Trail Bread

or “Bacon Bread” (circa 1850, on the Oregon Trail)  Once one knows how to make this, it’s  very easy, though it shouldn’t be attempted if you are not familiar with the way good bread dough feels as you work it.

Two loaves of Trail Bread, or Bacon Bread

Ann was the wife of a lawyer who got “gold fever.”  The entire family traveled the Oregon Trail to California’s gold country.  They were seriously unfit for life on the prairies, a fact that Ann acknowledged often in the diary she kept.   This recipe (minus all proportions, but full of  other information) is one Ann learned early when she was unable make the butter she usually used to make her bread.

In some ways Ann was much like we are today.  The idea of using the “drippings” from bacon in something as refined as a big, beautiful loaf of bread repelled her.  She wasn’t used to the idea that you “make it, repair it, or do without.”  Fortunately she learned as she traveled the trail, and recorded it all in her diary.  She wasn’t used to cooking over an open fire, using only  a cast iron dutch oven and a cast iron skillet.   She wasn’t used to a world that had no milk  or butter.  (Cows were walking the trail with their humans, but most didn’t successfully give birth – a requirement for producing milk, cream, or butter.)   “Dirty” lard repelled her. She disliked the “broiled or boiled” cooking style.  She did, however, keep a very nice diary which I read in the “rare books” section of the library at the University of Michigan.  I was already a Girl Scout leader back then and I learned a lot about outdoor cooking from Ann.

This is the indoor version for a “fine high loaf of white bread” — made with bacon grease.

After breakfast you start with a large fistfull of “old dough.”  (Old dough is the uncooked bread dough that you saved from a previous loaf of homemade bread.)  Add sufficient warm water to dissolve the old dough (about 2 cups.) Add enough flour to build a sponge.  (Try 2 cups, or a little more and stir it until smooth.)  Tightly cover the container until lunch. (Let the sponge rest for 3-4 hours.) Render several thick slices of bacon for lunch and save the pan.  (Fry 4-5 thick slices of bacon, saving most of the fat in an open container such as a bowl, then use your spatula to scrape the rest of the fat and small bits of cooked meat into your  bread sponge.  You should have about 3 tablespoons of nasty looking, lukewarm, gray fat with bits of bacon in the fat.)   Knead in sufficient flour to shape the dough. You will have a “fine high loaf” to bake in time for dinner.

Or, to write it in more modern terms (though the above is greatly “modernized”)…

To make 2 loaves

  1.  Combine a healthy handful of old dough with 2 cups of lukewarm water  

    A healthy handful of old dough. It;s gloppy stuff.
  2. Add 2 cups of flour, stirring until smooth.  You should have a very thick paste — it’s not liquid, but it’s not so solid you need to use your hands to mix it.
  3. Cover the bowl and ignore it for 3-4 hours.
  4. Meanwhile, fry 4-5 strips of bacon, and don’t wash the pan.  Pour all the fat in the pan into a small bowl.  Scrape what remains in the bottom of the bacon pan into your bowl of dough.  It should be about 3 tablespoons of (more or less liquid) fat.
  5. When your 3-4 hours are up, add another 2 cups of flour to your dough.  Mix well, using your hands if necessary.
  6. Using as much flour as necessary, knead the dough until very smooth and elastic.  This bread takes a lot of kneading, and sometimes as much as another cup and a half of flour!
  7. Using the bacon grease in the small bowl, heavily grease 2 bread pans.
  8. Shape your loaves, place them into the pans, and let them rise until doubled in size.  About 2 hours, perhaps a little more — it all depends on the amount and type of “old dough” that you started with….
  9. Preheat your oven to 500° F (yes, very, very hot!  Remember this recipe is designed for an open fire!)  Slash the tops of the loaves with at least 3 diagonal slashes immediately before placing the loaves in the oven.
  10. Bake for 10 minutes and reduce the heat to 350°F then bake until the bread tests done (about another 30 minutes.) Take the loaves out of the pans and let them cool on a bread rack for at least 15 minutes.
See the darker brown areas? That’s the bacon!

Happy eating!


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