Pumpernickel

The pumpernickel of my childhood is not the slightly sticky, sour and coarse rye compressed loaf often studded with rye berries that is more commonly found in Northern Europe. On the contrary, it is an American Pennsylvania Dutch variation of a rye bread flavoured with caraway seeds and darkened to a deep brown with molasses. In fact, thinking of this dark rye bread elicits a rather warm and fuzzy feeling. So, when looking up pumpernickel in the dictionary, I was quite surprised to discover the word’s rather unseemly etymological origins. Instead of pleasant connotations or interesting (but dry) historical facts, pumpernickel had scatalogically crude associations.

Before the 17th century, this type of bread was known as krankbrot (“sick-bread”), possibly because of its sour taste or perhaps from intestinal problems resulting in digesting fermented rye from which it was made. By the 17th century, krankbrot became known as pumpernickel, also a nickname at the time for a rather stupid person, a fool or a laughing stock. If you break the word down etymologically into its constituent parts – pumpern and nickel – you get even more unfavourable associations. Although pumpern means “to thump” in modern German, in New High German (the form of the German language in the 17th century) its meaning is “to fart” – possibly alluding to the intestinal problems mentioned above. And, nickel, which is related to the English “Old Nick” (a nickname for the Devil), means goblin or demon. Put them together and you have a farting demon.

Not exactly what I imagine when eating my Pennsylvania Dutch style pumpernickel bread.

Sourdough Pumpernickel Bread
A great tasting dark rye bread and perfect for the winter months.

  • 400g sourdough starter (100% hydration)
  • 400g white flour
  • 200g rye flour
  • 8g sea salt
  • 1 Tablespoon caraway seeds
  • 60g molasses
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 250g warm water

Measure out your sourdough starter, making sure it had recently been “fed”, and place it into a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, mix the white and rye flours, the salt and caraway seeds. In a separate container, weigh the molasses, add the warm water and the baking soda. The alkaline baking soda counteracts any acidity in the molasses and helps prevent any bitter aftertaste. Stir the liquid so that the molasses dissolves.

Add the flours to the sourdough starter and then the black molasses liquid. Stir until the dough becomes sticky and the flour is incorporated. The dough will begin to separate from the side of the bowl when stirred. Add more flour (white) if the mixture is too soft or more warm water if it is too dry.

Tip the dough out onto a floured surface and dust with more flour. Pull and stretch the dough, folding and turning 90 degrees each time you stretch. You will soon see gluten strands forming. Form into a ball and put back into a cleaned and oiled bowl. Cover with clingfilm (or shower cap) and let sit in a warm area for 4 to 6 hours until doubled in volume.

Carefully remove the dough from the bowl and tip out onto a lightly floured surface. Dust with more flour and gently form into a loaf shape. Slash several lines in the dough with a sharp knife.

Place in a cast iron pot and cover. Put the pot in a cold oven. Turn on the temperature to 230 degrees C (approx. 450 degrees F) fan assisted and bake for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, remove the lid and continue to bake for another 20 minutes. You may need to adjust times and temperatures for your oven.

Remove the bread from the pot by tipping it out. Let the loaf cool on a rack. Wrap and refrigerate. The loaf will remain fresh for several days and becomes easy to cut into thin slices for toasting once chilled. Or, the loaf can be frozen for future use.

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Note: You cannot ignore history or etymology, but I was recently reading and the on-line article A brief history of farting in early music and was intrigued by the author’s premise that perceptions associated with words can change. The article outlined how farts at certain historical times and under certain circumstances convey a variety of meanings. They are made in fun, in protest, depict kindnesses or (conversely) misogyny, or used to put a braggart in his place. Words like fart are, as the author puts it, “window[s] onto our past, throwing a comparative light onto our present selves, revealing our own values and view of the world.” To me pumpernickel means something comforting and nostalgic – far removed from its scatological origins.

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7 comments

  1. Huge laughter, I am afraid!! Now I happen to have been born in Northern Europe [OK: Estonia!] and I was brought up on pumpernickel Well, more plain ‘Schwarzbrot’ or “Black Bread’ of which pumpernickel is a firmer, tighter cousin!! Don’t bake it – these days even rarely eat it, but never remembered it as ‘sticky, coarse’ or ‘sour’!!And when I was a kitty-cat back ‘home’ and I was ill, this definitely was not ‘Krankbrot’ and the simple to digest paler varieties were trotted out ! You are giving a fantastic history lesson here: well, this is a tiny bit of ‘my’ history!!!! Shall look at your ‘warm and fuzzy’ recipe again . . .

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    • I guess the pumpernickel I know is really Schwarzbrot or black bread. I suppose that when the Pennsylvania Dutch (really a corruption of Deutsch) brought the recipe over to the New World in the 18th century, it may have reminded them of Pumpernickel. I never knew of the sticky, coarse and sour compressed loaf until we moved to the UK. When I said sick-bread, I meant that it made you sick, not that it was given to the sick. As you say, the paler varieties are much more digestible. And yes, Estonia is Northern Europe! Would love to delve into this country’s cuisine. Glad I could provide a chuckle or two.

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      • *big smile* No, not a laugh, just how others may see us ! I can actually buy ‘blocks’; of so-called ‘pumpernickel’ here – s’thing square in plastic wrap and sliced super-finely. S;times use it when serving herring or smoked eel or salmon as a canapé . . .

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  2. Love the farting associations. Your pumpernickel is a lighter variety than the dense, cakey variety sold commercially here in Australia, which might be closer to Eha’s Swarzbrot. I love using molasses in bread- even a white/wholemeal mix gets a slurp for colour in my baking routine. With regard to your preferred rye flour, is it the fine stuff which is commonly sold, or darker or..? Shall get this one going next bake.

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    • The farting association was an interesting bonus when I started researching the etymology. The rye I use is fairly fine. Since this flour is difficult to source here, I use what I can find and even then, I have to get shipped from Northern Greece. Back in the UK, I tend to use the courser variety and use a bit less in the recipe. Hope you enjoy it. I love it with butter and honey, but also with German salami (or a salty cheese).

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  3. Salivating with the luscious palate memory of that dark pumpernickel both Eha and Francesca mentioned and also a loaf called Schinkenbrot I used to adore. Sadly both rye and molasses are off the menu for me

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