This Monday may have been Labor Day–and I may be shedding a few tears over the unofficial end of Summer–but it was also just a Monday, and as we’re back in our school-time rituals, Monday is my day to bake a loaf of bread for the week. This week, I was in the mood for pumpernickel, and so that’s what I made.
Besides being a most wonderful word, pumpernickel is one of our favorite breads. This evolved in part because of our efforts to recreate the bread that the folks at Outback restaurants plop on your table whenever you eat there. You know, the little brown loaves that they stab with a steak knife and deliver on a little cutting board with a big scoop of butter. Man oh man, that bread is good. It’s the best part of the meal, as far as I’m concerned. But of course, I’m not much for red meat. It gives me the heebie-jeebies. Except in the form of meatballs. No one can get the heebie-jeebies from meatballs. But I digress.
A good pumpernickel is soft, yet heavy for its size, and a bit dense without crossing the line into inedibly brick-like. It’s a little bit sweet, and a little bit pungent without being unpleasantly sour. It needs a good kick of rye flavor and caraway seeds, but it is much darker than rye bread. And it must have a crunchy layer of cornmeal on the bottom.
True pumpernickels hail from Germany, where sourdough starters, a long baking process, and lots of jazzy (natural) chemical reactions–like the Maillard reaction (woah, where’d that science come from?)–give the bread its dark, earthy color, and distinctive flavor reminiscent of dark chocolate and coffee. I don’t make that kind of pumpernickel. I do the American home bakers’ version, using actual coffee and cocoa, along with molasses, to mimic the German pumpernickel. It’s the kind of soft, dark, flavorful bread that is great for sandwiches, or warmed and spread with butter for dinner. It’s a wonderful vehicle for hummus. In fact, that will be my lunch this week: pumpernickel bread, toasted, spread with a thick layer of hummus, and then layered with thick slices of sharp cheddar cheese. It’s also a great bread for soft-boiled eggs on toast or tuna salad or cucumber sandwiches.
What follows is the recipe I’ve settled on as my favorite way to make pumpernickel. It uses a lot of yeast to get the appropriate sour quality without using sourdough starter. I have sourdough starter, but using it requires some thinking ahead so that the starter is fed and ready to go on Monday morning for my weekly bread baking extravaganza. I like this pumpernickel precisely because it is relatively easy and quick, as homemade breads go. And with so much yeast, it’s a pretty reliable (and quick) riser.
PUMPERNICKEL BREAD (makes one loaf)
1 tbsp. active dry yeast (or you can use two 1/4 oz. packets, which is more like 4 1/2 tsp.)
1 cup warm water
1 tbsp. butter
3 tbsp. dark molasses
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. instant espresso powder
2 1/2 cups bread flour (AP flour will also work)
3/4 cup rye flour
1 tbsp. caraway seeds
2 tbsp. baking cocoa
The ingredients might seem a little unusual, but don’t fear. The bread does not taste like coffee or chocolate. It just tastes dark, and earthy, and rich. It’s exactly what pumpernickel needs.
Here’s what I did:
First, as usual, I poured myself a cup of tea. I am a creature of habit. I need my tea when I’m baking bread.
I also turned on some cookin’ tunes. As I was prepping a lecture on West African music, I went with my Toumani Diabate Pandora station. Try it. It’s good stuff.
I then mixed the warm water (around 110 degrees), yeast, butter, molasses, salt, and espresso powder. I stirred until it was all dissolved (don’t worry if the butter isn’t completely melted–it will work in when you add the flour). I then added 1 1/2 cups of bread flour to the liquid and mixed it thoroughly. It sort of looked like runny peanut butter at this stage.
I then added the rye flour, caraway seeds, cocoa, and remaining bread flour.
I mixed it briefly with the paddle attachment just to get everything combined, but then switched to the dough hook and let it do the rest of the work.
I let the hook work until the dough came together into a ball. I then let it knead the dough for about five minutes.
As is my usual approach to bread baking, after the mixer did a good bit of the kneading, I turned the dough out on the counter and finished it by hand until it was a springy, smooth ball.
Note that the caraway seeds mean that this dough will never have a completely smooth surface. But that’s okay. The crust still forms just fine. I put the dough in a bowl for the first rise.
I covered it with my Italian kitchen towel. I think it helps the bread taste better. It must, right?
I let it rise for about an hour and fifteen minutes until the dough had doubled in bulk and my fingerprint stayed put when I poked the dough.
I flattened the dough on the counter, shaped it into a round loaf, and put it on a cornmeal covered pizza peel. I bake my breads directly on a baking stone. If you don’t use a stone, just put the loaf on a cornmeal covered baking sheet and put the whole baking sheet into the oven when it’s time for baking.
I let it rise again for about 45 minutes until it was puffy and more-or-less doubled in bulk. While it was rising, I preheated the oven to 375-degrees. It’s good to give your oven a nice long preheat when baking bread, especially if you’re using a stone. You want it good and hot.
I slashed the top in a scollop pattern to give it a little more room to expand in the oven. And to make it look nice.
I baked the bread for 33 minutes. It could take anywhere from 25-35 minutes. I know my oven well, so I set the timer for 30 minutes, checked the bread, put it back in for 3 minutes. I then let it cool on a wire rack. This is important in bread baking. Trapping the steam begets excessive moisture which begets mold and staleness.
This bread also works well in a brotform. Just be sure to flour the brotform really well so that the dough doesn’t stick.
My finished bread came out really nicely, and it will be great for toast and sandwiches this week. The texture is just the right balance between pleasantly-soft and just-barely-dense. Just as pumpernickel should be.