Swedish Peasant Bread

Week Fifteen: Scandinavian Breads

swedish-peasant-bread

When I made knackebrod again last week, I did a little research into Scandinavian breads.  And quite honestly, I was surprised at the variations!  I mean, this is an area of the world that is made up in large part by alpine tundra; it’s not exactly renowned for its agriculture.  For centuries, the most predominately-grown grains were rye and barley, as the climate was simply too cold for most wheat.  Some wheat was imported (at great cost), and hardier strains were eventually developed; but until then, breads were generally made with the cheaper and more widely-available rye and barley.

Neither of these two grains really makes a very good standard loaf of bread on its own, which is why crackers and other flatbreads were more prevalent.  (Side note: rye will make a pretty good sourdough loaf on its own, for various very technical reasons; but that’s a bit different from the typical straight-dough method of breadmaking.)  And that’s where I expected the Breads of Scandinavia to leave off, with some hard and dry rye crackers that would last for endless months of winter.

Man, was I wrong!  Apparently, given nothing else to do in the cold and dark of that long winter, the people of Scandinavia just went to town (metaphorically speaking) with their bread recipes.  And not only were they widely varied in style and shape, but the grains and flavors looked so interesting and unusual (to my more continental palate, that is), that I just had to try them.  So this week, I give you breads from Norway, Sweden, and Finland, with maybe a little Denmark or Iceland thrown in for good measure.

This first bread (like most of these breads) is totally new to me.  It utilizes an uncommon but centuries-old “scalding method”, which means that boiling water is poured over some of the flour and is left to ferment before mixing the final dough.  Basically speaking, highly complex flavors develop when you do this, as peasant farmers all over Europe have known for ages.  This method improves not only the flavor, but also the texture of non-wheat breads, particularly rye. 

Breads made with the scalding method are generally hearty and robust, and can last a long time without refrigeration – up to several weeks - which was of course crucial in less technologically-advanced times.  Despite any similarites, scalded-flour breads vary widely in texture, taste, and shape between countries, even between communities, making each very representative of a particular region.  This bread hails from Sweden, but beyond that, I can’t pinpoint a more precise location.

All I know is, wherever exactly this bread is from, they can just keep on turning out things like this.  It’s really, really amazing!  It’s grainy, but soft and light, with a fabulously complex set of flavors.  By turns tangy and sweet in perfect mild balance, with a wonderful hit of cumin and fennel, the taste of the rye flour (yes, despite the very small amount used!) really shines.   The soft crust yields easily to hand, knife, or tooth, and the unusual shape is a treat for the eyes.  I think this dough would make some really excellent dinner rolls; but I just love the shape so much, I would have to have a really good reason to deviate from it.  Besides, I’m finding that dough cooked into larger loaves just plain tastes better.  And who am I to mess with (near) perfection?  No one, that’s who. 

Make this bread.  Make it, make it, make it.  If you regret it, call me up, and I will personally apologize.  (You won’t regret it.)

 

Swedish Peasant Bread
Adapted from Bo Friberg
Makes 2 loaves

For scalding mixture:
1 cup boiling water
2 teaspoons salt
3 ounces whole wheat flour
3 ounces rye flour

For dough:
3/4 cup warm water (105º to 115º F)
2 teaspoons white vinegar
1/3 cup (4 ounces) light corn syrup
4 1/4 teaspoons active-dry yeast
2 tablespoons honey
4 tablespoons butter, room temperature
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground fennel
4 ounces whole wheat flour (about 1 cup), plus extra for dusting loaves
1 pound unbleached bread flour (about 3 1/2 cups)
1 egg, lightly beaten for an egg wash

1.  To make the scalding mixture, whisk together the salt and the two flours in a heat-safe bowl.  Pour the boiling water over and mix until smooth.  Cover and let stand for 1 hour.

2.  To make the dough, combine the warm water, vinegar, and corn syrup in the bowl of a stand mixer, until the corn syrup has dissolved.  Add the yeast, stir to combine, and let stand until bubbly, about 5 minutes.  Stir in the scalding mixture, honey, butter, cumin, and fennel.

3.  Reserving a few ounces of the bread flour, add the remainder and the whole wheat flour, and mix with the dough hook for about 2 minutes at medium speed, scraping the bowl if necessary.  Adjust the consistency with the reserved bread flour as needed; the dough should be just barely sticky, but should clear the sides of the bowl.  Knead until smooth, about 2 to 4 minutes more.  Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, cover, and let rest for 10 minutes.

4.  Divide the dough in half.  Gently knead and roll each half into a round ball.  Using the side of your hand (like a karate chop), press down into the center of one ball.  With a sawing back-and-forth motion, roll the loaf under your hand until you have almost divided the two halves.  You should end up with two smaller rounds, connected with a little strand of dough.  Repeat with the other round.

5.  Brush the loaves with egg wash and dust liberally with whole wheat flour.  Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  Using a sharp serrated knife, decoratively slash each loaf.  Cover loosely and let rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 1 hour.  Preheat the oven to 375ºF.

6.  Bake at 375º F for about 35 minutes, or until golden brown.  Remove to a rack and let cool.

 

Notes:
1.  I can’t vouch for it, but I imagine the scalding mixture (after it’s cooled to room temperature) could be left to sit overnight, refrigerated.  All that could happen is the flavors become more complex, right?  Maybe?

2.  If possible, grind your own fennel and cumin seeds, rather than using the pre-ground stuff.  The oils and flavor compounds are much fresher that way; I find pre-ground spices a bit dull and flat.  (Whole seeds are usually cheaper, too, if you can buy them in bulk.  Whole Foods, anyone?)

3.  When shaping the loaves in step 4, don’t be afraid to really almost divide the dough in half.  The strand of dough connecting the two round halves can be as thick as just a couple of fingers; remember, it will puff up as it rises.

4.  I’m not joking.  This bread is really, really good.  And at this point, I think I know from good bread.  It’s just delicious.

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