Hearth Baked Rye Bread
By Nancy Hasson
To the twentieth century cook the thought of baking in anything but a thermostatically controlled oven is challenging, if not completely baffling. In fact, most of us would agree it could not be done with any degree of success. But we were intrigued by the challenge and encouraged by the finding of a bake oven in working condition, and therefore agreed to give it a try.
A “backoffe” (bake oven) was once a very necessary part of the household. Almost every home had one. According to Amos Long Jr., in Pennsylvania Folklife (1), the building of a “backoffe” was very often one of the first projects in establishing a new home. Now, however, most have disappeared from the landscape or at least are in such a condition they could not be used without extensive repairs.
On the old Jacob Reiff farm in Lower Salford Township (in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania) we find a bake oven that has survived the ravages of time. Although it had not been used for many years, it needed only a few minor repairs. Present owners, Mr. and Mrs. George McCoach, were hardly aware of its existence. This was the bake oven used in our experiments and demonstration of baking hearth rye bread. (Blogger’s note: The Goschenhoppen Historians built a bake oven at the 1736 Henry Antes House. It is used to demonstrate traditional baking techniques at the annual Folk Festival in August.)
The oven is part of the fireplace in the summer kitchen; the door to the baking chamber is located on the back wall of the fireplace necessitating stepping into the fireplace to tend the oven.
The baking chamber is approximately six feet long, four and one half feet wide, and twenty four inches high. Generally speaking, it is shaped much like an egg cut in half lengthwise. The entire interior is lined with tile (or fire brick) as is the floor on which the bread is baked. This being a “squirrel tail” oven, the chimney is located in the front. A flue begins in the rear and extends up and over the dome to the front chimney. The flue resembles the tail of a squirrel, hence its name.
A fire is built within the oven and allowed to burn until it is reduced to glowing ashes. By this time the tiles are hot and also glowing. Several armloads of wood are placed directly on the floor of the oven. The correct amount needed to raise the oven to the proper temperature is gained by experience. Some kindling naturally is needed also and, if available, corncobs are a traditional thing to use to start a bake oven fire.
This fire is made on the inside of the oven, in the same cavity in which the bread will be placed. The most frequent inquiry we had on the Spring House Tour (2) was, “Where’s the fire?” (after we had put the bread in to bake). The fire was no longer there, only the heat remained and in sufficient amount to do a perfect baking job. (Blogger’s note: The Spring House Tour is no longer conducted by the Historians.)
When the oven is hot, the ashes are raked into a pit located just inside the door, with a hoe type tool on the end of a long handle called a “kitch”. Next, the oven floor is swabbed out with the “huddel lumpe or huddel wisch” which is merely a rag attached to a long pole. This process of swabbing cleaned the ash from the oven floor. Although a bit of ash remaining and clinging to the bottom of a bread was not considered objectionable. If the oven was still too hot it was swabbed again to reduce the temperature.
Several methods can be used to test the temperature within the oven. A handful of flour thrown on to the oven floor should brown quickly. Spitting into the oven was another old time method. An experienced baker knew just by holding her hand in the oven when the temperature was right. We chose to use a piece of paper for our test. If the paper gradually turns a deep brown the oven is ready.
Very early on the morning of baking day a rye sponge (3) was set. Since rye sponge sours easily, it generally can not be started the night before as is often the case with white bread.
Most often a yeast starter was used to set the “sponge”. It is made from potatoes, sugar, salt, hops, and a cup or two of starter from a previous baking. Left standing in a warm place fermentation soon began and it was ready to use. However again, a cup or two was saved, put into a “stoz” (yeast) crock and kept in the spring house until the next baking day. If the housewife had the misfortune to loose her yeast she could make it from scratch using a similar procedure as for starter but adding a handful of peach leaves in place of the left over yeast. The peach leaves introduced the wild yeast cells into the starter to produce fermentation. Many time though a helpful neighbor could supply a cup of yeast thus eliminating the job of making yeast.
The thrifty Pennsylvania Dutch in the Goschenhoppen area baked and ate rye bread instead of white. Wheat flour could be sold for cash, needed of course to buy other necessities, and the rye bread adequately nourished the family.
Some wheat flour should be used with the rye however, as rye flour contains little gluten. Gluten is required to make the dough elastic and enable it to raise better. The amount of wheat flour necessary is determined by the lightness and texture desired in the finished product. The less white flour, the more compact the loaf.
