Week Fifteen: Scandinavian Breads
You may be familiar with today’s bread, though you may not realize it from the name. Ever had Melba toast, or zwieback? How about biscotti, or perhaps a Holland rusk? If you have, then you know skorpor. All these breads share the common trait of being baked, cut into pieces, and baked again to completely dry out. Items like this will keep for ages if stored properly, which was of course critical in bygone, sans-refrigerator days.
For most parts of the world, these twice-baked, dry breads were either the fare of sailors or other long-distance voyagers, or have come to be a food for invalids or children. But in wintery Sweden, where culinary history is a history of food preservation, skorpor (and similar breads) made up a significant part of the everyday diet. Unlike other traditional Swedish breads, which tend to be a bit more dense and heavy, skorpor are an airy, cracker-type bread. Though they feel quite hard at first, they crumble easily and pleasantly when bitten into. Like biscotti, they are often served these days with coffee or tea; although, unlike biscotti, they are usually eaten with butter and jam or marmalade, or with a good cheese.
Traditionally made with the abundant rye flour, skorpor today are generally made with wheat flour, and can be either sweet or savory, and flavored with any number of things, such as herbs, spices, dried fruit, or nuts. Spices from seeds are most traditional, like aniseed, fennel, or cardamom. They can be made as shown here (shaped into small rolls, split, and toasted) or they can be baked biscotti-style (baked in one large loaf, then cut into slices and toasted). Either way is equally authentic, but I think these look more homemade and charming.
Okay, these aren’t the fastest bread in the world, and they are just a wee bit fussy (what with all the soaking, the tripe-rising, the shaping, and the splitting). But I challenge you to find a better whole-grain cracker recipe. Challenge! I was a little afraid that I was adding too much flour (more than the original recipe called for), therefore ruining the promised lighter-than-air texture with a leaden dough. But, feeling that what I was looking at was just too wet and sticky, I went with my instinct, and added more flour. I was so pleased with the result!
These skorpor end up as a fluffy, crumbly cracker, despite their rustic heartiness from the whole grain flour and the coarse bulgur wheat. The texture really is singular; I’ve never made such an ethereal yet robust bread. Since I left them plain, without any herb or spice addition for flavor, they would be ideal for matching with any cheese imaginable; but they would be just lovely with any various flavorings (add a little sugar, almond flour, and cinnamon to the dough!). I can easily see a bowl of vegetable stew, garnished with a couple of plain skorpor floating on top; or maybe top a few with a layer of grated cheese, broiled to a melty golden brown, served as the lid for your favorite French onion soup. The possibilities are simply endless, so it’s a good thing this recipe makes a lot, and - even better - skorpor last for ages! Skorpor ftw!
Adapted from Bo Friberg
Makes 48 crackers
1/2 cup boiling water
4 ounces bulgur (or cracked) wheat
1 tablespoon active-dry yeast
1 cup warm milk (105º to 115º F)
1 tablespoon honey
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) bread flour
11 ounces (about 2 1/2 cups) whole wheat flour
3 tablespoons shortening
1. Pour the boiling water over the bulgur wheat and stir to combine. Cover and set aside until soft, about 2 to 3 hours, or preferably overnight.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk the warm milk and honey together until the honey dissolves. Sprinkle the yeast over, and stir to dissolve. Let sit until foamy, about 3 to 4 minutes.
3. Add the softened bulgur wheat, salt, bread flour, and half of the whole wheat flour. Mix with the dough hook at low or medium-low speed, adding the shortening in bits to incorporate. Add the remaining whole wheat flour while kneading the dough for about 6 to 8 minutes, until you have a fairly firm and elastic dough. You may not need all of the remaining flour. The dough should still look just a little wet, but not be sticky. (See note 5 below.)
4. Transfer the dough to a lightly-oiled bowl, and turn to coat all sides with the oil. Cover, and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 45 to 60 minutes.
5. Punch down the dough, cover, and let rise again until doubled in size, another 45 to 60 minutes.
6. Punch the dough down again, cover, and let rise a third time until doubled in size.
7. After the third rise, punch down the dough again, and turn out onto a work surface. Unless your dough is sticky, you shouldn’t need any flour on the surface. Knead the dough gently two or three times, to make sure it is fully deflated. Roll the dough into a long rope, about 24 inches long. Divide the rope evenly into 24 pieces. Roll each piece under your hand into a round roll, then form into ovals by rolling them back and forth a few times. Place each oval onto a large baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
8. Preheat the oven to 400º F. Bake the rolls for 15 minutes, or until light brown and baked through. Remove to a rack to cool, about 30 to 45 minutes.
9. Using a fork, split the rolls in half horizontally. Do not use a knife, as they won’t crisp properly. Return the halves to the baking sheet (they don’t need to be spaced far apart), and toast at 400º F until they have browned lightly, about 10 to 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 300º F and continue to bake until they are completely dried through, at least another 20 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool.
1. In step 9, I baked mine at 400º for 10 minutes, reduced the heat to 300º and baked another 20 minutes, then turned the oven off and left them there overnight. In the morning, they were just perfect.
2. I neglected to do so, but a touch of ground cardamom is not only very authentic in these crackers, but would also be quite delicious. Depending on your tolerance for it, you can use anywhere from a pinch to about 1/4 teaspoon. Other good options include fennel, cumin, cinnamon, thyme, or dill.
3. Stored in an airtight container, skorpor should last for several weeks, but are best within a week or two.
4. Though it might seem like overkill, the triple-rising procedure is necessary to achieve the proper light and crumbly texture. Sorry about all this.
5. Depending on what type of bulgur wheat you use (fine, coarse, etc.), and how much water it absorbs, you may end up using only a little or nearly all of the whole wheat flour in step 3. Either way is fine; just make sure your dough is at the proper hydration level (not too firm and dry, not too sticky and wet).