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Russian Black Bread ('Chorni Chleb')

Russian Black Bread

I am struggling to say anything objective about this bread, because it is, hands down, the best I have ever baked and possibly ever eaten; in a few weeks, we've made it halfway through our second batch. It is adapted from The Bread Bible by Beth Hensperger (Chronicle Books 1998). Don't be put off by the 20 ingredients; it makes for an abundantly complex, hearty and flavorful bread. To eat it as the Russians do, slather it with a layer of salted butter and caviar.

Makes 2 loaves

2 packages (2 tablespoons) active dry yeast

Pinch of sugar

1/2 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees)

2 cups water

1/4 cup molasses

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 ounce unsweetened chocolate

1/2 cup whole-wheat flour

3 cups medium rye flour

3 cups unbleached, all-purpose or bread flour

1 cup bran

2 tablespoons caraway seeds

1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon instant espresso powder

1 tablespoon minced shallots

1/4 cup cornmeal

1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon caraway seeds

In a small bowl, combine yeast and sugar with warm water. Stir to dissolve and let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes.

Heat two cups water, molasses, vinegar, butter and chocolate until the butter and chocolate are melted. Set aside.

Combine whole-wheat, rye and white flours in a large bowl. Set aside.

In bowl of a heavy mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine two cups mixed flours, bran, seeds, salt, espresso and shallots. At low speed, add yeast and chocolate mixtures. Mix until smooth and beat at medium speed for three minutes. (Note: If you don't like whole seeds in your bread, grinding them in a spice grinder allows their flavor to come through without the texture.)

At low speed, add half cup of remaining mixed flours at a time, until dough clears sides of bowl and begins to work its way up paddle. It will be very sticky but firm.

Scrape dough off paddle, gradually add flour mixture, and knead to make a springy yet dense dough. You might not use all of the flour mixture.

Form into a ball and place in a greased bowl. Turn once to grease top. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm area until doubled, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Combine cornmeal, flour and remaining caraway seeds and set aside.

Gently deflate dough. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide into two portions and form into two rounds. Place seam down on a greased or parchment-lined baking sheet, sprinkled with cornmeal mixture. Cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled and puffy, about 45 minutes to one hour. Slash an X into the top.

Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 50 minutes or until loaves are well-browned, or register an internal temperature of 200 to 210 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from baking sheet to cool completely on a rack.

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