John Nichols shares his favorite recipe for a full-bodied rustic bread with a funny name.

Pumpernickel: What’s in a Name

John Nichols 

Pumpernickel: a wonderfully, distinct- tasting bread with as wonderful a name. I have heard two different stories about the origin of that odd name: one involving Napoleon, another Satan (depending on your ethnic background, perhaps one and the same). Napoleon was leading La Grande Armée through Eastern Europe to punish Russian czar Alexander I for not remaining an ally. Along the route, camp cooks scavenging for food discovered that one of Napoleon’s horses, Nickel, loved the dense, dark bread baked by the local peasants. To curry favor with their emperor, they began baking the bread, and it became known among the French troops as “pain pour Nickel” (bread for Nickel).

Historical inaccuracies make that story unlikely, but not so the Devil’s connection with the bread. In some German traditions, Satan has the nickname of Nickel. In the same German traditions, the word “pumpf” is slang for breaking wind (if you taught reading to 12-year-old German boys, this would surely be your example of onomatopoeia). So, “Pumpf Nickel” is Satan’s farts. “What?” you say. If you can imagine how this bread was probably made by those European peasants—coarsely ground, 100 percent rye flour and soured milk—you can probably also imagine the consequences: gaseous eruptions similar to those from another nether region.

There are two distinct types of pumpernickel: the sour, dense, naturally leavened European version; and a lighter, sweeter American version using commercial yeast and often containing raisins. My sourdough leavened recipe tends toward the former, but with a few American modernizations. It is followed by a quicker variation using commercial yeast. 

Pumpernickel complements smoked salmon, winter soups and chowders; my favorite is toasted with raspberry jam. 

Day One: The Sponge

Mix in a 2½ to 4-quart bowl:

1 cup starter (250 grams)

½ cup water (120 grams)

1¼ cups dark rye flour (160 grams)

2 teaspoons molasses

Cover with a lid or cover tightly with plastic wrap (I often put a rubber band around the rim to hold the wrap tight). Let stand overnight, up to 24 hours.

Day Two: The Real Work

Add the following to the sponge:

Slightly less than ¾ cup room-temperature coffee (175 grams)

2 teaspoons honey

1¾ cups white flour (270 grams) 

½ cup whole wheat flour (75 grams)

¼ cup dark rye flour (35 grams)

You can use a mixer with a dough hook. I prefer to mix briefly with a metal spoon, scraping the sides, then mix and knead by hand for several minutes to blend everything. If you feel like this is the stickiest mess you’ve ever handled, then it’s perfect. (I could have made my fortune marketing this dough to kindergartens as multi-grain, nutritional glue.)

Cover and allow to rest for 30 minutes until the flours incorporate all of the liquid. Then add:

About ⅛ cup room temperature water (25 grams)

1½ teaspoons salt

1 tablespoon caraway seed

Again, mix thoroughly to make sure the salt is evenly incorporated, kneading by hand for a couple minutes. Cover tightly as before and allow to rise for 1½ hours.

Before the rise is completed, prepare a proofing basket or banneton, lined with a proofing cloth lightly covered with flour. If you do not have a proofing basket, use a 3- to 4-quart bowl, lined with a clean hand towel (smooth versus rough texture), into which you have rubbed flour.

Scoop the dough out of the bowl into your hands and gently round. Then hold one edge of the rounded dough and let it sag. Catch it with your other hand and fold it over. Rotate the dough a quarter-turn, hold it by the edge and again let it sag. Catch with your other hand and repeat the process four times. This gentle kneading stretches the fibers without breaking the strands or gas bubbles, retaining the leavening effect. Now place the rounded dough into the proofing basket, cover with a cloth and let rise for one hour. 

Thirty minutes before baking, heat the oven to 500. I bake in a preheated cast iron Dutch oven, inverted so the low-sided pan is on the bottom and the high-sided pot is on top (the Lodge Combo Cooker set works best). This method retains steam. You can imitate this method with a lidded souffle pot or similar, but it can be difficult to slide your dough into a hot, high-sided pot. Make sure to wear high-heat resistant oven mitts.

If you are not baking in a Dutch oven, simply slide your rounded dough onto a baking sheet and dock with a simple × using a razor blade or very sharp knife. If using a Dutch oven, gently transfer the dough into your bottom pan, dock, then place the lid on the bottom. Turn the oven temperature down to 450, and set your timer for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, remove the lid if using one, rotate the bread, and reduce the temperature to 425 and bake 25 to 30 minutes depending on how hard you want the crust. 

Remove the bread to a cooling rack and wait at least two hours to slice.

Commercial Yeast Version:

This becomes a one-day bread. Put ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons (200 grams) hot tap water and 2 teaspoons honey into a 4-quart bowl, mix; then add 2½ teaspoons dry yeast. After it begins to foam, at about 15 minutes, add:

Slightly less than ¾ cup room-temperature coffee (175 grams)

2 teaspoons molasses

1½ cups dark rye flour (195 grams) 

1¾ cups white flour (270 grams) 

½ cup whole wheat flour (75 grams)

Follow the recipe from the first mixing stage in the Day Two portion above, with the exception that the first rise should only be one hour.

KP Cooks