A rye for right now

OK, all you coronavirus quarantine bread bakers out there. It’s time to get serious.

You’ve done banana breads, zucchini breads, blueberry muffins, and buttermilk biscuits.

You’ve tried your hand at pan loaves, hearth loaves, flatbreads, and tortillas.

You’ve launched into the adventure called sourdough, and maybe you’ve begun to coddle and coo over your starter like it’s a precious child. Or maybe you’ve decided you never really liked kids much and that finding the little no-maintenance yeast packets at the grocery store before the other hoarders do is all the challenge you need right now.

If you’re especially brave, maybe you even set out to make every one of the Washington Post’s “10 best breads in the world,” a ludicrous list (what, no cornbread? no soft pretzel? for the love of god, no bloody croissant?) but a fine way to bake your way through a couple of weeks of stay-at-home frustration.

Here’s one more to try: Baltic black rye bread.

Chef Sin and I discovered this during our concert tour of Finland and the Baltic states last summer (back when international travel was something that people did) with Siskiyou Singers. In every country we visited, the breakfast buffet included a huge basket of this amazing substance.

Don’t confuse it with dark rye, Russian rye, pumpernickel, or any similar bread. This stuff is dense and bitter yet still moist and sweet. It’s bread for people who like their coffee black, their bourbon neat, and their quiet mornings enlivened by a sharp, delicious punch in the mouth.

I spent six months trying various recipes in search of one that best replicated what we had devoured during that glorious two-week tour. This one, with a few modifications by me, comes close. It requires both prepared yeast and sourdough starter, so you’ll need to plan in advance. Although the rise and bake can be done in a day, you really should let the loaf sit overnight before slicing.

It’s worth the extra effort; the resulting bread is amazing. Try it toasted and slathered in butter or topped with cream cheese, cured salmon, and capers. I’m sure it would be great snuggling a stack of pastrami and schmear of mustard; thanks to quarantine, unfortunately, we’ve got plenty time to find out.

Baltic Black Rye Bread

Adapted from Breads of the World by Mariana Honig (1977)

1 cup brewed coffee
1/2 square (1/2 ounce) semi-sweet baking chocolate
2 tablespoons molasses
1 1/2 teaspoons yeast
1/4 cup lukewarm water
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 cup sourdough starter
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
1 tablespoon salt
1 cup 100% bran cereal, ground to flour in a blender
3 cups rye flour
1 egg, yolk separated

Bring the coffee to a boil, turn off the heat, and stir in the chocolate to let it melt. Add the molasses and stir again. Let cool until lukewarm.

Dissolve the sugar in the lukewarm water and add yeast to proof. Mix together the yeast mixture, the coffee mixture and the sourdough starter. Add the caraway seeds, salt, ground bran cereal and stir in the flour, cup by cup.

When you have a dough that you can knead, place it on a lightly floured work surface, kneading until elastic and smooth.

Place in a large buttered bowl, cover with a towel and let stand in a warm place to rise until doubled in bulk. This should take about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees with baking stone on middle rack. Take the dough out again and punch down a couple of times. Shape into a round loaf and place back in buttered bowl. Cover with a towel and let stand in a warm place for about 1 hour or until doubled in size.

Carefully place dough on cornmeal-coated pizza peel and slide onto baking stone. Brush top of dough generously with mixed egg yolk and slit with bread lame or sharp knife. Bake about 50 to 55 minutes or until deep brown and internal temperature registers 205 degrees.

Cool the bread on wire rack 12 hours before slicing.

3 thoughts on “A rye for right now”

  1. A question from Facebook: “a TABLEspoon of salt? Seems like a lot, but maybe that’s part of the bread’s charm?”

    That’s not a typo. I think that much sodium is necessary to offset the bitterness of the coffee, molasses, and bran. But I wouldn’t be afraid to reduce the salt by half and see if you like the result.

  2. Will oat bran do for the non-gluten tolerant amongst us? I’m buying my wheat flour from Italy and so far that’s working just fine.

    1. It’s worth a try, Sooz! You might have to tinker with the amounts, as oat bran flour might need more (or less) moisture to rise and bake properly. And it won’t have that distinctive rye flavor. Apparently there are some gluten-free rye flavoring powders available that might be worth a try. And I understand that teff flour, which Bob’s Red Mill sells, has a flavor similar to rye. Let us know what you discover!

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