When I lived in Germany for a semester in college, I came to appreciate the dense, dark loaves of bread that fortified the body — and perhaps the soul as well — on cold, wet days, when served with a steaming bowl of lentil soup from the student cafeteria. There were many different varieties, and they each had a distinct name and unique makeup: Vollkornbrot (wholemeal bread), Bauernbrot (farmer bread), Schwarzbrot (black bread), even Sonnenblumenkernbrot (sunflower-seed bread). They all may contain a mixture of wheat, rye and other whole grains, but Schwarzbrot is typically made of all, or mostly all, rye flour, giving it the dark complexion whence it is named.
Black bread, though not really black but a dark brown, isn’t unique to Germany. Scandinavia, Austria, Russia and many Eastern European countries have their own versions. And it’s no wonder, since rye grows well in cooler climates.
Rye has less gluten than wheat, which results in a heavier loaf with a tighter crumb. That also means it takes longer to get a rise out of it, which is why many bakers use sourdough or another type of starter to help it along. I went a different route, combining Paul Hollywood’s rye bread recipe in his cookbook How to Bake with this one from The Guardian, mixing up the dough in the evening and leaving it to rise at room temperature overnight.
Following the recipe in The Guardian, I mixed the flour with boiling water, which helps convert the starch into sugar, resulting in a “sweeter, more complex flavor.” Paul’s recipe calls for about a tablespoon of molasses (i.e., treacle), but I decided to try using malt syrup (sometimes called malt extract), which is less sweet but is supposed to enhance the browning of the crust. I also added pumpkin seeds and golden raisins to my loaf for a bit of sweetness and crunch.
I ended up with a very sticky dough. By working it long enough, adding a little flour and oiling my hands frequently, I was able to get it into a somewhat smooth ball. I left it in the microwave (a warm, draft-free place) overnight, and the next morning I knocked the air out; shaped it into a cob, or ball shape; laid it in my well-floured proofing basket; and let it prove for three more hours. Finally, it was ready to bake. I put a roasting pan in the bottom of the oven as it was heating, so when I put the bread in the oven I also poured boiling water into the roasting pan, creating a burst of steam that made the crust thick and chewy.
The result was a smallish, dense but flavorful loaf, reminiscent of what I enjoyed in Germany. After our first slice, my husband and I agreed we needed some smoked fish and sharp cheese to go with it, so I made a quick run to the store. Adding a few capers and fresh dill from the CSA* box to our smoked salmon and rye bread sandwiches made for a wonderful midsummer smorgasbord!
*CSA stands for community-supported agriculture. We get a box of produce every other week throughout the Wisconsin growing season, supporting a local farmer and enjoying a variety of vegetables, fruits and herbs I wouldn’t necessarily buy in the store. Check for one in your area here! (This directory covers the U.S. only. Look for similar programs in your own country.)
Rye, Raisin & Pumpkin-Seed Loaf
- 3¾ c. rye flour, plus more for dusting
- 2 t. salt
- 1½ c. + 6-8 T. water, freshly boiled
- 4½ t. instant yeast
- 4 t. barley malt syrup (or molasses)
- 1/3 c. pumpkin seeds, toasted
- 1/3 c. golden raisins
- Olive oil
- Put the flour and salt in a large bowl and pour 1½ c. boiling water over it. Mix with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula to form a paste. Leave to cool a little. Sprinkle the yeast over the paste and add malt extract or molasses, pumpkin seeds, and raisins. Add just enough additional warm water, a tablespoon or two at a time, to bring it together into a soft, but not too sticky, dough.
- Coat your work surface with a little olive oil, then tip the dough onto it and begin to knead. Keep kneading it for 5-10 minutes until it loses some of its stickiness and begins to feel smooth. (Note: It will feel different from a conventional wheat flour dough — less smooth and stretchy.)
- Put the dough into a lightly oiled bowl. Cover with a damp tea towel and leave in a relatively warm, draft-free location for at least four hours, but preferably overnight, until it’s risen about 1½ times its original size.
- Tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Fold it over on itself repeatedly until the air is knocked out. Form into a smooth, round “cob” by turning it on the surface and tucking the edges underneath until the top is smooth and tight. Generously dust the inside of a large, round proofing basket with rye flour. Put the dough into it, smooth side down. (Note: If you don’t have a proofing basket, you can place the loaf directly on a parchment-lined baking sheet, smooth side up.)
- Leave to prove for 2-3 hours, until doubled in size. When it has almost doubled, preheat the oven to 425°F and put a roasting pan in the bottom of the oven to heat up. Put a kettle of water on to boil. Invert the loaf carefully onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. You should be able to see the pattern left by the proofing basket in the dough. Slash the top of the loaf with a sharp knife. Pour boiling water into the roasting pan to create steam, and put the bread into the oven. Bake for 30-35 minutes until the loaf is well-browned on top and the internal temperature reaches 190°F. Allow to cool on a rack before slicing.