March 11, 2010
On a visit to Colonial Williamsburg last weekend, I picked up a booklet of recipes sold by the reconstructed village’s Raleigh Tavern Bakery. The cover promised A Collection of the Most tasteful and Approved Recipes in Virginia Cookery.
Though the language was old-fashioned, the recipes for treats like “ginger-bread cakes,” “pear pye” and “apple pasties” (turnovers) sounded pretty familiar. “Shrewsbury cakes” didn’t ring a bell, until the notes added by modern authors explained that these are simply sugar cookies.
But the enigmatic “Sally Lunn” was translated into modern English as a recipe for, well, Sally Lunn. It seems to be a type of cake or bread made with yeast, flour, sugar, shortening, milk, eggs and salt. (I haven’t tried making it yet because I don’t actually own any cake or bread pans. But read on—apparently these can be formed as buns, too.)
Who was Sally Lunn?
Well, that’s hard to say. She might have been a real woman, a French-born pastry cook named Solange Luyon who fled to England as a refugee in the late 17th-century. A modern-day bakery and museum called Sally Lunn’s still stands on the site in Bath where she is said to have baked and sold a distinctive type of bun:
Legend has it that from her home in France, where the Protestant Huguenots were being cruelly persecuted, came young Sally Lunn to find employment with a baker who rented premises in Lilliput Alley. She sold his wares in the street, but when her skill at baking Brioche was discovered she no doubt spent for more time in the bakery itself. Sally Lunn’s Buns were a tremendous success; others tried hard to copy them, but her skill with the rich, soft and delicate dough inspired customers specifically to request the Sally Lunn.
But other stories abound. A 19th-century British book says the buns in question were invented by a French refugee named Madame de Narbonne, who established a bakery in Chelsea, England sometime around 1800. She specialized in “a particular type of tea cake” which became quite popular in local households, and Sally Lunn was the name of the Scotch maidservant who delivered it.
Or perhaps there was no Sally Lunn, and the baked buns got their name from their appearance, round and contrasting (the bottom side being dark from baking), like the sun and the moon: Soleil et lune, in French, transformed by cockney British accents into something more like “Solly Lun.”
On the flipside, another story claims that the recipe originated in Britain and was appropriated by a visiting French chef named Marie Antoine Careme, who soon “invented” a slightly adapted version of the sweet bread, called it a solilemme.
Whoever invented Sally Lunn bread in its various forms, it seems clear that British colonists enjoyed this food tradition enough to carry it across an ocean, where it continued to evolve in form and recipe throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. An 1892 newspaper article claims that George Washington was so fond of Sally Lunn that it became known as “Washington’s breakfast bread” or “federal bread.”
Personally, I don’t think the plain, round versions pictured on the Sally Lunn’s bakery Web site look all that enticing. I’m more tempted by the bundt-cake version of Sally Lunn, topped with cardamom sugar, on the Brooklyn Farmhouse blog, and the Sally Lunn herbed rolls featured on the Food Channel.
Have you ever tried a Sally Lunn?
Here’s the circa 1770 recipe which was reprinted in the Williamsburg cookbook:
Beat four eggs well; then melt a large Tablespoonful of Butter, put it in a Teacup of warm Water, and pour it to the Eggs with a Teaspoon of Salt and a Teacup of Yeast (this means Potato Yeast); beat in a Quart of Flour making the Batter stiff enough for a Spoon to stand in. Put it to rise before the Fire the Night before. Beat it over in the Morning, grease your Cake-mould and put it in Time enough to rise before baking. Should you want it for Supper, make it up at 10:00 o’Clock in the Morning in the Winter and 12: o’Clock in the Summer.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.