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There aren't many breads in the world that could be considered legendary. This is one. Having recently read War and Peace by the great Leo Tolstoy (and having watched a wonderful British mini-series adaptation by Tom Harper), I was once again reminded of the incredible taste, texture, and accompanying childhood memories of a true Borodinsky bread. The legend, though unsubstantiated, has it that that this bread traces its name to Margarita Tuchkova, a widow of Napoleonic Wars general Alexander Tuchkov, who perished in the Battle of Borodino. Margarita established a convent at a former battlefield, and the nuns developed the bread to serve at mourning events. Thus, its dark, solemn color, and round coriander seeds representing a deadly grapeshot.

However, to me, and anyone who has been to Russia or any of the former Soviet republics, this bread is far from solemn. It is an everyday staple food produced and sold by nearly every bakery. Yet, the true Borodinsky (as Margarita and her nuns made it in the 1800s) remains a mystery since no recipe was ever found.

The closest I think we can get is the 1939 recipe patented by the Soviet government as a standard of the Borodinsky bread. It contains mainly coarse rye flour and rye malt, a hop-based starter, molasses, and coriander for flavoring. The resulting loaf is dense yet thin-crusted, slightly bitter yet sweet, simple yet infinitely complex in layers of flavors and aromas.

The bread is best enjoyed in a manner similar to the Danish smørrebrød, open-faced sandwiches built on a thin layer of dense sourdough rye bread called rugbrød. I suggest an assortment of cold meats, pate, crunchy pickles, smoked salmon, fresh garlic...and topping it with a thin, transparent slice of salo (traditional Ukrainian delicacy made from pork fatback or pork belly) or a good fatty pancetta, a few tiny slices of garlic, and a pinch of salt and pepper, may result in a gastronomic orgasm.

Step 1: Ingredients and Equipment

To make one loaf, you will need the following ingredients:

  • 20g of dried hops (or 100g hoppy beer (like an IPA) and 5g instant yeast if you want to cheat a little)
  • 30g sugar
  • 50g all purpose flour
  • 450g rye flour
  • 30g dry red rye malt (make your own from 60g of whole rye berries or buy from specialty brewers)
  • 90g whole wheat flour
  • 15g sea salt
  • 30g dark molasses
  • 10g ground coriander
  • 10g whole coriander seeds
  • 5g potato starch

Equipment:

  • kitchen scale
  • baking brush
  • bread pan
  • pestle
  • measuring spoons and assortment of bowls
  • parchment paper
  • spray bottle
  • cookie trays
  • paper towels

Step 2: Red Rye Malt - 4 Days

Even though the recipe requires only 30g of red rye malt, do not skip this step. Malts are grains that are made to germinate by soaking in water and then dried in hot air. Malting grains develops the enzymes required for modifying the grain's starches into sugars. These sugars can be easily consumed by yeast to leaven your bread. Rye malt is also forms the base of rye whiskey...so you know it's good stuff.

It is unlikely that you can easily buy ready-made rye malt, so here's a way to make it.

You will need:

  • 60g whole rye berries ( I recommend doubling to have some left over for the next loaf)
  • paper towels
  • tray
  • spray bottle

Take the rye berries (sold online or in bulk at Whole Foods - make sure they are raw (i.e. sprouting)) and soak them for 5 hours in water. Soak paper towels in water, place on a rust-proof tray, drain the berries and spread evenly in one layer. Cover with another layer of wet paper towels, and let them sit for about 96 hours. Spray the top layer of towels with a bit of water every day. At the end of the process, you will see that the berries have sprouted about 1/2-1in roots. That tells you that they are ready to be dried. Put them on a cookie sheet and dry for 30 minutes each at 175 F, 225 F, 275 F and 300 F. They will turn a reddish brown color and can be ground in a coffee grinder into a beautiful rich powder that will make your loaf smell and taste exquisite.

