You might have seen the title of this post and had an immediate disconnect. Balzac and Ukrainian black bread? Wasn’t he more of a baguette kind of a guy? But that’s one of the things I love about Balzac. He was a baguette kind of guy. And a peasant bread kind of guy. And a traditional Easter paska bread kind of guy. He was just a man who loved food. He was a fan of the whole genre.
He is also one of the best writers of early “food erotica,” lingering over an account of a meal sometimes for several pages. Take one of his shortest descriptions in The Seamy Side of History: a breakfast of “monastic frugality” that “consisted of a small turbot with white sauce, potatoes, a salad, and four dishes of fruit: peaches, grapes, strawberries, and green almonds; then, by way of hors d’oeuvres, there was honey served in the comb as in Switzerland, besides butter, radishes, cucumber, and sardines.” If that’s what they’re serving at monasteries, sign me up.
Balzac’s encounter with Ukrainian bread happened late in life, but at a transformative moment. In 1832, he began a correspondence with one of his readers, a married woman living near Kiev who enigmatically signed herself “The Foreigner.” It was the beginning of a fifteen-year long-distance relationship – and soon Balzac found himself falling in love with his pen pal, Ewelina Hańska. So when her husband died in 1841, Balzac made his move, traveled to meet her, and eventually married her at her estate, in what’s now Ukraine.
Ewelina wasn’t the only thing that impressed him about the country – the bread did. He famously counted 77 different kinds of bread-making techniques used there, a fact that local tourism brochures don’t hesitate to play up (Visit scenic Ukraine! Land of the fabled 77 breads!). And one of the most popular (and most delicious) is the Russian black bread, which gets its color from dark rye flour.
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This black bread (adapted from Smitten Kitchen and Beth Hensperger’s The Bread Bible) is a little “blacker” than the traditional fare Balzac might have had, because of the additions of molasses, cocoa, and espresso powder. But the result is a dense, savory Ukrainian-inspired bread that might have been well-suited to one of his fictional feasts.
(Note: When kneading the dough, you may need to add a bit of extra flour, as the dough can be very wet and sticky. So sticky you will think it might never come off your hands and you will have to go through life with huge, teddy bear-like hands covered in dough and that will be it, forever. But rest assured that it will come together with repeated flouring.)
1 package active dry yeast
Pinch of sugar
1/4 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees)
1 cup water
1/8 cup molasses
1/8 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
2 cups medium rye flour
1 cup unbleached all-purpose or bread flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon instant espresso powder
1. In a small bowl or large glass measuring cup, combine yeast and sugar with warm water. Stir and let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes.
2. In another small bowl, combine remaining 1 cup water, the molasses, vinegar, butter, and cocoa powder.
3. Combine rye and white flours, espresso powder, and salt in a large bowl. Add yeast and molasses mixtures and stir until combined.
4. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. Knead until smooth and springy. (You can also make this in a standing mixer with a paddle attachment, if you reserve some of the flour mixture to be added as the dough comes together.)
5. Form dough into a ball and place in a greased bowl. Cover with plastic wrap (or a dish towel) and let rise in a warm area until doubled, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
6. Softly press on dough to deflate. Place round on a greased baking sheet. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled and puffy, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.
7. Slash an X into the top of the round. In a separate bowl, lightly beat the egg with a fork. Brush egg over top of bread.
8. Bake in a preheated 350°F oven for about 50 minutes, or until a thermometer registers an internal temperature of 210°F. (Check your oven every 15 minutes to make sure yours isn’t particularly quick-baking. You can also knock on the bottom of the loaf – if it sounds hollow, it’s a good sign that it’s done.) Remove from baking sheet to cool completely on a rack.