“Don’t say you’re full if you haven’t touched the bread.” Russian proverb.
Russian black bread, rye bread – it’s the stuff of dream, of national pride, of difference, of melancholic countryside with weeping birches and romantic images of maidens with long blond plaits and bearded men working in fields.
When I was growing up my almost-daily task was to fetch some bread from a local bakery (yes, even in Soviet Estonia there were plenty of small scale bakeries).
One bulka and one black!
My mum would say referring to a loaf of elongated white bread and an obligatory loaf of dense, slightly sour but equally sweet black bread. The white stuff with a golden crumb would be eaten hurriedly (often half gone on the way from the bakery), for the pleasure was fast and easily understandable, even for a little teenage girl. Put a slab of butter and a thick slice of boiled sausage and you are done – not exactly happy but satiated, dumped.
The black bread was always a more complex story. You had to eat it slower, to chew more, it demanded stronger, more pungent flavours, there was a mystery behind its dark exterior and ability to store for days on end. This dark bread always had a story…
Borodinsky bread in particular is said to have a story deep in mystery and fierce patriotism. Of course the village of Borodino is the place where the decisive battle between Russian forces and Napoleon took place in 1812 – Russian won, triumphantly but having lost lots of blood.
Historians dispute the clarity of the outcome of the battle, but the legend of a Russian woman who volunteered to bake bread to encourage the troops, stays on. It was September and so there were ripening seeds of coriander nearby, which she added into the mix…
The ‘proper’ (what’s proper is always open to negotiations) Borodinsky bread is made with suslo, rye malt, thick, syropy liquid. Andrew Whitley of ‘Bread Matters‘ who had lived in Russia and studied its bread, suggested instead using a combination of molasses and barley malt extract, or, if everything else fails, black treacle, although the result will be noticeably more sweet than the real thing.
People continually ask me with big, surprised eyes, whether I make my bread in a bread-making machine. No, I use my own hands to knead and an ordinary oven to bake. I’m not being ponsy, but I’ve never owned a machine and don’t really see the point in spending money – and highly valuable kitchen space – on such equipment, when the whole point of making bread for me is to go through this incredible, life-affirming process of feeling the dough and creating a loaf out of it – child-rearing associations certainly spring to mind.
I made several loafs of Borodinsky for my latest Baltic Midsummer Brunchclub, and served it with pork smolets (rendered fat with garlic), herring and then ham with plenty of hot mustard.
I am indebted to Andrew Whitley and his inspirational ‘Bread Matters’ book for this recipe and the courage to start making my own bread.
This recipe makes 1 small loaf.
1. first of all – you will to have rye starter, or what Russian call zakvaska.
I have made my own by simply mixing wholemeal rye flour with water over the course of 4 days (25 g of flour and 25 g of luke-warm water mixing daily, and let to ferment. after 4 days it smells wonderfully beery but only mildy).
if you are not sure how to make it, you are welcome to ask me as I have some left-over or ask me for more specific instructions if unsure.
2. you will need:
270 g of production sourdough (from the process above)
230 g wholemeal rye flour (I often use Doves flour)
5 g sea salt
5 g coarsely ground coriander seeds plus some whole seeds for the top
20 g molasses
15 g barley malt extract (i bought both in WholeFoods)
90 g water (at around 35 C or about your body temperature)
3. grease a standard size bread tin with some butter, or, as in my case, pork fat. sprinkle some whole coriander seeds over the base.
4. mix all the ingredients above into a very sloppy dough. the dough will be impossible to handle on a table cover on its own, as it’ll spread. so wet your hands, get your dough out of your bowl and shape with your hands into something resembling a rectangular, sort of wrapping the sides of the dough underneath itself. it will seem like it’s an impossible task, don’t worry, just do what you can and place the dough carefully into the tin trying not to scrape the sides of the tin.
5. important, once placed in the tin do not be tempted to temper with it, trying to smooth the surface. the bread will find its way. the absolute most you can do is very gently press your wet hands against surface if it is really ruffled.
6. cover the tin with a plastic bag (making sure the bag doesn’t tough the dough) and leave it in a warm place for anything between 2 to 6 hours OR in your fridge for 8-12 hours2-24 hours. at the end of this time, you’ll see that the dough has risen quite noticeably, about 3/4 of the tin is the original dough was below half.
7. whilst heating your oven to 200C, gently brush the top of the bread with just a bit of water, and sprinkle some crushed coriander seeds on top. place the bread in the oven.
8. turn the oven down to 180C after 10 mins and bake for another 40 mins.
9. take out at the end and leave to ‘sweat’ for 10-15 mins, after which it’s easier to take the bread out. it’s the task is still proving too difficult (never happens to me though when I use non-stick tins), leave to cool for longer and then use a wooden or plastic spoon to ease the bread out.