Before the onset of standardized yeast and baking powder, baking was an art form and took a good deal of ingenuity and cunning. Before the 1790’s, when pearlash was introduced for leavening purposes. eggs, salt, sourdough starter, baking soda or simply hand-beating your mixture in order to incorporate as much air as possible into the dough was the norm. Skimming the barm off the fermenting apple cider out in the yard was used quite often as well.
I remember a story handed down to me by my father from his great uncle Gus Bailey. Gus was a legend in the woods of Maine, some called him the ‘Ape’ because….well, I will tell you some other time. Anyway, Gus was a stand-in cook one time in the woods at a lumber camp. The crew wanted biscuits but there was no leaving agent anywhere in the camp. He remembered that his father(Josiah)had made biscuits one time using snow. So ol’ Gus grabbed a mound of new fallen snow from the previous night and added it to the dough. Well, everyone was amazed that the bread did, indeed, rise in that old wood stove. It is known that new fallen snow has a certain type and content of ammonia, at times sufficient to act as a leaving agent.
So it is with my great great uncle Gus in mind that I give you this great Yankee recipe.
Maine Black Bread
1/4 c. cornmeal
1 1/2 c. water, divided
1/2 c. molasses
2 T. butter or margarine, at room temperature
1 t. salt
1/2 c. warm water
One(1/4-oz.)pkg. dry yeast
1 1/2 c. rye flour
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour, plus more if needed
2 T. cocoa powder
1 t. yellow cornmeal
Place the cornmeal in a large bowl. Boil the 1 c. of water and pour the hot water into the cornmeal, stirring constantly to prevent lumps. Let sit for 30 minutes. Add the molasses, salt and butter and stir to combine. The cornmeal water should still be warm enough to melt the room temperature butter.
Put 1/2 cup of warm water (slightly warmer than body temperature) into a small bowl. Sprinkle the yeast over the water and let sit for a few minutes. Then stir it to gently combine. Let sit for another 5 minutes.
Add the yeast and the water to the bowl with the cornmeal mixture, mix to combine. In large bowl, combine both flours with cocoa powder. Add the flour mixture, a cup at a time, stirring after each addition until dough comes away from the sides and is somewhat elastic. By all means, use a stand mixer with a hook attachment if desired.
Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl and spray the dough with a thin coating of cooking spray. Wrap the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside to proof in a warm, draft-free place for 1 1/2 hours or until doubled in size. Remove the plastic wrap, punch down and flatten the rounded dough with the heel of your hand. Roll the dough up tightly, sealing the seam well after each roll. The dough should be elongated. Place the dough on a baking sheet dusted with yellow cornmeal. Allow the dough to proof, loosely covered with a damp towel, for 60 minutes, or until doubled in size. Brush the dough with the egg.
Heat the oven to 350° F and bake the breads for 45-50 minutes, or until crusted well on top. Let the loaves cool for a few minutes, then turn them out onto racks to continue cooling.
Yield: Makes 1 loaf
Feel free to add more flour to the dough when kneading to prevent it from sticking too much. You may also place the dough in a well oiled bread pan to rise a second time before baking.