This weekend I am heading to New Hampshire to enjoy some cross-country skiing in the White Mountains. Driving there takes about five hours from where I live. It is a long enough road trip for me to deem ‘extra provisions’ necessary, especially in the wintertime when unpleasant weather conditions and their associated delays are often unforeseeable. I realized late yesterday, however, that I would not have an extra loaf of bread to take with me. (Bread, in my book, is always included in my list of obligatory provisions.) My sourdough starter had not been refreshed in a while and I would not have time anyway to let a naturally leavened loaf proof sufficiently. Thus, a search for a quick, but tasty as well as ‘road-trip durable’ loaf ensued.
Thumbing my way through bread book after bread book, I didn’t find anything startlingly attractive or intriguing. Finally, wrestling my old Beard on Bread from the corner of the book shell, I gave my last resource a go. I was pleasantly surprised by his variety of yeasted breads and was immediately taken with his recipe for ‘Black Bread.’ The ingredients called for in this loaf were unique to me: unsweetened cocoa powder and instant coffee, to name two. After a quick search on the internet, I found that ‘black breads’ can also contain molasses, shallots, grated onion, onion powder, apple cider vinegar, eggs, old coffee, caraway & fennel seeds, and the list continues. Black bread, I discovered, is just a generic name for what used to be a lowly form of peasant bread, often containing the scrabbled-together leftovers and coarse grains found in a peasants’ kitchens during the hard times of the days of old. Every culture seemed to have their own version of Black Bread, reflecting their unique ingredients and traditions. Black breads used to be considered a poor quality bread, but today they are looked more kindly upon as they often have a high percentage of whole-grain flours and pair wonderfully with cheeses and other salty foods.
Below is a modified version of the black bread that James Beard preferred. I changed the mixing and baking methods a bit. As well, I left out the caraway seeds, substituted molasses for brown sugar, and used instant instead of active dry yeast. It seems like the ingredients used in black breads are pretty versatile as long as you aren’t claiming allegiance to any national traditions. So, when I call this ‘black bread,’ think of it as one of the many versions inspired by the necessity to improvise.
I thought black bread, in its modest and non-stringent ingredient requirements, would be appropriate for my last minute scrambling to pull together a loaf. The other reason that black bread was appealing is that these loaves are relatively dense and hearty, perfect for a winter road trip snack, perhaps with some good jam, cheese, or butter. I must say, this isn’t the most attractive or delicious loaf I’ve ever baked. The scoring pattern did not quite come out, it’s a little bit odd-shaped, and it doesn’t have the complex flavor that breads made with pre-ferments due. But as I write this, my black bread is packed away in the back seat of the car, set aside for those long stretches of highway hunger. Knowing it is there makes the drive ahead a little less daunting…
Yield: ~1100 g (one large loaf)
50 g cornmeal
220 g water (at room temperature)
220 g boiling water
13 g salt
45 g molasses
8 g unsweetened cocoa
8 g instant espresso powder
10 g instant yeast
160 g dark rye flour
130 g whole-wheat flour
270 g all-purpose flour
Add the cornmeal to the cold water and mix well. Pour boiling water on top of cornmeal mixture. Then stir in the salt, molasses, cocoa, and instant coffee.
Combine the flours and yeast and add them to the wet mixture. Stir until thoroughly combined into a sticky mass of dough. Turn out onto a prepared work surface and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic. (It will probably not be able to pass the windowpane test due to the high level of whole-grains.) Form the dough into a tight ball and place into a well-oiled container. Allow to proof until double in bulk (~ 1 hour).
Remove the dough from the container and knead for 10-15 minutes. Reshape into a ball and let rise again until double in bulk (~45 minutes – 1hour).
Remove the dough from the container, deflate, and shape into a tight ball. Let the dough rise until almost doubled in volume.
Preheat the oven to 450 F with a steam pan. When fully proofed, score the loaf and put in the oven with steam. Reduce the oven temperature to 425 F. Bake for 15 minutes with steam and another 20 minutes without. Turn off the oven, crack the door, and leave the loaves in for another 10 minutes. Remove loaves from the oven and allow to cool completely on a wire rack before cutting into.