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A penny bun, or penny loaf, is a British term for a small loaf of bread. The penny bun was sized according to guidelines established by England's Assize of Bread and Ale of 1226. While it was called a penny bun, however, the term wasn't a specific reference to its cost. Both its price and its weight could fluctuate according to the type of flour used in the bread. The law changed over the centuries, and a modern reference to a penny bun is more likely to refer to a yeast sweet roll made with white flour than to a plain loaf of bread.
Contemporary recipes for penny buns frequently include candied or dried fruit and have a sugary glaze on top. Most recipes make a light, sweet, buttery roll that is similar to a hot cross bun. They are made like most other yeast breads and are fairly easy to make; most beginners could make the bread. The important step, as with all yeast breads, is to use good yeast and to give the breast enough time to rise.
The penny bun was popular enough in England over the years that it came to have a day named after it. Penny Bun Day, or Penny Loaf Day, came about after a prophetic dream by a rich Englishman. The Nottingham town of Newark was under siege during the English Civil War in 1644 when Hercules Clay dreamed on three successive nights that his house burned down. The third dream convinced him to evacuate his family, and his house was later destroyed in the war.
Grateful for the warning dreams, Clay created a fund of £100 Great Britain Pounds (GBP) to provide penny buns, food and clothing for the poor every March 11, the anniversary of his third dream. By the 1800s, thousands of penny buns were handed out in exchange for the recipients first listening to a sermon. The original fund is history, but the Penny Loaf Day sermon remains a tradition in parts of rural England.
While bread is the most common form of penny bun, there are other foods that also carry the name, including the California king bolete mushroom. The large, meaty mushroom, also known as the porcini mushroom, grows throughout North America and Europe in the summer to late autumn. It is popular with chefs and appears in a variety of recipes.
The statement that a penny bun was not a specific reference to its cost is inaccurate. Originally, a penny bun was a precise and highly regulated definition of what the consumer was purchasing: a penny's worth of grain, based on the prevailing and official price of grain/flour, with a small fee for the baker.
This transparency between price and product was understood by consumers, with serious consequences for bakers who violated it. This price transparency is the origin of the term, and why "penny bun" continues to be used as a unit of economic measure (Gorman, and others). Later, the original term persisted after regulatory price transparency ended, and became a name for a variety of buns, and was no longer a definition of price or value.
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