Bishop’s bread

June 16, 2012 § 21 Comments

While at my mom’s high school reunion last weekend, it was fascinating comparing my mom’s prep school years with my own high school experience. Some things were vastly different; I never had compulsory chapel and I never trudged across a quad (dubbed Siberia, though it’s flat so no one went across it uphill both ways!) in the snow at 20 below.

Another stark difference? The food, of course: judging by the recipes in The Northfield Cookbook, it appears the Northfield students ate well, enjoying such deliciousness as maple syrup fudge, fluffy Northfield rolls, and of course, one of my mom’s favorites, Bishop’s bread for breakfast.

I think my high school would be hard-pressed to even come up with enough recipes to fill a cookbook; about the only “dish” I can think of is French fries we drowned in Old Bay, which, while unbelievably satisfying, does not exactly require a written recipe.

But back to the Bishop’s bread!

From what I could find about the history of the school and its founder, I was unable to ascertain why it’s called Bishop’s bread when it is really more of a cake in my opinion, thanks to its very tender crumb. However, what is known is that it is quite an old recipe, as it was submitted to the cookbook by a member of the class of 1928, Helen Gould Benney.

In the recipe footer she declares that Bishop’s bread is so good, the seniors were willing to forgo the privilege of “sleeping over” (sleeping in) to get some. Judging by the smell alone while it is baking, I can see why generations of students dragged themselves out of bed for a slice!

The cake is rich with molasses-y depth from its main ingredient, dark brown sugar, which also colors it a magnificent tawny brown, and a hint of cinnamon accents the sweetness with a bit of warmth. While Bishop’s bread is a simple cake owing to its provenance in school dormitory kitchens, with its dusting of brown sugar crumb topping, I think it’s a cake suitable not just for breakfast but also for dessert, especially when served with fresh seasonal fruit.

Bishop’s bread

Adapted from The Northfield Cookbook

Makes 16 slices


  • Two and a half cups (320 grams) sifted all-purpose flour
  • Two cups (400 grams) dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • One and a half teaspoons cinnamon, plus a bit extra for dusting over top
  • 1/2 cup (90 grams) shortening
  • One teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • One egg, beaten
  • 3/4 cup (175 mL) buttermilk or clabbered milk (to make clabbered milk, pour a splash of white vinegar or lemon juice into a measuring cup, top it off with regular milk to the required volume) (or use regular milk, swapping out the 1/2 teaspoon baking soda above for an additional teaspoon of baking powder)

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (205 degrees Celsius). Grease a nine-inch-square cake pan and set aside.

2. In a large bowl, blend together the flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, and shortening with a pastry blender or fork; a few lumps here and there are fine. Reserve 3/4 of a cup of the brown sugar-flour-shortening mixture, preferably without any lumps, for topping the cake later.

3. Add the baking powder, baking soda if needed (if using buttermilk or clabbered milk, you do need it), beaten egg, and buttermilk/clabbered milk (or milk) and beat until the batter is smooth. Pour batter into the greased pan and sprinkle the top with the reserved brown sugar, flour, and cinnamon topping. Sprinkle a bit of extra cinnamon over top too.

4. Bake the case for thirty-five minutes or until a tester comes out clean; do not overbake. Enjoy right away, warm, or later at room temperature. Serve with fresh fruit or whipped cream or custard, if you like.

Note: you can also add in chopped nuts or raisins, but my mom doesn’t recall that ever happening when she was at Northfield.


Gould Benney, Helen. “Bishop’s Bread.” The Northfield Cookbook. Northfield, Massachusetts: The Northfield School Alumnae Association, 1957 (32).


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§ 21 Responses to Bishop’s bread

  • Looks delicious to me. I am a buttermilk fiend.

  • Rose says:

    I’ve heard of bishops bread but have never tried making one yet. I have heard wonderful things about this cake, yours look very delicious. I hope I can make mine look and taste just like yours.

    • kristina says:

      I hope you enjoy making the bread (well, cake really). I’m thrilled that someone not from NMH has heard of it. Thanks for stopping by!

      • Mike says:

        Hi, my Grandmother, who lived in Kentucky and West Virginia, had the identical recipe. It was a favorite of my Dad’s in the 1920’s and has been passed down to us and continues to be a family favorite. I would like to know the connection! Thank you for posting this.

  • […] Very loosely inspired by Bishop’s Bread […]

  • Laurie says:

    What a nice write-up! Reflections on your mother’s experience as well as a recipe for something we all cherished! The pictures are great too!
    Thank you so much! Laurie Reich Kiely, Northfield ’70.

    • kristina says:

      So pleased that you enjoyed the recipe and the pictures. It was a wonderful trip for me to see both the Northfield campus and the new combined NMH campus.

      Hope you enjoy the Bishop’s bread!

  • MME says:

    My mom also went to Northfield but back when it was a girls’ campus. We eat this Christmas morning every year. It may be a distinctly NMH recipe though…most Bishop’s Bread have candied fruits but the omission may just be an Episcopal thing getting rid of unnecessary bits.

    • kristina says:

      My mom was also there back when it was Northfield for women and Mt. Hermon for men! I wonder if they were there at the same time?

      I did ask my mom why there wasn’t anything else in the bread and she said she had no idea, though the Episcopal theory may have merits!

