For about three years now, I have been thinking about making pumpernickel bread. In fact, i have been thinking about it so much that I have bought freshly milled rye flour and let it go rancid while I thought about it.
But the other day – was it the phase of the moon? The cast of the sun? The longing to eat at Katz’s Deli in NYC, which is only about 3000 miles away? I decided to take the plunge.
I was helped by browsing through The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York, by Claudia Roden. To be honest, I was looking for something else entirely (I can’t even remember what), but the book is so engaging and filled with fascinating and delicious-sounding recipes that I very easily got distracted and kept turning the pages, totally immersed and fantasising about cooking the entire book and blogging my experience, à la Julie & Julia. And then I happened upon the recipe for pumpernickel bread and I knew the time had come.
Pumpernickel bread is good for lots of things. It’s dark and moist and chewy without being dense, which makes it easy for 2 out of 3 kids (just like a survey!) to accept in sandwiches. It’s great with butter, and even more intense with cheese. It probably goes without saying that pumpernickel is fantastic with pastrami. The molasses has a deep flavour that adds to whatever you put on it, and in this version, the caraway adds – for me – a little note of nostalgia. It’s got very little white flour in proportion to the rye and the whole wheat, which to me makes this a “good for you” bread. Which means The Author might not like it, but in fact, he does!
The only problem with this bread is that if you don’t have all the accoutrements to make a truly NYC-style deli sandwich, you’ll have to make it again, because there may not be any left by the time you get back from the shops.
Adapted only slightly from The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York by Claudia Roden
Makes 2 loaves
This bread requires 2 days to make, but there is very little hands-on time. You also don’t need any special equipment; in fact, I tried to knead the dough in my stand mixer but resorted to kneading it by hand, as Roden specifies. The dough is too dense and sticky to get a proper work-out in the mixing bowl, and you do really have to feel it to see if it’s the right consistency.
The first day, make the starter. Mix the following ingredients in a bowl, cover with cling film, and leave on the counter or somewhere at room temperature for 24 hours.
- 1 TB yeast
- 250ml (1 cup) warm water
- 45g (1/4 C) white flour
- 45g (1/4 C) rye flour
After the starter has been around for 24 hours, make the dough. Here are the ingredients:
- 1 TB yeast
- 2 TB honey
- 375ml (1 2/3 cups) warm water
- 400g (3 1/2 cups) rye flour
- 300g (2 cups) wholemeal flour
- 300g (2 cups) white flour
- 1 TB salt
- 2 TB caraway seeds
- 4 TB sunflower oil
- 4 TB dark molasses
Mix together the yeast, honey and water. While you are waiting for it to froth, mix together in a large bowl the flours, salt and caraway seeds.
When the yeast mixture has started to bubble, add it to the flour mixture along with the oil, molasses and starter. Mix everything with your hands until the dough starts to come together. It will be sticky, but that might not be a problem; you won’t know until you start kneading it.
Turn it all out onto a floured surface and knead it for about 10 minutes. If it is too sticky to knead properly, dust it with a little bit of flour and keep kneading.
Once the dough has become very pliable and smooth, put it in a lightly oiled bowl, rub oil over the top of the dough, cover with cling film or a tea towel and leave in a warm place to rise. You want it to double in bulk, which should take about 2 hours, depending on how warm your warm place is.
When the dough has doubled, take it out of the bowl, punch it down and knead it for a few minutes. Then divide it into two, and press the halves into two greased bread tins (23x13x7.5 cm or 9x5x3 inch). Roden then says to slash the tops of the loaves, but to be honest, I didn’t see the point. (Slashing bread is mostly to control the rise in the oven, or for decoration. Plus it was very hard to get the knife into the bread tins.) I followed the instructions, but I wouldn’t bother next time.
Leave the loaves to double in size, and then, for a shiny finish, you can lightly brush them with an egg wash, which is simply a beaten egg brushed on top.
Bake the loaves in a preheated 180C (350F) oven for one hour. Roden advises placing a pan of water in the bottom of the oven, to create steam and improve the texture of the bread. I did this, and I would recommend it. It’s a great technique and you can use it for other breads as well.
The bread should be done after an hour. My oven is not the most reliable, and I generally tap and poke my bread to know when it is done, but with the pumpernickel, I couldn’t tell. The egg wash makes the top brown more quickly, so that doesn’t help the assessment. And the texture and density of the bread means that when you take it out of the tin and tap it, it doesn’t sound hollow, like most loaves would. So, just trust your oven the first time you make this, and I’m sure it will be fine. Anyway, as I always say, better overcooked than undercooked, so if in doubt, leave it in for another 5 or 10 minutes.
Try to let it cool before cutting it and then enjoy it in sandwiches, with cheese, butter, toast, anchovies… In the unlikely event that you have any left after a few days, you can make some really delicious croutons!