russian black bread

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One of the things that I miss most about living in Switzerland (apart from the chocolate, the company, and swimming in the lakes) is the bread. I took to the bread and the chocolate much more quickly than it took me to get the hang of swimming in the lakes, mind: it turns out that the time that all the snow on the mountains starts to thaw is not the same time that the lake starts to warm up. Who would have thought it? Yes, alright.

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Where were we? Oh yes, the bread. It was quite a revelation, if I’m honest. Don’t get me wrong, I’d been to mainland Europe before, and good bakeries in England – I don’t quite spend all of my time in the bakery aisle of the local Spar, sobbing – so I did know about good bread. I’d just, sort of, temporarily, forgotten. After all, over here we mostly get variations on the theme of plain white, posh white, wholemeal, and seedy (although at least they don’t put bone-ashes in it any more. I presume). I was most definitely not prepared for potato bread with walnuts in (delicious, by the way. As if you needed to ask).

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I was also nothing short of delighted when I found out that the bakery just around the corner from my flat opened from midnight to 4am, just in case I got peckish and fancied a midnight snack of some butterzopf on the way home from one of the bars on the lakeside. Could there be a better organised country? I think not. I mean, yes, the Chinese on the way home from town here does do particularly nice salt and pepper prawns, but you have to wait for hours nearly ten whole minutes before you get to eat those. Can you imagine the hardship?

In any well-thought-through narrative, this would be the part where I told you about the first time I ate this bread, halfway up an Alp, to the accompaniment of the clanging of cow bells, etc etc. I hate to disappoint you, but it was actually last weekend, in my very non-Alpy flat. It’s just that Swiss bread is so very nice. (In my defence, I did once go halfway up an Alp; I just didn’t take any of this with me). 

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I don’t think I can even claim Swiss heritage for this; I certainly don’t remember seeing any over there. Besides, Russian black bread is what it’s billed as, and who am I to argue? What I do know is that this is some good bread. It’s supremely tasty, and makes for excellent pastrami sandwiches, so I’m told, which can only be a good thing.

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Reading between the lines, you might be thinking that ‘tasty’ usually means ‘time-consuming’  – in the bread-making world, at least – but were you really thinking of quickly knocking up a couple of loaves by hand, tonight? No, me neither. It is nearly past my bedtime, after all. Let me reassure you, though, that besides some melting, and one extra pan to wash up, this does only require the normal amount of effort. Don’t be put off by the strange ingredients, either – adding molasses and espresso powder might seem less normal for a bread than, say, a coffee cake, but they combine with the other ingredients to give a very savoury bread with a fantastic depth of flavour.

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russian black bread

From Smitten Kitchen. Adapted ever-so-slightly, and anglicised from the original cup measurements (oh, I hate cup measurements! No-one ever measured out ‘the wrong kind’ of 80g, which is my consistent fear whenever I’m faced with the task of measuring 1 1/2 cups of anything that isn’t liquid. Does anyone have any tips? They would be very much appreciated!)

Makes 2 loaves – I sliced and froze one. It makes very exciting toast. Slice it thinly! It is not your average insipid sliced white (as the following ingredients list might suggest).

1 1/2 tbsp active dried yeast
pinch of sugar
120ml water, hand-hot

2 cups water, one ice-cold
60ml molasses (or a 1:2 mix of golden syrup:black treacle)
60ml cider vinegar (although I suspect you could get away with a different kind. Maybe not balsamic, though)
60g unsalted butter

80g wholemeal flour
400g rye flour
450g bread flour
160g bran (to be found in the porridge aisle, most likely)
2 tbsp caraway seeds, ground to a fine powder if desired
1/2 tsp fennel seeds, as above
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp instant espresso powder (yes, this does exist. It makes truly horrible coffee, though)

Combine the yeast with the warm water and sugar in a small bowl. Leave to one side for around 10 minutes, until it starts to look foamy. If it doesn’t, try again with some more yeast.

Gently heat one of the cups of water with the molasses, vinegar, butter and chocolate until the butter and chocolate have melted. Leave to cool slightly, then tip in the cup of ice-cold water. I heated both cups at the same time, and then had to wait for hours for the mixture to cool down, eventually resorting to using ice cubes in freezer bags to try to help things along – this was not a raging success.

Mix the flours with the bran, spices, salt and espresso powder in a large bowl, then add the rest of the ingredients and mix with a wooden spoon until combined. Tip out onto a well-floured (this time I mean it) counter, and knead for around 10 minutes until the dough feels elastic. It will never attain that smooth, supple feel of most bread doughs, purely because of the amount of knobbly things in the mix, so don’t worry.

Place into an oiled bowl and leave to rise in a warm place for around 2 hours, until a finger poked into the surface leaves an impression that is not filled. Deflate, divide into two halves, and form each half into a round. Place on lined baking sheets, slash Xs in the tops, and leave to rise until doubled in size, for around an hour.

Bake at 180° for 45 to 50 minutes, until the loaves are browned and sound hollow when the bottom is knocked on (I can’t offer more advice, as I’d gone to bed by this point, leaving the kitchen fairies to finish the baking). Remove from the oven and leave to cool completely on a rack. Delicious with marmite or as sandwiches, not so nice with lemon curd. I speak from experience.

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