Bread was probably the best thing we could buy locally in Moscow. Bakeries were abundant as was the variety of products inside. The loaves were grouped in a wall of dark wooden bins which backed up to the kitchen, so fresh loaves were constantly being pumped out by ladies with kerchiefs on their heads and lab coat style aprons, to a population that relied on them for much of their sustenance. Plain white loaves, cheese or jam filled pastries, faintly sweet poppy-seed loaves, but my favorite were the dark rich rye loaves. You can sort of see where the traditional Jewish rye loaves so popular at delis in the US evolved from, but nothing quite matches the deep, earthy taste of the original recipes from Eastern Europe.
After a couple of mediocre attempts at recreating the black bread of my childhood, I ventured out to London’s Karaway Bakery in the Stratford Westfield Center. Nadia Gencas, originally from Belarus, started the bakery with her family nine years ago to produce authentic breads for the many expats living in London. Now they’ve broadened their range to appeal to British sensibilities but maintain strict guidelines as for what constitutes their range of baked goods. Also, interestingly, she said that the process used of scalding the flour with boiling water and leaving it to ferment, makes a bread that’s more easily digestible (the gluten is broken down) and hearty, lasting for several days without going stale. Basically, what I learn from her is that I’m unlikely to recreate the authentic taste of Russian bread at home. It takes ingredients imported from the Ukraine, hours of patience and a lot of intuition while using a persnickety rye starter.
Undaunted, and carrying a bag full of Karaway’s delicious breads on the Tube home, I set about trying once more to master this quintessential rye bread. Borodinsky Bread, named after the general’s wife who first made it before the Battle of Borodino, is the one that most tasted like the Russian bread I remember. Full of coriander seeds (who knew!) it is pungent and filling. To serve it I like to mix together equal parts of room temperature butter and blue cheese, spread this on the slices of bread and top with shaved radishes. It’s a little French twist. If you’re pressed for time or don’t fancy several days of watching over your starter and dough, it’s likely you’ll be able to find a good-quality dark rye at one of the many artisan bakeries in most cities.
Borodinsky Bread by Karaway Bakery
makes one loaf
a large pinch of rye starter
13 oz rye flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon ground coriander, plus some whole coriander seeds for the top
1 1/2 tablespoons molasses
1 tablespoon barley malt syrup
6 oz water, plus more for the starter
In a large bowl take your pinch of rye starter, and add 5 ounces of rye flour to it, plus just enough very hot (not boiling) water to enable you to stir it. Cover with a tea towel and leave it to ferment for 24 hours.
Next day, grease a standard loaf tin and sprinkle the bottom with coriander seeds. Retrieve your starter and add the remaining 8 ounces of rye flour and all the other ingredients in a large bowl. Now, add the water gradually – it’s a very wet dough that spreads out if you let it. Wet your hands and quickly shape the dough so it can be placed in your loaf tin. Cover and leave it to rise until doubled in size – depending on where you rest it this can take between 2-6 hours.
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Brush the top of the dough with water and sprinkle with lots of crushed coriander seeds. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes, then turn down the temperature to 375 degrees and bake for a another 30-40 minutes. Allow to cool in the tin for 10 minutes and then turn out on a cooling rack until it’s completely cool.
Now a quick note about pickles. They are necessary as you’re putting together your zakuski spread. Back at home in Washington DC, there’s a fantastic Eastern European food shop that sells bottles of pickled fresh green garlic scapes. I’ve had no luck in finding them here in London and since it’s not green garlic season yet I can’t pickle them. However, I did pickle some white button mushrooms. It’s an easy process and one that’s quite fashionable among the foodie set these days, started, I believe by Chef David Chang at Momofuku. Foraging for wild mushrooms in the woods around their dachas (country homes) was a pursuit zealously undertaken by Russians, so again the vegetable is forever tangled up in my mind with quiet birch forests. These need a week to sit in your fridge, but it’s simple, so I encourage you to give it a try!
1 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup water
5 black peppercorns
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound small button mushrooms
1 tablespoon canola oil
Bring all of the ingredients except the mushrooms to a boil in a stainless steel pot, now add the mushrooms, lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow the mushrooms to come to room temperature in their liquid. Once cooled place the mushrooms and liquid (remove the garlic) in a steralized jar, pour the canola oil on top and seal. Place in the fridge for at least a week.