For more detailed instructions and pictures, see this lovely blog post: http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/27954/making-red-rye-malt

Step 3: Hoppy Preferment - 2 Days

The original (1939) recipe calls for a hop-based preferment. To make it, take 20-25g dried hops, 200g of water, 1 tbsp (15g) sugar (I used Turbinado), and 50g all purpose flour. Boil hops in water until reduced in half (to about 100g). Let sit for 8 hours. Strain and mix in sugar and flour to create a hoppy poolish. Let sit in a warm place for about 24-48 hours until doubled in size. I place it in the oven with a light on or in the pantry during summer months.

This process allows the yeast in the flour to activate and build up, creating a sort of hoppy sourdough starter.

Step 4: Zavarka/scalded Dough - 6 Hours

While that poolish/hoppy preferment is doubling, make a "zavarka". This is a scalded dough paste that is traditional for Scandinavian bread recipes. To make this zavarka paste, combine 60g of rye flour, 30g of red rye malt, and 60g of water at 140 degrees F (hot but not boiling - you can make it by combining your boiling water with some cold water). Mix into a smooth paste.

In a slow but continuous stream, add 180g boiling water mixing constantly until combined. Let this mass sit for 5-6 hours. You can plop it right next to your preferment.

Step 5: ​Opara - 4 Hours

Opara is a Russian word for this stage of dough. It stems from the root word "par" or steam. Essentially, it allows our two mixtures (pre-ferment and scalded paste) to meld together, creating a final base before we make the dough.

To make opara, combine the two masses, add 150g rye flour and 150g room temperature water. You will get a batter about as thick as fresh sour cream. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit for 4 more hours in the oven with a light on (or at about 85-90 degrees F).

Step 6: Dough - 1 Hour

Dough

To make the dough, combine all of the previous mixture (opara) with:

  • 15g salt
  • 15g sugar
  • 30g molasses
  • 10g ground coriander
  • 90g whole wheat flour
  • 240g rye flour

Mix well until you form a sticky dough. Knead it by hand as best you can, but do not expect it to become smooth because rye has a lot less gluten than wheat. Place in a bowl and let rise in a warm place for about 1 hour until doubled in size.

Step 7: Form a Loaf and Final Rise - 1 Hr

Line a bread pan with parchment paper (or grease with butter/ghee). With a silicone spatula and wet hands, pack the risen dough firmly into the pan and smooth the top into a bit of a dome. Place a pan with a bit of water at the bottom of the oven. Place the pan with the bread on top into the oven for a final rise - about 40min. Take the dough out and pre-heat the oven to 400 F.

Step 8: Coriander Crust

While the oven is pre-heating, prepare a "boltushka" - a mixture of 1tbsp (15g) of all purpose flour and 2tbsp (30g) water. Brush lightly over the loaf.

In a small bowl, place your whole coriander seeds (10g) and crack them a bit with a pestle. Sprinkle liberally over the top.

The boltushka mixture will ensure that the seed stick to the top of the bread.

Step 9: Bake and Gloss

To bake the bread, place a pan at the bottom of the oven with about 100g of hot water in it. This will create steam and prevent the bread from drying too quickly. Let it steam for a few minutes. Then place the loaf in the pre-heated oven and bake 60-65 min at 400F.

When your bread is ready. Take it out of the oven and remove from the pan onto a cooling rack.

Prepare a "kiselek" - a mixture of about 5g of potato starch and 50g water. Combine starch and cold water in a small pan until dissolved, bring to boil mixing constantly, and turn off the heat. You want it about the consistency of dish soap - not too runny but not too thick either. Once your kiselek is ready, brush it on over the top of the bread and let air dry. The starch will create a glossy crust that will preserve the bread's freshness for many days and give it an attractive finish.

Step 10: Slice and Eat

After your bread is baked and glossed, it is critical to let it sit for at least 8 hours before slicing. The bread's internal structure or "myakish" needs to develop over a longer period of time, as compared to traditional wheat breads, in order to stabilize. It is important to not cover the bread with anything so as to not make it too moist. Once completely cool and stable, slice the bread very thinly and enjoy with some butter and garlic, smoked salmon, or other savory delicacies.

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