutrients" in the flour and makes the resulting bread more digestible. More here:

A fermentation with yeast will deal with the antinutrients to some extent -- as long as the fermentation is long enough. Traditionally, bread was given a long time to raise (which, of course, gave it a fuller flavour as well). The infamous Chorleywood Process (see, e.g., Wikipedia) invented by British food scientists in the 1960s is a much faster process and has largely taken over bread making on the industrial scale.

The Old Foodie said...

Wow! Thanks Mike for that comprehensive review. I considered the soda bread anaolgoy because of the 19th C writers discussion of the compressed air in the snow acting 'the part of the carbonic acid gas in either baking powder or yeast'.
But I am not a food scientist.
Thanks for reminding me too of Dorothy Hartleys snow pancakes!I knew I had seen snow used in some other recipe, but couldnt for the life of me remember where it was.

sesanner said...

I have no erudite contribution to add to the discussion of Snow Bread. I am a skeptic, however, and in my forty years residency south of the Manitoba Canadian border, I have encountered no mention, plate, or basket of snow bread.

My first hand experience with snow food comes from the coldest winters (not as frequent these days, thus bragging rights become scarce).

Carefully stepping outside from a warm, humid kitchen with a boiling hot pan of syrup, proceeding quickly and directly to a clean snow bank, one has drizzled steaming syrup on squeeky, dry snow, the harsher the cold the better. The maple syrup seizes into a taffy-like consistency almost instantly.

Properly dressed for survival at the lowest of temperatures, one then harvests the snow taffy from its sunken trail and most likely enjoys a little alfresco winter dessert.

Highly recommended.

farmhousemagazine said...

I assume the bread works because the snow is frozen when it goes in the oven. As it melts it creates steam, which creates a pocket of air, unlike unfrozen water, which would simply melt into the dough.

Butter works this way to create flaky pie crust. Chilled butter is essentially to keep the fat from melting into the dough. As the pie crust bakes, the butter melts and creates steam, which in turn creates little air pockets, making the crust light and flaky.

And I assume "dry" snow is indicated because a heavy wet snow would melt into the dough before the bread was baked.

Going to have to try this next time we get a nice, fluffy, dry snow!

The Old Foodie said...

For tiny snow crystals to melt when the dough goes in the oven would mean that the dough would have to be very cold during the mixing in, wouldnt it? I cant imagine it lasting long before it melted. None of the instructions indicate cold dough and quick handling. It does sound like an explanation tho'!