Monday, March 25, 2013


A while ago, I bought some pumpernickel flour to make some pumpernickel with a group of friends. I was confused when I looked online and in books and found a variety of variation that demonstrated not only a variety of origins, but also a fundamental disagreement between various parties on the nature of pumpernickel.

The pumpernickel bread that I remember from my childhood was really dark rich brown and kind of sweet. I didn't love the flavor-- and now I realize that it was the rye that I didn't like in it-- but I ate it from time to time and understood it's appeal. I remember that my mother used to use it to make grilled cheese sandwiches.

When I went looking for pumpernickel, I found that the recipes split into two distinct varieties: a German pumpernickel and an American pumpernickel. American pumpernickel was what I grew up with and assumed was the real version. I didn't even know that the bread-- in name at least-- came from Europe. German pumpernickel is an entirely different animal. It is a dark, dense and made with wild yeast and without molasses. I believe that this is the kind of rye that my grandfather liked. My dad used to say that if you dropped the bread on the floor, the tiles would crack. I couldn't figure out why two such different loaves had the same name.

Recently, I acquired a copy of Jeffrey Hamelman's Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes. After the initial slew of grad school rejections, I think Servia was trying to cheer me up. Anyway, I didn't get a chance until now to read it. As I was reading this morning, I found a highly vitriolic passage in his book that provided some insight.
"Once it was removed from the pans, the the bread was a rich dark brown, almost black. Over the course of the long slow bake, the starches in the rye were converted to sugars, which provided the intensity of aroma and color. These breads, true pumpernickels, have long been considered in Europe to be highly beneficial to infants and old folks because their starches have undergone so much of a transformation that they are quite easily digested. In any case, how did this time-honored method of bread production become bastardized in the United States and why? I think that few bakers were willing to take the time to produce what at first glance appears to be a fragrant brick. Rather than make the effort to bake using the traditional overnight technoique, American bakers found they could get even blacker bread by the simple addition of caramel color. Apparently the complete  lack of taste was not deemed sufficient reason to  consider abandoning this style of baking." (Hamelman 39)
While I think that Hamelman's prejudice might be clouding his palette, he does provide a pretty good explanation of the difference between the two main types of pumpernickel bread. Whether or not these two distinct loaves should have the same name, they are both legitimate types of bread.

Amusingly enough, the first pumpernickel that I found was in Bernard Clayton's New Complete Book of Breads. It was made with baking soda; I wonder what kind of a diatribe Hamelman would let loose hearing that.

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