      Thanks for sharing your Bishop’s bread memories – Christmas morning sounds like the perfect time to enjoy it.

  • Meesh says:

    First of all, what a wonderful blog you have- I have really enjoyed wandering through it! Nicely done! I found it when I went searching for a recipe- actually I was looking for two- that we made when I attended Northfield many years ago. I was happy to find the Bishops Bread recipe as that was definitely a favorite I am planning to cook again soon. (Last time I made it was in the late sixties when I was working in the kitchen at Wilson Hall where we regularly cooked for sixty people!) Glad to have a version that will feed a smaller crew! The other recipe is one I cannot recall the name of- but may be in the cookbook you reference- it was an amazing airy lemon custard-like concoction served with a vanilla sauce. I seem to recall egg whites and gelatin being part of it as well… I would be so grateful if you’d look in your cookbook and see if it’s there… Thanks so much,

    Meesh Rheault Miller
    Class of 1970

    now living in Olympia, WA

    • kristina says:

      Is it the Angel Cake with Lemon Filling? Here is the recipe, verbatim, from page 55:

      1 “store-boughten” angel or orange chiffon cake
      6 eggs, separated
      1 and 1/2 cups sugar
      1 can frozen concentrated lemon juice
      1 envelope gelatin
      1/4 cup water

      Cut cake into pieces (horizontally through the middle and then into slices) and line a rectangular glass cake dish with them. Beat egg yolks until light; then beat in 3/4 cup sugar and add the concentrated lemon juice. Cook this mixture until thickened into custard. Dissolve the gelatin in the 1/4 cup water and add to custard. Cool. Beat egg whites until stiff, gradually adding remaining 3/4 cup sugar. Fold into cooled custard. Pour over the cake pieces and let stand about 24 hours in the refrigerator. Serves 12 to 15.

      This is an easy dessert for a big batch of company – and very good. -Nancy Bartram Beecher, ’44.

      Many other desserts feature sauces too, but this is the only one with lemon. It certainly sounds delicious, I might try to make a smaller version of it myself.

      My mom, who was the class of ’62, says that her friend, from the class of ’58, recently worked on another Northfield cookbook. She thinks it came out in 2008 or so, and she says she will email her friend to see if your dessert is in there, or if she remembers the dessert. I will post a comment back here for you once we hear from her. (I was only able to find the ’57 cookbook just now when I Google searched.)

    • Susan Tonner says:

      Meesh – What good fortune to find the “original” recipe for Bishop’s Bread and a way to contact you after these few years! I have thought of you often and have fond memories of your dancing the lead in Carousel, stories of your father’s time in Viet Nam with the Montagnard tribesmen, your wearing his West Point uniform, and, most of all, your wonderful personality and wit. I would love to keep in touch with you and catch up with what the last few decades have brought.

      As to the Bishop’s Bread: it appears from the other feedback that the Wilson Hall girls had the best BB on campus – I remember that we always served it when the Reverend William Sloane Coffin joined us for Sunday lunch/dinner It must have been one of his favorites, too.

      Hope to hear from you soon.


  • Karen McMahon says:

    Hello Kristina!
    I am a Northfield grad, Class of ’69 and we are coming up on our 45th Reunion this coming June!
    During my Northfield years, Bishops Bread was such an incredible treat and we looked forward to it INTENSELY! There was nothing like Bishops Bread for breakfast in the middle of a cold, endless school week. It smelled so wonderful and tasted so terrific. There would often be a lighthearted competition in my dorm as to who could eat the most Bishops Bread. Eight pieces was the number to beat, as I recall. Can you imagine?
    Since I’ve had children, every Christmas morning I’ve gotten up early to bake the sweet smelling Bishops Bread. What an amazing joy to have one of my sons call me, asking for the recipe so that he can make Bishops Bread tomorrow, Christmas morning, for his own family.

    Karen Hoff McMahon
    Class of 1969 — Wilson Hall — Northfield School
    (Hello Meesh!)

    • erik says:

      This is completely different from the bishops bread I know. It’s not cakey like that or dark. It’s like fruit cake except with chocolate chips, candy cherrys, dates and wlnuts. Completely different…

  • jean hazen says:

    jean, Class of ’54
    What a nice posting. I was just looking online for the recipe, and I came across your lovely blog. Thank you for “putting it all together,” and now….off to the kitchen! (From now on, I will make it every Christmas morning!) THANKS

  • Gwyneth Radloff says:

    How can I get this cookbook? Does it have a recipe for Chocolate Lush? I remember making that at Hillside and Merrill-Keep. It was yummy! I also remember Hard Sauce.
    Gwyneth Radloff, NMH 1972

  • Paul Montague says:

    Used to make it for 100 at NMH in the late 70’s. One of my favorites.

  • Joyce says:

    I love that you have the recipe but even better are the pictures that bring me right back to school! There were a lot of strange concoctions we came up for meals with during the 4 years in the dining halls (Merrill-Keep and Gould) but I loved that “cake”. class of ’94 I always make it for Thanksgiving breakfast but needed a refresher on the recipe – thanks!!

  • Frank Partel says:

    Made Bishops Bread yesterday for Thanksgiving 2016 today. Great fun; great result. Many thanks.
    FJP Mount Hermon 1959

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