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Monday, May 23, 2011

A Whole Wheat version of Esalen's Dark Russian Rye Bread

Esalen Dark Russian Rye Bread
A Whole Wheat Version

The closest I've ever been to Esalen is driving quickly by, northward to Carmel on Pacific Highway 1, dodging boulders and mudslides, watching the dark horizon and trying to get off the cliffside before the next greatest storm in 10 years rolled in.  So I've never tasted the official version of this bread.

But a couple of people who have troubled to comment on my bread blog have extolled the virtues of Esalen's Dark Russian Rye Bread.  I found the recipe using Google Books.  But I've made a couple of changes here -- both to the ingredients and the method -- on the fly.  I mention all this because I don't have a clue as to whether or not I'm achieving anything like the original Esalen loaf that earned the enthusiasm.

What I changed
The first thing I altered: I used whole wheat flour instead of all purpose flour.  Next, I've halved the recipe: no use wasting all that flour if my loaf is a disaster.  And I've used about a cup more water than the original recipe.

Others who have viewed the original recipe have suspected that there might be an error in the book.  When I measured the flours and the hydration as written, I discovered that the book's recipe gives a hydration of 31%.   This might be corrected in later editions, or errata pages, but that is what I got when I measured the ingredients (see below).

Whole wheat requires a bit more water, since the bran absorbs a lot of the water, so I've had to increase the volume of liquid by almost a cup.  And so, this version of Esalen's Dark Russian Rye Bread has a hydration of 55%, and it is still very dense and difficult to knead, requiring far more time to mix than the original recipe suggests.  The weights are what I found.  Your experience may vary.


  • 1 1/2 c warm water  361g
  • 2 1/4 tsp dry active baking yeast 8g
  • 4 3/4 c rye flour 617g
  • 1/4 c molasses 81g
  • 1/4 c cocoa powder 26g
  • 1 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted 23g
  • 2 1/2 tsp toasted caraway seeds 6g
  • 2 1/4 tsp sea salt 13g
  • 3 1/2 c whole wheat flour 484g
  • 1 c extra water 241g

A note on the whole wheat measure:
  I measured out 3 1/2c of all purpose flour, and found that to be 541g.  Rather than use that weight in whole wheat, I used the lesser weight of 3 1/2 c of whole wheat, which I found to be 484g.  That means that the original recipe's total flour was 1158g, making the hydration 31% (add the molasses and butter if you like, but that still only brings the wet stuff's percentage to 40%).  I'm thinking that if you follow the original recipe for this bread, and use all purpose flour, you are going to have very sore wrists if you try to incorporate all these ingredients by hand.


Original: Whisk yeast into warm water and allow to bloom.
My Experience: My water wasn't very hot, I'll admit.  And so, after 5 minutes, the yeast doesn't show much activity.  But as I've blogged about the futility of proofing these dried instant yeasts in the past, I didn't really care.  I toasted my caraway seeds while I was doing this -- literally, toasting them in the toaster oven.  I might have left the seeds in the oven a bit long.  Some of them were quite dark, and the roasting scent (I presume it was the caraway oils burning) was very strong -- but not unpleasant.

Original: Stir in rye flour, at least 50 strokes, then cover in warm spot 1/2 hour. 
My Experience: There is not enough water to properly hydrate even this amount of flour, and we haven't yet begun to add the wheat flour.  I couldn't "stir" this flour in.  I had to knead it for about 20 minutes to get it somewhat all incorporated.  But I still didn't add any extra water yet.  My thought was that perhaps the dough would ferment a bit, and, I don't know, pull some moisture out of the air or something.  It didn't, of course. 

after 1 hour

I let it sit covered in my excalibur for a full hour, and saw very little rise, because there just isn't enough water in the dough.  It did soften the dough slightly though.  This turned out to be a sort of too-dry autolyse.  A much longer autolyse would have helped substantially, I think.  Like overnight, perhaps?

Original: Stir in molasses, cocoa, butter, caraway seeds, and sea salt and blend well.
 My Experience: I was still hoping that the molasses and butter might be enough somehow to hydrate the dough enough to incorporate the rest of the flour.  It wasn't, of course.  There was nowhere near enough hydration.
I squeezed the dark ingredients together so it got all squalchy between my fingers.  But this is still a very dense dough, even before the wheat flour gets added.  Cocoa and roasted caraway seeds smells quite exotic.

Original: Stir in half of the wheat flour and incorporate it into the dough.
My Experience:  Stir it in?  You have got to be kidding.

I spent about 20 minutes just getting the first half of the wheat flour incorporated, by kneading it with wet hands.  And I still had half of the flour to incorporate!

Original: Place the remaining half of the white flour on a kneading surface and knead in that flour until the dough is firm, smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes.  By then, most of the flour will be incorporated.
My Experience:  Uh huh.  Ten minutes?  I kneaded for about 40 minutes at this stage.  What I ended up doing, finally was adding a whole cup of water (well, actually it was 1/2 cup, twice) to the original bowl, kneading the dough, and when it wouldn't pick up any more flour from the counter top, I'd dip the dough in the water and get it wet all over, and then put it back on the mound of flour still on the counter top and keep kneading, until it was all incorporated.

