Harvest Festival Sheaf

Harvest festival in Primary School always has strong memories for me as both a pupil and member of staff. People still donate random tins of food perilously close to their best by date that the poor old dear wouldn’t have a clue about using (even I would struggle to make something tasty with tinned sprouts). The usual hymns of Who Put the Colours in the Rainbow are still sung with gumption including my personal favourite Paintbox and the new addition of Harvest Rock & Roll that usually includes the kids bopping along with actions.

 ‘Cauliflowers fluffy & cabbages green, strawberries sweeter than any I’ve seen, beetroot purple and onions white, all grow steadily day and night. The apples are ripe, and the plums are red, broadbeans and sleeping in their blankety beds’ – Paint Box

An important part of Harvest Festival is not necessarily its religious links for some people, but celebrating a bountiful harvest. It reminds us to be thankful and to share food with the less fortunate. Of course big theme of harvest often revolves around bread, the food of life. A tradition in many churches and schools is for bread to be made representing a sheaf of wheat and often features (for a reason I’m yet to understand apart from quaintness) a little bread harvest mouse with eyes made of cloves or currants.

As I teach cookery in a school I wanted to make a harvest sheaf for the pupils to take to chapel for their Harvest Celebrations on Friday, but had no experience of making one. To make something like this you need to use a decorative dough. A traditional bread dough won’t work due to the speed at which it rises. This took me 2.5 to make before baking. Imagine what normal bread dough would be like after 2.5 hours? Impossible to work with!  The salt to yeast ratio is quite high as the salt used to stop the yeast from working too fast and making the dough unworkable. Yet again twitter came to the rescue with a recipe. @sgratch recommended using the Hamelman’s Light Yeasted Decorative Dough recipe and advised what proportions of dough would work. He had only made a harvest sheaf a few days before hand.

I did toy with the idea of using plain flour rather than strong bread flour as I wouldn’t want the dough to ping back too much, however you also want to the dough to be stretchy so you can roll it in into thin shapes. You need a high gluten content for this to happen, and you get this by using strong bread flour. I’m not sure how easy it would be to make with wholemeal flour. This was one of the few times I was glad my kitchen was cold!

The key is to work on a small bit at a time. Keep the rest of the dough in the fridge to inhibit rising before you need to use it. The sheaf took me 2.5 hours to construct before being baked so it’s certainly not a quick last-minute thing to make for Harvest service. I hope to make it again next year, maybe with a class of pupils.

What memories of Harvest Festival do you have?

Harvest Festival Sheaf
Prep Time
4 hrs 40 mins
Cook Time
2 hrs
Total Time
6 hrs 40 mins
Based on recipe from Bread, A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes, by Jeffrey Hamelman 

Makes 30cm tall sheaf

Cuisine: British
Keyword: Baking, bread
  • 525 g strong white bread flour
  • 2 g fast action yeast
  • 8 g salt
  • 26 g milk powder
  • 23 g sugar
  • 26 g butter softened
  • 290 ml warm water
for decoration
  • 2 currants or cloves
  • 1 egg
  • pinch of salt
  • tbsp water
  1. Mix together all the dry ingredients then add the softened butter and water until combined to form a dough.
  2. Knead dough for 10 minutes until soft. Use the dough immediately.
  3. Split the dough in to these quantities: 400g base, 40 x 10g for wheat, 3 x 20g braid, 30-40g mouse
  4. Take the 400g of base dough and put the remaining dough in a covered bowl back in the fridge to keep cool.
  5. Grease an appropriate baking tray or line with baking parchment. Shape the dough into a rough sheaf shape and place on the baking tray.
  6. Start to build up the wheat one stalk at a time. To make the wheat, roll 10g of dough until approximately 30cm long then fold the end over 4 times and squash to make a giant tadpole shape. Stick to the base with water then use scissors to make snips in the head.
  7. Continue to add the stalks until all the wheat stalk dough has been used up. Make the braid and attach to the sheaf with water.
  8. To make the mouse roll a small amount of dough to make a tail then roll the remaining dough into an egg shape. Exaggerate the nose (so it almost looks like a shrew) because once in the oven the nose will shrink. Attach to disks of dough to the side of the head to make the ears. Stick the mouse to the sheaf then add the eyes using cloves or currants.
  9. Whisk together an egg, tbsp of water and pinch of salt, then glaze the dough.
  10. Bake at 160oc until dough is golden and dried out. After and hour of baking slide the sheaf off the sheet directly on to the oven shelf to help bake the underneath. In my case this total baking took nearly 2 hours. If the top is browning too quickly cover with foil.

25 thoughts on “Harvest Festival Sheaf”

  • absolutely lovely, I hope your pupils will be able to experience helping to make on next year, children love to bake!

  • You are clever. I’m quite inspired to make my own but wouldn’t quite know what to do with it! I always thought that tins spoiled the arrangement at harvest festival in church when I was a child.

  • My aunt used to make one of these for our school harvest festival every year. I assume she used ‘normal’ bread dough as after the service it was cut up and all us kids got a piece with some butter on. Only me, my bro or one of my cousins got the mouse though because it was our aunt/mum that had made it!!

    • Hi Lisa, thanks for the comment. I love that it was shared after the service, I think I would want the mouse too! As I made this on the Monday for the service on Friday I knew it would be stale by Friday so (hopefully!) they haven’t shared it after the service.

    • Your sheaf looks fantastic! I saw some of the vegetable creations at the village show last week including one that looked like Mr Spoon from Button Moon.

  • It looks amazing, a real labour of love. I think the children you teach are very lucky to have such a dedicated and talented teacher! I’d love to have a go at one some day, but haven’t really got a reasonable excuse!

  • Hi Jules

    How long will the loaf keep? Hoping to make with a group of children for harvest as a non-edible but decorative centrepiece and just wondering how far in advance we can make it.


    • Hi Alison,
      As long as you cook it low for a long time you are essentially drying it out. This Harvest Sheaf was kept on display for a year in school until it was unfortunately knocked off the shelf and broke.
      If you make it you must send me pictures. I’d love to see it.

        • Hi Jules

          Quite a sight with 25 children (3-15 years) creating 4 harvest loaves in 30 mins! All enjoyed the experience. Many found it challenging to get the wheat strands long and thin – one 11 year old helped his mum bake so was ‘whacking it on the table to stretch the gluten’ – we all learnt something from him! The warmth of children beavering away meant the finished dough creation was rising quickly – but hasn’t distracted from the final production of which they are proud. hoping to get some photos to you.

          Last couple of questions: harvest service is in 2 weeks – ok to store wrapped in foil? One loaf came out slightly soft on the bottom from the oven on Sunday – best to pop it back in the oven again to dry out some more?


          • Alison,

            Sounds like you all had a great time. They should be ok wrapped in foil. Just make sure you store them somewhere dry. The sheaf I featured in the post lasted a year in school until it was accidentally knocked off the shelf and broke.

            For the soft one put it in a low oven for a bit longer to help dry it out a bit more.

            I look forward to seeing the photos.

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