The recipe used in our demonstration is included at the end of this article, along with instructions for making the starter. This is a good textured dark rye bread with a wonderful flavor.
After the “sponge” was raised and additional flour was added to make a stiff dough, it was kneaded well and put into the doughbox to raise again.
Timing was a rather important element here. The bread required three raisings (including the sponge) each determined by the temperature of the dough itself, the room, and the amount of draft. To have the loaves of bread and the oven ready at the same time requires some careful calculating.
Following the second raising in the doughbox, the dough was divided into loaf sized portions, kneading again and placed in napkin lined rye straw baskets (brotkorb). It was then put in a warm place for the final raising.
If all goes well by the time the oven is hot, these loaves will have risen to the tops of their rye straw baskets, are well rounded and ready to be baked. One by one the baskets of dough are carried to the door of the oven, turned out onto the peel (backoffe schiesser) (4) and carefully placed inside the oven. The peel, like the kitch and swab, also has a long handle to enable the baker to place the loaves into the far portion of the cavernous oven. When all sixteen loaves were in place there was still plenty of room left, fortunately, for the addition of a few pies. Then the door was closed and a period of anxious waiting took place.
Now smoke no longer billowed from the chimney as it had during the firing, but even more delightful was the smell of the bread baking, we hoped, to a delicious crusty brown.
You can be certain it was an exciting moment when an hour had passed and we again opened the door. Pies with a golden tan, the fruit bubbling through a break in the crust greeted us. A sight to admire to say nothing of the aroma. They were quickly removed and we could once again see the bread. Sixteen perfectly baked loaves, crusty brown, and fragrant.
One by one the hearty loaves were removed with the peel, tested by tapping the lower crusts, if it sounds hollow it is done, and placed side by side to cool. The tops were brushed with fat to soften the crust.
Again the oven was empty but far from cold. Although we did not take advantage of this left over heat, the regular users of bakeovens would then place apples, beans, corn, etc. on wooden trays, “darr harrde”, and put them into the oven to dry. (These trays were especially constructed to fit the contours of the oven). Thus utilizing every degree of heat available.
As soon as the bread had cooled enough to handle (it was still pretty hot, but who could wait?) a loaf was cut, tasted and pronounced delicious! Hearth baking of rye bread was a most successful venture and we are forced to admit that a thermostat is not a necessity but merely a convenience.
Take a small handful of hops and cook in two cups water about ten minutes. Strain water over two medium potatoes and cook until tender. Drain, reserve liquid. Mash potatoes and add to reserved liquid along with one teaspoon salt, ¼ cup sugar and additional water to make two cups. When lukewarm add ½ cake of commercial yeast, or 1¼ teaspoons dry yeast dissolved in ¼ cup warm water. Let stand at room temperature overnight. Then add one quart water, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ cup sugar. Let stand until bubbly and it is ready to use. Will keep for several days or a week if refrigerated. Allow to warm up to room temperature before using.
Dark Rye Bread
1½ cup liquid yeast starter
1½ cup lukewarm water
1 tablespoon salt
1/3 cup molasses
2½ tablespoons fat
4¾ cups dark rye flour
3 cups white flour
(Recipe for the equivalent of one nine inch diameter loaf. 12 inches after it is baked.)
Combine all ingredients except for about half of the flour. Let stand one hour or until very bubbly. Add remaining flour to make a stiff dough. Knead well (white flour is best to use on the table for kneading; the rye tends to be very sticky). Let raise until doubled. Punch down and knead again gradually shaping the mass of dough into a loaf. Place in a greased 9 inch pan, unless you happen to be using a “bake oven” then bake it directly on the hearth, and let rise until doubled. Bake at 375 degrees to 400 degrees for about one hour. Remove from pan as soon as taken from the oven and brush with butter. Cool before cutting, if you have the will power to do so. Serve with lattwarrick (applebutter).
(1) December, 1964. Vol. 14, No. 2, PP 16-29
(2) Each year, on the 3rd Saturday in May, the Goschenhoppen Historians, Inc. sponsor a Spring House Tour. Visits are made to a number of the early houses, churches and industries in the Goschenhoppen area. Live demonstrations of early crafts are staged at appropriate places throughout the tour route. The above account of hearth baking of rye bread was one of the demonstrations on the 1968 Spring House Tour.
(3) Sponge – a batter-like mixture in which the yeast is allowed to work before the addition of all of the flour.
(4) Peel – a baker’s long handled flat wooden shovel-like paddle used to place bread or pies into or to take them out of the oven.