Dark Rye

In the winter of 1998, I was wading through the grass towards the gymnasium to attend the El Nino Dance-o. The ground under my feet was like pudding as my three-inch crocodile heels sunk two-and-a-half inches into the mud. The gym itself threatened to make a wobbly descent into the swamp. No downpour at that particular instant, but it was hard to tell since everything was perpetually drenched. It had been raining relentlessly for months, and by the time of the dance-o I mistakenly thought that we were nearing the end...the ground was saturated. There was not a dry spot in existence. Soggy people were wringing themselves out, submerged in gloom. It didn't seem there was room for any more water and there wasn't. But it kept on pouring, spilling over and flooding, gushing through streets and living rooms. We were to have 230%more rainfall than average before the very green spring arrived. It felt as though we were awaiting the rescue of that very green spring for a very long time.
Last week, when we had our first (and premature) rainstorm, an unnoticed (and suddenly very apparent) hole in my boots revealed how LA makes rain a distant memory. I was struck with fearful anticipation of saying a long farewell to the sun as I braced myself for drowning in darkness again. The old familiar rainy-day cravings returned after so many years of winter palm trees and flip-flops: tomato soup and grilled cheese, hot cocoa and buttered popcorn, dark bread and dark beer, building a fortress, holing up, folding in, and attempting to trust that the sun will eventually return to suck up the puddles. Of course, as soon as I made this bread it's been 70° -80° and sunny here.

Real pumpernickel or dark rye is made with coarse grain (suggesting an interesting etymology) and a sourdough starter. It's baked slowly in a special tin, achieving its darkness from caramelization of sugars and proteins. This is an American (i.e. easy) version. The color comes from cocoa, coffee and molasses, the ingredients are available and digestible, and you don't need a covered tin. I went with the wet dough technique from Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day to make this an extremely easy loaf. It is sweet, aromatic and dense. It's excellent with lox, or as I've discovered, apples and sharp cheddar. I like the taste of whole grain, but you can sub regular flour for the whole wheat for a lighter loaf. I added orange zest for brightness and I'm heavy-handed with the caraway but you can opt out of these flavors, of course. I like to start with a sponge as a compromise for being too busy to deal with sourdough. Don't be put off by the sponge step--it adds complexity to the flavor and hardly takes any work.

Dark Rye Bread

Makes two 1-lb loaves (or one 2-lb loaf)

  • 1.5 C lukewarm water
  • 1 packet yeast
  • 1/2 C bread flour

  • 2 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 T molasses
  • 1 T cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp instant coffee powder
  • 1 C rye flour
  • 1.5 C bread flour
  • 3/4 C whole wheat flour
  • 1 T caraway seeds
  • 1 tsp (give or take) orange zest

Make a sponge: Mix yeast, 1/2 C bread flour, and water in a large bowl. Let stand uncovered 15 min. to 1 hour. This gives you enough time to organize your ingredients and collect your thoughts.

Whisk the salt, molasses, cocoa, and coffee powder into the sponge. In another bowl, mix the flours together. Without kneading, add all of the flour, caraway, and zest to the sponge, and mix with a wooden spoon. You might have to use your hands at the end. The dough should look pretty slack. Cover and let rest in a draft free place for two hours.
You can use the dough now or refrigerate the dough at this point and use it within the next week or so. The flavor improves after a night in the fridge. Sprinkle cornmeal or wheat bran on a pizza peel (if you don't have a pizza peel, a flexible cutting board or lined piece of cardboard works). Pull off half the dough and reserve the rest for later. Wet your hands and quickly shape the dough into a ball by stretching the top down and tucking it under, working around the ball by turning it---this should take a matter of seconds.
Place the ball on the pizza peel, loosely cover, and let rise for 1 -2 hrs (if the dough was in the fridge it will take longer).
About half an hour before baking time, place a heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, ceramic) in the oven and preheat to 450 °. Alternately, you can use a pizza stone and pour a cup of boiling water in the broiler tray or a baking dish placed in the oven as soon as you put the bread in. Sprinkle the loaf with some more cornmeal or bran, slash it if you want to, then slide the loaf into the preheated covered pot. Reduce the oven to 400° and bake for 25 minutes covered (disregard this if you're using a stone--just let it bake for 35-40 min). Remove the lid and bake for another 10-20 minutes. Remove from oven. Let cool on a rack.