March 11th is Penny Loaf Day, though it is also traditional to set the observance to the Sunday closest to 11 March. This is an obscure holiday that I’d like to revive. Because first of all, it involves bread (so, duh, of course!), and second it celebrates generosity that has endured for nearly four centuries.
In 1644 during the First English Civil War, Hercules Clay of Newark, Nottingham, had a dream that his house would burn down. This was not so unusual a dream. Fire happened frequently in England and there was also a war on; it was understandable that fire nerves might plague his dreams on occasion. But the very next night, he had the same dream again. This was a bit more troublesome, but again he brushed it off and went about his business. However, the next night he again dreamt that his house would be engulfed in flames — because things always happen in three’s. The final dream came on the 11th of March. Deciding that he’d best heed the omens, he and his family left the house to shelter in the country. Meanwhile, the next night fighting made its way to Newark, and his house was in fact burnt to the ground, the collateral damage of an errant bomb from besieging military forces.
Grateful to heaven for what he decided was a life-saving warning, he established a fund of £100 to pay his good fortune forward. Every year on 11 March, the fund distributed penny loaves of bread as well as clothing and shoes to those in need. This was not entirely free; the recipients were obliged to hear a sermon first. At its height in the early 1800s, the dole handed out nearly 3,000 penny loaves each year.
The charity fund has been depleted since then, but the sermon is still read in Newark on the Sunday closest to 11 March. There are, however, efforts to revive the old ceremony. In recent years a few penny loaves have been handed out on March 11th — but these days without the obligatory sermon.
A penny loaf was a smallish loaf or bun that cost one penny when there were 240 pence to a pound. Recipes I’ve seen for “Irish Penny Loaves” and the like tend to remind me of the ubiquitous hot cross buns of spring. And indeed, the nursery rhyme “Hot Cross Buns” tells us that they cost “one a penny, two a penny / hot cross buns”. Presumably the cheaper bun is the day-old stale bread price.
I make hot cross buns the week before Easter (there will be another recipe!). But I’ve reposted the recipe from last year in case you want to hand out buns for your own Penny Loaf celebration.
Buns 1 cup milk 3 cups bread flour 1/4 cup brown sugar 1 tsp cinnamon 8 Tbs butter 1/2 tsp nutmeg 1/2 tsp salt 1/4 tsp powdered ginger 2 eggs 1/4 tsp powdered mace 1Tbs yeast 8-12 threads saffron 1/4 tsp almond extract 1 cup dried fruit of your choice (optional) Glaze 1 egg white 1/2 cup orange juice, pulp free and warmed slightly 1 tsp powdered sugar (or to desired taste & texture) Icing 2 cups powdered sugar 2 Tbs melted butter 2 cups orange juice (pulp is fine, fresh squeezed is good)
Warm the milk, brown sugar, butter and salt over low heat until the butter is melted. Let cool to about skin temperature. If unsure, measure it with a thermometer. It should be under 130°F; 95° is perfect.
Beat the eggs well and add them to the milk mixture.
Add the yeast and let it sit for 10 minutes. The mixture should get frothy.
Add the almond extract just before combining with the dry ingredients.
Dough before proofing
Dough after proofing
In a large bowl, stir together the flour and powdered spices. Grind the saffron with your fingers and mix that into the dry ingredients. Hands work best for this, so you get all the saffron into the dough.
If you have a sourdough culture and would like a more complex flavor to the buns, substitute 1-2 cups of firm starter for flour. Or just double the recipe and use half flour, half firm starter. (This is what I usually do.)
Add the milk mixture to the dry ingredients and mix well. Adjust flour to make a smooth, elastic dough.
Use your hands to mix in the dried fruit if wanted.
Cover the bowl, set in a warm place, and let the dough rise until doubled (or more). Probably 2 hours.
Carefully place the dough on a floured surface and cut into 10-12 equal pieces, trying not to de-gas the dough very much. Form these pieces into balls and set them, close together, in a lightly greased and floured baking pan.
Let these rise in a warm spot for 30-45 minutes, until about doubled again.
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
If you are using the glaze, separate the egg white and beat it well.
Add the sugar and orange juice and beat together. It should be somewhat syrupy.
When the buns are ready to go into the oven, brush the glaze over the top.
If desired cut an X into each bun with a sharp knife or baking razor (a lame).
Bake for 40 minutes in a 400°F oven until buns are golden.
To make icing (and there’s no reason why you can’t have both glaze and icing!), combine all the ingredients and beat them until you have a smooth paste. Adjust sugar as necessary.
Put the icing in a small baggie with the tip of one lower corner cut away. Or use a pastry sack if you’re fancy.
When the buns are cooked and cooled, draw an icing X on the top of each bun. (If you’ve cut into the buns before baking, simply fill the cuts with icing.)
This recipe makes 10-12 buns.
If you have leftovers (how?), these buns can be frozen. But they don’t seem to hold up well in the fridge. They quickly become the “two a penny” loaves. Or worse…
From the Book Cellar
— This recipe is a variant on one found in Celtic Folklore Cooking by Joanne Asala (2003, Llewellyn Publications).
— I first encountered the story of Penny Loaf Day in the delightful compendium of folklore, The Magpie and the Wardrobe by Sam McKechnie and Alexandrine Portelli (2015, Pavilion Books).
— For information on the English Civil War and background to this story, Rebecca Fraser’s The Story of Britain (From the Romans to the Present: A Narrative History, 2003, W. W. Norton & Co.) gives a thorough-going account that, like most “names & dates” history, does not quite explain why anyone participated except the lunatics. Still, it does give all the information. Then Patrick Dillon’s The Story of Britain (From the Norman Conquest to the European Union, 2010, Candlewick Press) in two pages gives enough traditional history to show what happened and yet manages to convey the mood and the important ideas to explain why. And this is why well-written kids’ books are better.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021