Westphalian Pumpernickel

Week Five: Breads for Parties


There are two main types of pumpernickel in this world: the one most Americans recognize, that deep-flavored, dark, and fluffy yeast-bread often associated with and substituted for rye bread, like in a Reuben sandwich; and then there’s the traditional German-style pumpernickel, usually found deep in the dusty and catch-all “International” section of some grocery stores, that dense brick that seems to look more a block of seasoning paste than bread.  I’m going to talk about the latter, for a few reasons.  First, for parties, there’s something so pleasing about a perfectly rectangular loaf of bread, to cut into perfect squares for canapés.  You end up wasting a lot of bread if you try that with a normal loaf.  Second, the flavor of this German-style pumpernickel is unmatchable; the result of long, slow baking, its depth and complexity just can’t be mimicked in any standard yeast-bread.  Third, I just love unusual and overlooked foods.  If you can serve a slightly offbeat food, one that makes your guests ask, “What is that?”, you generally don’t have to gussy it up much.  This results in less effort overall, and you look like a genius.  Win!

Also known as Westphalian Pumpernickel, this bread is supposed to be rather polarizing – people either love it or hate it.  Personally, I can’t see anyone not liking it, especially this recipe.  But I think maybe those that dislike it are thinking of a far more true-to-its-roots item; pumpernickel traditionally was baked at a low temperature for 16 to 24 hours, turning it into a far more bitter and tough product.  Think Guinness stout, in bread form (or maybe brick form).  That, I can see not liking.  This recipe, though, is only baked for 4 hours, giving it a fabulous depth of flavor while not crossing over into burnt-black-flavor territory.  It is made without yeast or other leaveners, and must sit for anywhere from 1 to 24 hours before baking, to allow a sort of fermentation.  Technically, what’s happening here is called “malting”, which means that the grains are being soaked in liquid, and then are dried out slowly.  This converts starch into sugar, and gives the bread a sweeter flavor, while still maintaining its very hearty and rustic consistency – there’s not a mote of white flour in sight.

In the cooking process, though, it’s actually steamed more than baked.  Covered tightly, in a steamy oven, the bread takes on considerable flavor from that insane combination of molecular happenings, the Maillard reaction.  Yes, the same process that gives your steak its delicious brown outside is turning our doughy mess into rich and luscious Westphalian pumpernickel.  And when that’s done, you can cool the bread and slice it, but it’s still going to be a bit sticky.  But let it sit, tightly wrapped, for a day or two, and it should be just about perfect.  You heard me right – this bread is best started about a week before your party.  What other food can you think of, aside from pickles, where that’s the case?  Ok, it takes a little advance planning, to make the dough, let it rest for a whole day, then bake for 4 1/2 hours.  But most organized parties require some sort of advance scheduling, so there you go.

In the end, we have a bread that’s very nearly perfect for a cocktail party: easy to cut into perfect shapes with no waste, a highly nutritious alternative to uses where white bread is standard, an item you have no choice but to make in advance, and a slightly off-the-radar food.  But what on earth do you pair it with?  Part of its charm is its unusual flavor, which can clash with many things.  But I’ll tell you, when you do get a good match, it is unbelievably good.  This bread is a too crumbly to use for dipping, so you’re stuck with canapés.  This is not a hardship.  Slice the whole loaf thinly (surprisingly easy to do), cut stacks of the slices into halves or thirds, and toast on a sheet tray in a 350º oven until crispy.  One amazing combination is to spread the toasts with grainy brown mustard, layer with thin shavings of good ham, and top with an assertive hard cheese.  Simple, and you really won’t believe how good it is.  (Full disclosure: that’s what I ate for breakfast this morning, but with a fried egg thrown in to round it out.  It was so good, I’m seriously planning on cooking it again tomorrow.  No joke.)  Bon Appétit once featured a Shrimp Remoulade on Molasses-Buttered Pumpernickel that I have served to rave reviews for a Mardi Gras party.  It’s very Nouveau Creole, and I for one couldn’t stop eating them.  Try spreading them with a creamy Camembert, top with a slice of tart apple or pear, and dust with ground caraway seeds.  You can butter the toasts, and serve with a slice of cured or smoked salmon with a sliver of fresh fennel.  Or for the easiest route, just pick up a variety of sliced cured meats and sausages, and simply serve on a platter with the pumpernickel, with maybe some cornichons and mustard on the side.  Think hearty, robust flavors, that can handle a bit of sweetness, and you’re all set.  And if you have any leftover, take the advice of the only remaining Westphalian baker of traditional bake-for-a-day pumpernickel, Hubert Schulze-Hillert: “Butter it thickly, cover it with a wedge of ham, and wash it down with a good cold beer.”  Don’t mind if I do.

Westphalian Pumpernickel
From Bread by Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter
Makes 2 loaves

1 pound rye flour (about 4 cups)
8 ounces whole-wheat flour (about 2 cups)
4 ounces bulgur wheat (about 2/3 cup)
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons molasses
3 1/2 cups warm water
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1.  Lightly grease two 7×3 inch loaf pans.  Mix the rye flour, whole-wheat flour, bulgur wheat, and salt together in a large bowl.

2.  Mix the molasses with the warm water and add to the flours with the vegetable oil.  Mix together to form a dense mass.

3.  Place in the prepared tins, pressing well into the corners.  Cover with lightly oiled plastic wrap and leave in a warm place for 18-24 hours.

4.  Preheat the oven to 225º F.  Cover the tins tightly with foil.  Fill a roasting pan with boiling water and place a rack on top.

5.  Place the tins on top of the rack and transfer very carefully to the oven.  Bake the loaves for 4 hours.  Increase the oven temperature to 325º F.  Top up the water in the roasting pan if necessary, uncover the loaves and bake for a further 30-45 minutes, or until the loaves feel firm and the tops are crusty.

6.  Leave to cool in the tins for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.  Serve cold, very thinly sliced, with cold meats.


1.  I used olive oil instead of vegetable oil.  There’s so little, you’d never notice any flavor difference, so use what you’ve got.

2.  I’m not really sure what you’re intended to do exactly with the rack in step 4, so I just filled a large ceramic pan with hot (not boiling, to avoid breaking the pan) water, heated it up with the oven, and set my oven rack as close to the top of it as I could.  It seemed to work just fine.

3.  This bread can be eaten after it cools, but it will improve if left wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and aluminum foil for a couple of days.  This gives it time to dry out a little, and let the stickiness dissipate.  Any longer than that, and you may want to just stick it in the freezer.

4.  I didn’t mention it before, but this bread is unleavened.  Just in case you were wondering where the yeast, or baking powder is in the recipe – there isn’t any.

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