Earlier this year, I annotated a series of historical recipes for Viewpoint, the newsletter of the British Society for the History of Science. Someone wrote in to observe I had misspelled “zweiback” in the recipe copied verbatim from a 1960s US Little League cookbook.

Here was my reply:

I understand well the frustration of seeing a familiar word mis-adapted into other languages; I have still not wholly reconciled myself to “biscotti” being a singular noun in English.

As for “Zwieback”, it does indeed etymologically mean “twice baked”. Both “zwieback” and “zweiback” are spelling variations attested in seventeenth-century German. (Grimm and Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch) In English, therefore, the word “zweiback” is that interesting category of mispelling, the hypercorrection. Indeed, the spelling “zweiback” is the first attested instance of the word in English, in 1894 in the N.Y. Weekly Tribune. (OED)

While I grant that I know no contemporary dictionary which had approved the e-before-i spelling, it is nevertheless a widely-used variation in the United States, to such a degree that I had largely stopped seeing it. Not only is the “zweiback”well-used in recipe books – such as the Memphis Cookbook whose spelling as well as recipe I borrowed – but in commercial production by Log House Foods, which sells “Log House Original Zweiback Toast”.

had the biscuit

Despite my years in Canada, I can’t say I had encountered the phrase “had the biscuit” before today. As someone who is rather fond of biscuit-based phrases – something else I don’t think I so clearly knew before today – I was astonished to encounter it on a list of Canadianism.

Something which is broken or unusable has “had the biscuit”. Dead watches and badly-ripped clothing have had the biscuit.

Or is it just “had the biscuit”? I don’t see a great deal of consistency in tense among the first few examples of it I have encountered.

An initial trawl of websites yields the consensus that cookies are not involves in this biscuit however; it’s a Canadian Protestant derogatory term for the communion wafer, specifically that received during Extreme Unction.

My Canadian visitor was mildly surprised that I had somehow missed the phrase; but then I don’t think we’ve spent much of our friendship discussing broken things.

P.S. I didn’t forget about One Peppercorn! I’ve had a serious case of life lately: among other things, multiple international trips, good for adding to my food-related vocabulary.

no-knead bread

A couple of years ago, on November 8, 2006, an article in the New York Times on no-knead bread caused rippled around the food-blogging world. Esteemed cookbook author Mark Bittman adapted professional baker Jim Leahy’s recipe for his ongoing food and recipe series in the New York Times. From there, it went across the web.

Supposedly, the original recipe became so popular that – because it’s dangerous to knobs on Le Creuset pots – those knobs were being widely stolen. Following links dealing with this supposed theft back, I get to here. The proof is thin enough that this story may well be urban legend.

Bittman returned to the challenge of the recipe, developing another version which was higher in whole wheat and had a shorter proofing time of only four hours, a third to a fifth of the originally-recommended duration. Others took up the challenge of variation too, including the first of the two mentions of it I ran across this week. Pim Techamuanvivit, in The Foodie Handbook (2009), compares and contasts Leahy’s original recipe with Bittman’s variation, and tries her own variations, from a purple loaf to one using her own sourdough starter. (pp. 207-212) She also quotes that knob theft story.

The second time I encountered the recipe this week was on the blog Lottie + Doof, in a post entitled Pizza (Pulp Fiction + Jim Leahy), where the comments wandered into a confusion of just who to credit with the no-knead recipe. It’s not a one-part transmission story since both Bittman’s multiple variations and Leahy’s own version are publicly available. Leahy’s boost from Bittman led to the title of his next cookbook, My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method (2009).

It’s also not a one-part transmission story because Leahy didn’t invent no-knead bread. He refined and adapted existing recipes, so he certain deserves credit for that, as well as his role in bringing it to Bittman’s attention. The oldest no-knead recipe which Google News offers is from The Milwaukee Journal, 1945. It cites “a baking expert who has perfected this method which entirely eliminates the task of kneading bread”. The recipe is fast, but – among other things – doesn’t make use of the later addition of a Dutch oven to retain moisture during baking. The recipe was probably taken from a Pillsbury pamphlet produced in that same year, “Bake the No-Knead Way”. (Mentioned in this article.) It was developed by Ellen Pennell, working for Pillsbury Mills, as the director of Ann Pillsbury home service activities.