At the end of this stage, I stopped to measure that I had about 1/4 cup of water left over, so to get the dough all incorporated, I really only used 3/4 of cup of extra water .  It turned out that I would use that extra 1/4 cup later, when it came time to form my loaf, though.

Original: Form the dough, and place into an oiled bread pan, cover with a towel, and raise 1 hour.
My Experience: I wet the dough liberally with the 1/4 c of water as I was forming it, and teasing it into shape.  I would stretch the dough outward before folding it back on itself, and if the dough began to tear, I would wet my fingers and shape it like clay.  I would let it rest a bit, and tug it some more.  I was really trying to get some surface tension for this dough, as I folded it and shaped it to fit the pan.  I used all the water.
Instead of covering it with a towel, I covered the pan with an inverted pan, and again I set it in the excalibur to proof, for an hour.

Original: Bake in preheated oven 350 degrees F about 45 minutes, remove from oven and place on a wire rack to cool.
My Experience: I noticed that the dough had raised the upper pan a smidgeon before I put it into the oven, and I decided not to chance taking it off right away, for fear it might destroy the top.  I was hoping that by placing it in the oven for about 20 minutes first, I could take it off and get the crust formed for the last 25 minutes of the baking.  But after 20 minutes in the oven, it didn't come off easily, and again I didn't want to destroy the top of the loaf, so I just left it on for the entire baking time.

After I took it out of the oven, the top still wouldn't come off easily.  So I slipped the bottom off, and returned the loaf to the cooling oven for about 10 minutes.  After that, I began to pry the top pan off, as gently as I could.  In the end, it did tear some of the upper crust off the loaf.  I set it back on top as gently as I could, and let it cool.

Don't you just hate people who change the recipe substantially and then complain that the bread doesn't taste very good?  Perhaps I should just keep my mouth shut, then.  Naw.

 This is a rye bread, and you can taste the rye: but you can also taste the cocoa.  The toasted caraway seeds are lost in the flavour.  What I taste is the possibility in this loaf.

My loaf has a lot of stress marks from my attempts to pry it free of the pan too soon.  The crumb is very dense -- I expected no less.  Probably the real hydration should be 60-70% to make this bread properly.  Plus, a much longer rise would be warranted: an overnight autolyse, and a long slow rise, with at least 2 hours in the pan to proof before the final baking.  And of course, rye would be better made with sourdough.

The bread is best toasted, and slathered in butter.  But then, what do you put on a chocolatey bread, for a topping?  I used what I had on hand, a couple of things that gave a really different taste: one was a very old 5 year old Canadian cheddar cheese, sliced thinly enough to melt into the hot butter.  That tasted okay.  The other thing I tried was my wife's home-made dandelion flower jelly, that she threw together the other day.  There may not be enough pectin in it, it doesn't seem to want to firm up.  It has the consistency of liquid honey, but you still get the bitter lemony flavour of dandelion tops, in the midst of the jelly's added sugar.  This doesn't sound like it would go well with chocolate flavours, but surprisingly it did.

That's what I ate for breakfast this morning, in a week full of storms and news of storms, with gratitude for another day.

I refuse to bitch about anything this morning.

Notes to Myself
  • Oil the upper pan as well as the bottom before you proof it, if you are using the top pan in this way.
  • Would it be better to put the extra water right away, to make it easier to mix and knead?  Probably -- although I'm not absolutely convinced.  Kneading rye is always problematic, since it doesn't behave like wheat at all.  Resting and teasing it with water seemed to help quite a bit.  But perhaps 2 hours of proofing might have been better for the loaf. 
  • Use an overnight autolyse, perhaps in the refrigerator.
  • Try making a bread like this with sourdough.
  • Use more toasted caraway seeds next time.
  • Check out the reviews of this cookbook before you buy it.  Sounds like some people are enthusiastic, others are finding the ingredient amounts are way off too frequently, same as I found here. 
  • UPDATE: my wife says that chewing this dense loaf is "tiresome" and it doesn't taste very good.  She is not a fan of caraway, and she doesn't really care for bitter chocolate in her bread.  She is very unhappy with this bread, and after a couple of slices, she complains "how many more recipe books are you going to have to bake your way through before you go back to making decent bread?"


  1. What's this with wives not wanting to bake bread? Of course, I'm unemployed and my wife works. Tip, get a bread machine at goodwill or a thrift shop. Do you grind your own wheat? Makes a world of deference.

  2. Perhaps we live in different worlds. My wife might bake bread, if I were not always the one trying to bake it. The loaves she would make would be quite a bit different. She does not insist on whole grains like I do. My bigger problem is my wife will not eat my bread. And I struggle with the ethics of providing bread for her that I feel is less healthy than whole grain.

    We have a bread machine, I think I have used it once in about three years. Part of making bread for me is getting my hands in it. I consider it therapy, or a meditation, or plunging my hands into life, right up to the elbows. With my job, I need this, I require this time with dough. Maybe giving our bread machine to Goodwill is a good idea. Might free up some cupboard space, and someone else might benefit.

    Do you also find electric wheat grinders at thrift shops? I suspect not. Sometimes its cheaper and less time consuming to buy your grain already milled. Although I like the results when I grind my own by hand (I have a manual grinder), it is a lot of work, and I think I expend more calories turning the crank than I do eating the loaf, so I don't win.

    But rather than beg to differ, I'll defer to your experience.