What do you think traditional German bread should look like?
For me, the bread that comes to mind is pumpernickel. This bread originates in Westphalia, in Western Germany where I live. It’s definitely one of the iconic specialties of this region.
Abroad, it is often known as the “typical” German bread.
The original recipe consists of nothing more than rye flour, whole rye, and water. Just these three ingredients are needed to develop this aromatic and really special kind of bread.
Pumpernickel’s claim to fame
This type of bread is not only known for its very particular flavor, but for it’s the extremely long shelf life, too.
When shrink-wrapped (as it is usually sold), it stays fresh for a couple of months.
Believe it or not – no joking here – locked away in a tin can, it can be stored for up to two years.
Because of its long shelf life, this bread first started to obtain international popularity as so-called “army bread.”
Here’s another fun fact for you: The oldest pumpernickel bakery worldwide, which started production back in 1570, still exists in the city of Soest today (located in Westphalia, Western Germany). Led by descendants of the founders, nowadays this old-school bakery even sells their wares online.
What else is there to learn about this fascinating baked good?
The strange name, of course!
There are lots of different legends that try to explain it. Most of them are of a regional nature and they’re hard to explain, especially when they need to be translated from German into English.
Think of the word as a combination of “pumper” and “nickel,” both of which are old terms in a regional German dialect that have loads of different meanings, some of which are derogatory in nature.
One tale claims Napoleon said the bread was good only for his horse, or “bon pour Nickel.” Others claim “pumpern” + “nickel” can be loosely translated into something along the lines of… a demon’s fart.
As to which of the stories are true? No one can say with absolute certainty.
The long road to baking pumpernickel
The baking process required to make this specialty bread is a lot more time-consuming than one might think.
First, the whole grains are soaked in water overnight to become suitable for baking. The ingredients are then mixed and baked – or rather, steamed – at a low temperature for up to twenty-four hours.
This makes it hard for common bakeries to produce it themselves, because the oven is occupied for the whole day, so it’s not available for making other baked goods.
By adding sourdough and beet syrup to the dough, the baking time could be reduced by about fourteen to sixteen hours. Making this adjustment means the total baking time required is still incredibly long, but manageable for more bakeries and even home cooks.
During the long and slow baking process, something interesting happens inside the loaf.
A special reaction involving enzymes takes place, the so-called Maillard reaction – this is the same reaction that occurs when you properly sear a chunk of meat. It converts starch into sugar and provides a sweet and intense flavor. The dark brown color is a result of it, too, making for beautiful loaves (or other baked goods, such as pretzels, if you like).
This chemical reaction is responsible for flavoring a variety of foods, like roasted coffee beans and baked or fried products.
Why you should definitely try it…
If you’ve tasted it already, then you already know: It is so different from any other bread you have tried.
To be honest, eating pumpernickel is really up to personal tastes. You’ll either love it, or you won’t.
It has this unique consistency that can be described as moist and, although a bit fragile, solid at the same time, with an earthy and sweet flavor. It does not have a firm or tough crust like other types of bread, which makes it easy to bite into for people with sensitive teeth or palates, too.
If you want a more subtle taste of rye, with a crust and crumb of a traditional bread, I suggest you try my recipe for dark rye bread.
… and what you should try it with
The unique flavor and texture of this bread goes well with both sweet and savory spreads. My personal favorites, which you should definitely try, are:
- A thin layer of butter with honey and lemon curd, or orange marmalade (extremely delicious, thanks to its combination of bitter and sweet).
- Slices of roast beef, ham or smoked salmon, topped with creamy horseradish (so yummy!).
- Tomatoes, cucumbers and a slice of mild cheese (the freshness and crispness of the vegetables is a wonderful contrast to the moist, hearty bread).
- Scooped out (carefully) and filled with spinach dip or hummus.
For a simple and sweet dish to introduce you to the unique taste of pumpernickel, or to feature it in a way that you’ve never had before, try the following recipe and you’ll get to enjoy a new flavor experience.
Black Forest Pumpernickel Dessert Parfait
I really love the way Greek yogurt is used in this recipe.
Its creamy texture and the fresh flavor really compliment the aromatic taste of the pumpernickel.
The combination of creamy yogurt, sweet cherries, shaved chocolate and the crumbled bread makes this an enjoyable must-try dessert.
If you like experimenting, why not replace the cherries with other juicy fruits, like peaches or oranges?
Or, you could add some chopped nuts along with the crumbled bread for a crunchy texture.
This easy-to make-dessert should only take you about 20 minutes or so to whip together, not including the hour long soak that the bread and brandy should receive (but you could skip the soaking step if you need a dessert in a hurry).
Cooking By the Numbers…
Step 1. Tear the bread into small chunks, pour on the cherry brandy or cherry juice, mix, and let it soak for an hour or so.
Step 2. Mix your cherries with the sugar (we’re using unbleached cane sugar here, if the color seems a little off).
Step 3. Layer your ingredients starting with the bread mixture, then cherries, then Greek yogurt, and repeat until you’ve used up everything– but be sure to end with a yogurt layer. You can use small glass jars for individual servings, a large glass mixing bowl for family style serving, or better yet, try some fancy glass serving dishes. Note the large portions in the photos – we’re making a double batch using the recipe ingredients listed below.
Step 5. Serve and enjoy!
Bread photos by Nina-Kristin Isenee, Recipe photos by Mike Quinn, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details.
About Nina-Kristin Isensee
Nina lives in Iserlohn, Germany and holds an MA in Art History (Medieval and Renaissance Studies). She is currently working as a freelance writer in various fields. She enjoys travel, photography, cooking, and baking. Nina tries to cook from scratch every day when she has the time and enjoys trying out new spices and ingredients, as well as surprising her family with new cake creations.