PLYMOUTH — Tani Mauriello stretches a sticky ball of dough with her fingertips as she dusts the wood table with generous handfuls of flour. The yeasty round is pliant and fragrant. “Be gentle but firm,” she instructs. “The secret is well-floured hands.”
Mauriello is teaching 17th-century breadmaking techniques at the new Plimoth Bread Company, an interactive bakery exhibit at Plimoth Plantation. The bakery offers demonstrations, classes, workshops, and tastings of the dense, crusty breads and sweets originally made by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag people.
Plimoth Bread Company is not a traditional retail bakery, though the breads will be on sale later this month at the visitors’ center. The bakery has no electric beaters or mixers, but rather a new wood-fired clay oven. Breads rise in woven proofing baskets (not straw like they would have been in Colonial times, but plastic so they’re dishwasher safe); 16 loaves at a time can go into the oven.
Cooking demonstrations are common in Plimoth Plantation’s 1627 village, but because of public health laws, sharing the food is not allowed. This has always disappointed visitors, says spokeswoman Sarah Macdonald. “The bakery will ease frustrations of our guests who see meals being cooked but cannot sample the food. Sensory encounters are a central part of our visitors’ experience,” she says.
Mauriello, 34, who runs the bakery, is not a traditional baker. She’s a food historian with a doctoral degree from Oxford, who was always passionate about baking, and worked at bakeries in England and Connecticut. “I started baking professionally when I was looking for an academic job,” she says. At Plimoth Plantation, her work comes together at the intersection of food and history.
To launch the project, Mauriello and other staff had the painstaking job of interpreting bread and pastry recipes from old cookbooks stored in the museum’s archives. Their mission was to adapt recipes for contemporary baking while capturing historic textures and flavors.
“We had a few dark moments with the recipes,” says Kathy Devlin, 30, a foodways artisan at the museum. “The old recipes are vague at best,” she says. “Take some flour. Take eggs. Take a bowl of milk,” were the instructions Devlin and the group encountered. This gave them all a good laugh: “Trod on it for a good space of time.”
She says, “If you didn’t have a tool, you would walk on the dough,” a technique she and her colleagues tried out. Yet, other methods were clearer, like “Take the yolks of 16 eggs.”
Mauriello came up with a bakery menu after months of revamping old recipes. She mixes in spent yeast that has been used to make beer, donated by Mayflower Brewing Co. in Plymouth. Among the new bakery’s specialties are Plimoth Thirded Bread, a loaf of wheat, rye, and corn based on an original Plymouth Colony bread; cheate bread, made with whole-wheat flour and ground corn, from a 400-year-old recipe; ash cakes, a traditional Wampanoag treat, where pockets of cornbread are filled with pumpkin or strawberry, wrapped in a corn husk, and roasted in hot coals; iced cinnamon and pumpkin cornmeal rolls; and traditional oat cakes, cookies, and biscuits.
The new bakery is part of the living history museum’s recently renovated Crafts Center, where Native and European goods are re-created by hand. Fourteen gardens at the museum grow fruits and vegetables, including corn and squash, used in the desserts. Corn is ground 2 miles away at Plimoth Grist Mill, a reproduction 1636 mill powered by water, where a honeyed scent permeates the air as corn grinds. The surplus of ground corn is another reason the Plantation decided to open a bakery, says Macdonald.
Amid earthy wood-burning aromas in the kitchen, Mauriello advises observing visitors, “Don’t knead, just stretch.” She is dressed in an ivory pleated apron and a cotton cap to re-create the look of a Pilgrim. “Then fold the dough like a comforter.”
For Michael Marrone of Duxbury, the trip to the bakery’s opening is exciting. An avid bread baker, he uses a bread machine because he fears making a loaf without one.
“Watching [Mauriello] and the way she stretches the dough, that’s the biggest tip,” he says.
Maybe one day he’ll ditch the machine altogether.
Plimoth Bread Company, Plimoth Plantation, 137 Warren Ave., Plymouth, 508-746-1622, www.plimoth.org
Ann Trieger Kurland can be reached at email@example.com.