Monday, January 4, 2010

Russian Black Bread: An Ongoing Odyssey

Russian black bread (черный хлеб/ chorniy khleb) is a dark pumpernickel-like, rye bread which is more than just pumpernickel. I know, you would probably never think of a hearty, delicious pumpernickel bread from a deli to be qualified as "just" anything, but you'd understand if you ever tasted Russian black bread. It's pumpernickel, yes - but deeper, richer, darker than you could ever have imagined.

Bread at its most basic is an alchemical mixture of flour, yeast, water and salt. Pumpernickel ups the ante by adding molasses, caraway seeds, and rye flour among other ingredients. Russian black bread takes the German pumpernickel to new heights of aroma and depths of flavor than you would believe.

When drinking vodka with Russians, you'll have yummy snacks, or zakuski, to accompany each sip. This black bread is definitely on the table, sometimes topped with butter, caviar, sliced cucumber or pickles.You'll love this as the base for a sandwich, topped with cream cheese and smoked salmon or - my favorite - toasted and slathered with butter.

Russian Black Bread

  • 1 ½ cups water
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 2 ½ cups bread flour
  • 1 cup rye flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon instant coffee granules
  • 1 tablespoon caraway seeds
  • ¼ teaspoon fennel seed (optional)*
  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • coarse cornmeal

  1. Add the ingredients in the order recommended by the manufacturer and put it on dough cycle.

  2. When the dough has finished with the first rise, take it out of the mixing pan and on a counter covered liberally with cornmeal, knead the dough briefly.

  3. Shape it into a round or a large, long loaf and place it on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

  4. Cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place for an hour or until it has risen to 1 ½ times its original size.

  5. Bake in a preheated 350°F oven for 45 to 50 minutes or until loaves are well-browned.

  • First, this is an excellent loaf of bread.

    I scarfed down two pieces of it toasted with butter for breakfast this morning. However, this bread was slightly sweeter than the black breads I remember eating in Leningrad & Moscow, or even in Estonia, and believe me, like kimchi in Korea, this bread was a daily staple.

    More than anything else, this strikes me as a very good American-style pumpernickel bread.

    I may try a bit less molasses and a bit more cider vinegar next time. The bread I remember had a distinctly sour taste. Also, the texture is lighter, not as dense. Perhaps using all rye flour makes the difference. The gluten in rye flour is weaker than in wheat, making for a denser, heavier loaf.

    Alternately, I could begin with a sourdough starter. In my research of pumpernickel and black breads, I recall reading that traditional Westphalian pumpernickel uses a sourdough starter to counteract the strong amylases in rye meal; also, the bakers use a very long baking time to give it the dark color which many other recipes achieve through darker ingredients like molasses, coffee granuules and cocoa powder. Also, it is an all-rye loaf, whereas many other rye breads use a mixture of flours to improve the gluten and structure.

    I don't know if I've ever had the traditional German pumpernickel or if it tastes anything like Russian black bread. I have a sneaking suspicion that this may be my next task: finding an authentic recipe, baking it and see how close the taste comes to my memory of those unforgettable black breads.

  • Ah-ha! I just found a recipe for Russian black bread which uses a starter.

    I also found, on some of the recipes (like this one) which make use of ingredients (cocoa, coffee, molasses), comments from people saying that this bread just isn't quite the same as the beloved chorniy khleb that they recall. So, yay, I'm not the only one! Once I'm done with this loaf, I am making this other Russian black bread recipe, or I could make it today so I can do a side-by-side taste test comparison.

    My, it would be handy to have some Russians nearby to get their opinion. I do know an older Russian lady in the neighborhood: she's the grandmother of one of my older daughter's classmates. We've chatted in Russian from time to time, and she's a common sight walking down the road in her traditional Russian babushka outfit: housecoat, cardigan, woolen socks, tufli (slippers) and scarf. I know that there are several other Russians in that retirement home. Would it be weird of me to drop by with a few loaves of chorniy khleb? Probably.

  • Since I was elbow-deep in pirozhki-production when I started this yesterday, I decided to use my bread machine.

    To make this bread by hand:

    1. Proof the yeast with the sugar and warm water for 5 minutes or until the yeast gets foamy.

    2. Melt the butter, let it cool and add the molasses and cider vinegar to the butter. Mix well.

    3. Toss the salt into the yeast mixture, add the butter mixture to it and stir well.

    4. Start adding the dry ingredients, stirring well after each addition.

    5. Knead, let rest for an hour and a half or so, then shape, rest again and bake.

    6. Presto.

  • I know I have fennel seed somewhere, but I tore my spice cabinet apart looking for it and I simply could not find any.

    I mean, I can't tell you how many times have I been looking for cardamom pods, cumin seeds or mustard seeds only to find the jar of fennel seeds and ask myself, "Why the hell did I buy this? I never use it!"

  • I wonder what difference using Dutch-processed cocoa powder (DPC) would make.

    DPC is treated with an alkali agent to neutralize its acids so unlike regular old cocoa powder, it does not react with bases. Since this recipe calls on yeast for leavening, I wonder if switching out the regular cocoa for DPC would make any difference.

    I think that I read that DPC tends to make foods darker than the regular cocoa. Russian Black Bread is very dark, darker even the pumpernickel.

    Something to think about for the next time I make this.

  • And just because I mentioned babushki in this post, I give you Babushka Cat:


  1. I think they would really appreciate your little kindness. Why not? I'm sure some people take their pets for a 'pet day' or someone plays the piano for a 'music day'. Why not take some food for a special treat. Then you can get some good input. Perhaps they have a kitchen there that you could work with one or two of the Russian ladies for more advice. That would be fun.

  2. Actually, a day in the kitchen with some Russian babushki would be fun... and a good way to get my Russian going again!

  3. This is my first contact with your blog and I am so excited about this black bread recipe. I have
    been exclaiming about the lack of flavorful breads available commercially, especially for making good sandwiches. I love dark breads and can hardly wait to try this recipe. Thank you so much

    Sharon Brown


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