Even as Bittman came back to make a whole wheat version of Leahy’s recipe, so too did Milwaukee Journal readers request a whole wheat version of the no-knead recipe they’d printed; it was published only a few weeks after the first. Skipping ahead, past a moderate handful of other mentions and versions, a 1981 article from The Sumter Daily Item observes that “If you browse through the pages of your grandmother’s cookbook, you’ll provably [sic] find a few yeast bread recipes that require no kneading….” The article’s suggested improvement on “your grandmother’s cookbook” was to microwave the loaf, instead of baking. I have no idea how good or inedible a microwaved loaf would be.

In 1982, cookbook authors Carol Bates and Ceri Vaughan authored The Easy No-Knead Bread Book. Bates, along with Sylvia Isaac, wrote a 1987 followup, The Even Easier No-Knead Bread Book. Without immediate access to those, I can’t say what they added or changed about the process, but they certainly will have helped publicize it to some degree.

To observe that versions of no-knead bread pre-date Bittman’s 2006 article in no way disparages what Bittman and Leahy have achieved. I don’t know that a Dutch oven was involved in the process before Leahy, and its retention of moisture is, from all accounts, one of the major reasons why the recipe is so popular. Bittman was the popularizer; Leahy’s recipe wouldn’t necessarily have ever gained a fraction of its current fame without him. (I do idly notice that the recipe achieved its modern fame by means of two men; the rest of its history is, as far as I have traced it, developed by women.)

The importance of PR should never be underrated. Just because something exists, doesn’t mean anyone knows about, to be able to use and take advantage of it. After all, I bet you’d never heard of Ellen Pennell before today, the original developer and publicizer of no-knead bread. Or was she? It wouldn’t surprise me at all to know that the recipe pre-dates 1945.


A recurring theme at this weekend’s Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery was the way food words are passed off to other languages and acquire new meanings there. One of the more straightforward of these is “brioche”. In France – as, indeed, in most places – it is a yeast bread made with eggs and milk, with a richly golden brown crust. It is the baked good which Marie Antoinette supposedly mentioned when, in translation, she said, “Let them eat cake.”

In Italy, however, it means a kind of croissant, usually one filled with jam. It is a morning snack commonly available in bars and pastry shops. The dictionary at Garzanti Linguistica translates the French word “brioche” first as “(cuc.) brioche, brioscia (panino dolce di pasta lievitata con burro e uova)”. In other words, although it starts with “brioche”, it must elaborate further, calling it croissant-like before giving it a recipe for clarity. The definition for “brioscia”, in turn, explains that Italian croissants differ from French ones in both shape and type of dough.

Sicilian brioches are different again, more like the usual French ones, but with further locally-integral variations, such as candied lemon peel. (To be clear, there are variations on it in France too.) In Italian, it’s all good, so long as one likes sweet baked goods.

In French, colloquially, it’s also a word for stomach, as in, “prendre une brioche”, to get a potbelly. Another variant, from the Wiktionary, offers “avoir une brioche au four” as “to have a bun in the oven” in the English colloquial sense. Older dictionaries (1922, plus Garzanti Linguistica) have it as slang too: when masculine, it’s a “mistake”. Given its lack of presence in more modern sources, I wonder if it’s now old-fashioned and has died out. The current online Larousse dictionary doesn’t include it; nor do the first few slang dictionaries I checked.

The OED puts its earliest attested use in English at 1826, when, delightfully, in Mary Russell Mitford’s Our Village (Vol. II, p. 298) the narrator observes that her cousin “left it to my good senses to discover the merits of brioche and marrangles and eau de groseille”, beginning the process of teaching the twelve-year-old viewpoint character to find learning French a worthwhile project, and not a mistake at all.

*© S. Worthen 2009