While it would be self-deception in the first degree to think that I have a lock on wheaten breads, I've been wanting to expand my repertoire to include breads with a high percentage of rye flour. I enjoy the flavor and have been very impressed by the breads produced by other TFL posters. So, I thought I'd try my hand with the Soulful German Farmhouse Rye from Daniel Leader's Local Breads. This bread has been profiled in other posts on TFL, so feel free to search out those entries, too.
I maintain a single sourdough starter that is usually fed AP or bread flour. Every now and then it gets goosed with a bit of whole rye or whole wheat, based on the needs of a particular recipe. For this bread, I did two refreshments entirely with whole rye flour to build the rye sour it calls for. About the only rye flour carried in supermarkets locally is Hodgson Mills whole rye, so it's not like there's a lot of choice in the matter. Whole Foods and Wild Oats stores have some other possibilities, but the labeling doesn't always make it clear just what they are selling.
The formula calls for a quarter teaspoon each of coriander, fennel and cumin seeds, toasted and ground. That turned out to be my first point of departure from the formula. Recalling some earlier discussions on TFL, I substituted caraway for the cumin. My first attempt at toasting the seeds in a skillet on the stovetop was, well, overdone. As I was grinding the seeds, the predominant odor was that of something scorched, not something spicy. After pitching those, I started over. This time I dialed back the heat and shook the skillet every few seconds so that nothing had a chance to park on a hot spot and scorch. I also kept a close eye on the fennel seeds. They started out with a greenish cast, while the coriander and caraway already had a toasty color. When the fennel seeds' color shifted from green to golden, I pulled the skillet off the flame and dumped the seeds into the mortar. A few strokes with the pestle released a toasty/spicy fragrance that was much different and far better than the that of the first attempt.
Despite Leader's recommendations, I opted for hand mixing and kneading the dough, primarily to understand how it looked and felt as it developed. Now I know why the phrase "wet cement" figures prominently in writings about making rye breads. Despite what you read in recipes, a high-percentage rye dough will not be silky; nor will it be elastic or responsive. I'll probably use the mixer for future forays, but I know now what to look for. The other departure from the formula was to use wet hands and a wet countertop for kneading. Leader recommends floured hands, but I think that working wet has to be the better choice. First, you can't work in too much additional flour. Second, the same components in rye flour that make it so sticky also make it slippery when wet. That means your hands don't get nearly as gummed up with dough as they would if you worked with floured surfaces. Keeping a plastic bowl scraper in one hand while manipulating the dough with the other is also a good tactic.
The dough came together rather easily. Yes, it was sticky. Yes, it was sludgy. And no, it didn't seem the least bit soulful; at least, not compared to a dough made with wheat flour. The second point at which I departed from the script was to add only half the amount of yeast. A significant quantity of the rye flour is in the final dough, so I wanted it to have the opportunity to acidify before the yeast took over. That stretched the fermentation times out beyond the times noted in the formula but I wasn't in any rush.
Leader recommends "dusting" the bannetons with rye flakes before depositing the boules for their final fermentation. First, things the size of rye flakes can't be "dusted" onto anything, much less the sidewalls of a banneton. Second, he recommends slashing the loaves with a tic-tac-toe pattern immediately before loading them in the oven. Every try slashing a dough that is armored, sorry, "dusted" with rye flakes? It ain't gonna happen, no matter what your slashing weapon of choice is. (See picture, below.) And that for a bread that, he says truthfully, isn't going to rise much in the oven. I'll grant you that the rye flakes have a certain rustic appeal for the eye, but next time I'd rather use them as a soaker or leave them off entirely.
Here's how the finished breads look:
These are compact breads, maybe 1.5 inches high and 7 or 8 inches across. The rye flakes and the knife handle give you a sense of their scale. The crumb, not surprisingly, is dense and rather tight. The soulful part, which isn't appreciable here, is in the flavor. The rye is front and center in this bread. The spices, while discernible, are very much in a supporting role. It's quite a bit different than Levy's NY jewish rye, which has 2 tablespoons of caraway seeds. The crust is chewy, as is the crumb. Then again, it's been in a plastic bag overnight. Left out in the air, it would probably be rather hard-shelled. It doesn't feel quite as moist as I had anticipated (probably a factor of the whole rye's absorbency) but it isn't crumbly, either. I think it is probably a very good thing that I used water, rather than flour, to manage the stickiness while kneading the dough. There's no noticeable gumminess in the crumb, so it appears that I waited long enough before cutting into it.
All in all, an enjoyable bread and one that should go very well with the ham I purchased this weekend.