Painting shows loaf of black bread and a few ingredients

Winter Bread. 12″ x 12″ gouache, watercolor and pencil. Sharyn DImmick

I am a water sign and a watercolor painter. I think about water. I love to swim in open water. I like to take hot baths. And I conserve water. On a blog which shall remain nameless I ran across the suggestion that leaving your sink faucet running while you chop onions will cause you to cry less. I ran to the comments field to beg all who read the post not to leave their water running. My friends in New Mexico and Colorado know not to waste water. People in Africa know not to waste water. Some of us don’t understand that potable water is a limited resource and we need to treat it as a limited resource. When you turn on the faucet, water comes out. For now. If you or your landlord or your parents or your roommates have paid the water bill. If you are lucky, you live in a place where the water is good, drinkable, not polluted. Where I live we have good water: it is soft. It tastes good right out of the tap.

Recently, I read another blog post, a wonderful round up of all the things you can do with citrus peel. You can candy it — I knew that. You can zest it. I knew that, too. You can compost it. Check. You can make it into cleaning products. But some people make citrus salts. And some people make liquor. And some people make flavored sugars. You should read the wonderful post yourself.

One of the reasons I loved this post so much is that it was full of lovely things to do with something that we often waste. And one of the reasons I like learning things people did in the past is that some people had some good ideas about how to use things fully. Citrus peel is a lovely thing, quite edible and useful. Water is a lovely thing, drinkable, useful and quite versatile. Please don’t waste it.

Now, it’s winter in the Northern hemisphere and winter has got me thinking about Northern people, perhaps some of your ancestors and mine. People who lived where it was cold. People who lived where crops were limited. Many of those people grew rye. Do you know where this is going? I am offering you some northern winter bread to go with your water. Perhaps you will make some citrus marmalade to spread on your bread where it will look like trapped sunshine. Just saying. Perhaps you will eat winter bread with summer’s blackberries or raspberries preserved in a jar, or your friend Carol’s boysenberry jam.

Anyway, this is winter bread. It is dark. It is hearty. It contains yeast and all manner of dark things: coffee, molasses, cocoa. Don’t get excited — it’s not sweet: it is winter bread and the holidays are over for now. You can eat chocolate bread on Valentine’s Day if you want to, but it is January and Heidi Swanson across the bay aka 101 Cookbooks posted a recipe for black bread, the stuff I call winter bread. Her recipe is even darker than mine because it includes the dark, bitter flavor of caraway seeds. Caraway is bitter enough that it should have made it into the bitter herbs for the Passover table. I passed on the caraway. Her recipe also has golden flecks of carrot in it. You might like that. I might like it, too, but I made winter bread without carrots or caraway this time around. You can make it, too.

Winter Bread, inspired by and adapted from Heidi Swanson’s Black Bread

Get out a 1 cup  glass liquid measuring cup. Put 3 Tbsp butter in it and microwave for about fifteen seconds. Empty butter into a large mixing bowl. It doesn’t have to be melted, but should be soft enough to slip out.

Now, measure 1/3 cup molasses into the same cup.

Pour it into the mixing bowl. It should slide right out. If it is recalcitrant, use a rubber scraper or a clean finger to help it along.

Take the greasy, sticky measuring cup and add 1/2 cup lukewarm water to it.

Dissolve 1 packet or 2 and 1/4 tsp active dry yeast in the water by whisking it with a fork. Set aside for now.

Add to your bowl of butter and molasses:

2 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder

1 Tbsp instant espresso powder diluted in 1/4 cup warm water

2 tsp kosher salt

Now add your proofed yeast to the bowl. Get it all: use a utensil or finger — fingers are truly useful in the kitchen.

Measure  1 and 1/3 cups rye flour. Add to your bowl

Measure 3 cups unbleached flour or bread flour into your bowl.

Have a cup of cool water at the ready, plus 1/4 cup flour for work surface, plus additional flour.

You can make this with a mixer with a dough hook. I do sometimes. But this time I hand-kneaded it: it was a new recipe. Rye flour takes a lot of kneading to make good bread and hand-kneading made it easier for me to make adjustments and keep track of how it was going.

First I stirred it. Then I mushed it with my hands. It was still pretty dry and shaggy with wet bits. Finally, I filled a cup with water like I’ve told you to do and spread 1/4 cup of flour on my bread board. Then I dumped the not-quite-bread-mass out on the board, added a little water with my fingers and started kneading. Do you know how to knead? It’s really folding the dough on itself and pushing it forward, letting the weight of the dough work on the dough, then repeating. Endlessly — it will seem that way the first time you knead a loaf of rye or whole wheat or sourdough: it can take awhile to work the proper amount of flour and water into your dough. If the dough will not pick up the flour from the board after several minutes, it is too dry — add some more water. If the dough is super-sticky and gloms onto the board, add flour by the tablespoon and work it after each addition: as you knead bread it tends to get drier and less sticky. You want it neither dry nor wet. It should feel sort of like your ear lobe. Touch it. Like that. Rye bread can take ten or twenty minutes to knead. It’s winter. Slow down. You can sing to yourself as you work: rhythmic songs are good: “I’m gonna WASH that MAN right OUTta my HAIR…”

When it’s done, butter or oil your mixing bowl, put the bread in it, cover with a warmed, dampened linen or smooth cotton dish towel and set it in a warm place to rise, for instance an oven that has been on “Warm” for a few minutes and then turned off. Or an oven with a pilot light. Or a pre-warmed clothes dryer.  Go away for at least an hour, maybe an hour and a half. When it has doubled in size, reward it by deflating it: push on it to let the air out. Form it into a rustic round and put it in a tart pan or on a baking sheet to rise again. Check it in half an hour. Preheat your oven to 425. Take a sharp knife and cut an “X” or cross in the top of your bread. Bake for 15 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350. Check again in 25 minutes. Bread is done when it makes a nice sound when you thump it. No thump? Bake it some more.

Then you have to let it cool. I know, but if you cut it hot, the middle gets icky and soggy. So wait awhile. You have my permission to cut it warm — barely warm. Eat with unsalted butter. Or jam. Or marmalade. Dunk it in your soup. Get out the cheese. You know what to do.

Food Notes: Oh yeah — I added just a touch of orange juice and zest — I had half an orange sitting on the counter. You can use brewed coffee instead of instant espresso. Use whatever salt you like and adjust accordingly. For a completely different, lighter, sweeter rye that incorporates more citrus, try Swedish Rye Bread.

Painting Note: I’ve had the blues lately, so I decided to inventory my paints. I found I had a lot of ultramarine blue. As in four tubes. I had some other blues, too, so I made a tablecloth of blue stripes with blues straight out of the tube: starting at the left, the stripes go cerulean, cobalt, ultramarine, violet and then repeat. The window frame is mostly cobalt. The glass has mauve pencil underneath the blue created by all of the pigments in the water.

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