My childhood was filled with the most extraordinary family stories about life in Russia—and, as the daughter of immigrants from the Soviet Union, I loved them all. There were the standard war tales, with accounts of the evacuation or the Leningrad siege, and the more absurd ones, about a great-grandfather fooling the KGB into dismissing his dealings on the black market. But the much-described scene I kept returning to in my mind was this: My mother, walking back from the bakery with a half loaf of Leningrad black bread that she purchased for the family for 7 kopeks, picking off small pieces of the crust to eat on the way until there was hardly any left by the time she got home.
Bread plays an important role in Russian culture, as attested by the numerous quips and sayings that get dropped into casual conversations. “Without bread and salt, there is only half a meal,” goes one, while a good host is referred to as “someone who puts bread and salt in front of a guest.” In her memoir of Soviet cooking, food writer Anya von Bremzen records:
On introduction into Komsomol, students were asked to name the price of bread. Woe to the politically retarded delinquent who blurted out “thirteen kopeks.” The correct answer: “Our Soviet bread is priceless.”
According to my mother, Leningrad bread was the best of all—my great-aunt once used a loaf to pay for a hotel stay outside of the city. It was warm and fragrant and had an unrivaled crust. From what every member of my mother’s generation says, North American bread just can’t compare. But since she immigrated to Toronto, my mother hadn’t been able to find a kosher version or recreate it on her own. She hadn’t had proper Leningrad black bread in nearly 40 years—and I’d never tasted what she considered the holy grail of carbohydrates.
This past July, stuck under Canada’s rigorous COVID-19 restrictions, I took this as a personal challenge: I was going to successfully replicate it for her, so that she could have this piece of her hometown despite having left it behind so long ago. (Slightly ironically, I jumped on the sourdough bandwagon that was all over social media almost a year late, although I would consider that a blessing—I don’t want to know how a showdown between my rye bread and my brother’s white sourdough would end.) To me, it seemed the perfect project to take on. I would get to make bread, which would be fun for me, and in the process, I would be performing a meaningful act for my mother. I’d been baking since I was 9 years old and had mastered French macarons and mousse cakes and eclairs; how difficult could it be to make a loaf of bread?
Turns out, it’s pretty hard. A simple internet search yielded results that use cocoa or coffee for coloring, which I doubted would be accurate to the Soviet supply chain. Searches in Russian, performed by my mother on my behalf, came up with recipes for people who want to replicate the bread baked during the food shortages in the Leningrad siege. (Perhaps my childhood in North America has made me soft, but sawdust bread is not my idea of a delicious loaf.) Next came the trial of finding kosher dark rye flour, which apparently does not exist in Toronto; after visits to three different health food stores in the area, we had to turn to Amazon for one measly bag. Since we had theorized that the bread has a sourdough base, every batch took around 24 hours to make the dough, proof, shape, proof again, and then bake—not particularly conducive to easy recipe testing.
About halfway through what I initially thought would be an easy challenge, I asked myself: Why am I doing this? I had come up with a decent rye sourdough bread that had received good reviews from the family (“Not bad,” the highest compliment one can receive from Russians), I had made a sourdough starter from scratch, and I had the entire baking process down pat. This would normally be the point at which I choose a different baking project. So why was I so determined to replicate this one loaf that I had never tasted?
As a gift for my mother, yes, but I realized that it meant so much more than that. After losing three of my four grandparents in five years, the number of family stories told about Soviet Russia has been reduced. There are no more holiday lunches with tales of the KGB and the black market, no more afternoons with tea and Russian songs while my brother plays piano. It’s the realization that everyone comes to at some point: that our parents and grandparents will one day pass on, leaving us with the burden of remembering the past for them. My quest to replicate the Leningrad black bread is really my attempt to connect to the lives my parents and grandparents lived before they came to Canada, to understand what they went through and how they lived, so that one day I can pass on this family history to my own children. Perhaps one day I’d be able to bake this bread for my grandchildren and tell them, “This is what your great-grandmother ate back before she came to Canada. You know, she used to buy half a loaf for 7 kopeks, and then pick at the crust all the way home …”
For five months, I tried my best. My first batch came out flat, which I diagnosed as having too little gluten in the bread. The next batch came out better, with an airy interior but slightly burned crust and a better idea of baking time and temperature. Around the High Holidays, I took a break to do some experimentation with spelt (every loaf came out a little grainy and dried up horribly the day after it was baked) and I won’t even mention the disaster that was my sourdough bagel attempt. I tried baking with a lid, without a lid, with a pan of water for steam that got taken out after the first 20 minutes of baking. The bread was OK—warm, flavorful, with a slightly sour tinge—but it wasn’t the Russian black bread that my mother remembered.
Finally, after a deep dive into the Russian baking side of YouTube and a lot of guesswork into flour and hydration percentages, I decided to make up my own recipe. What turned out was a dark, almost pumpernickel-like bread, made with a mix of dark rye, whole wheat, and bread flour, a sourdough pre-ferment, and a little molasses for color and flavor. After it cooled, I cut a piece for my mother. And held my breath.
“Hmmm,” she said, chewing slowly, “that’s … actually pretty similar.”
There was still some tinkering to be done—the crust was not what it should be, but then again, crust on all bread has always been a personal failing of mine—but this bread was a victory on multiple levels. I had finally managed to bring a piece of my mother’s childhood to Canada, and, in doing so, ensured that I’d be able to pass it on along with all the stories of Soviet Russia. (It also meant that I was now experienced enough as a baker to overcome this test of skill. Next up: tempering chocolate.)
On Shabbat, we took a piece to my uncle to get a second opinion. “Hmmm,” he said, giving the bread a sniff, “it’s … actually pretty similar.”
I’ll count that as a victory.
Sarah Zahavi is an amateur baker and student at Ryerson University in Toronto.