Lechem achid ("standard bread"), or Israeli "black" bread, has been the everyday national loaf of Israel since the beginnings of modern Israeli history. Made with whole wheat flour, it's a hearty bread with a wonderful flavor and bite—reminiscent of the peasant loaves common in Eastern Europe, but with a distinct, sun-drenched Israeliness.
This will forever and always be the bread of my heart. Not that challah doesn't hold a special place of its own, but that's the thing, it's part of the unique atmosphere of Shabbat. Lechem achid, on the other hand, is the taste of home, the mundane space the we don't know to miss until we're away. Eaten throughout the weekday but especially with the classic light Israeli dinner of eggs, salad, and spreads, lechem achid has been a cornerstone of Israeli food since austerity days. That's where it gets its official name: it was standardized, as in a standard portion, during the austerity days of the early State.
Lechem achid is typically sold in full and half loaves, often with just a price sticker on it, at every pitzutziyah (corner convenience store), makolet (neighborhood grocery), tzarkaniyah (co-op), and the super(market) too. You bring it home in a green, yellow, or white, etherally thin cellophane bag, along with some fresh tomatoes and cucumbers and cottage cheese, then add a chavitah (plain omelette) and you're in business.
My family always called this "black" bread (lechem shachor), meaning it was darker in color than fine Shabbat bread, which is sold on Fridays. It goes by both monikers, as far as I can tell.
Why "black" bread?
Black bread is so called in contrast to white bread. It has a characteristic chewy, tight crumb and a deeper, earthier sort of flavor. I tried to replicate black bread for years before nailing it. I was waylaid by rye, which I was certain was somewhere in there. (It's not—I read tons of Israeli bread labels.) The mystery finally unraveled in the pages of George Greenstein's Secrets of a Jewish Baker and Stanley Ginsberg's Inside the Jewish Bakery (which I've mentioned before, in my posts on bagels and kaiser rolls). Both books clued me in about first clear flour, which apparently used to be commonly used by bakers, but is not available commercially to home bakers. First clear flour is less refined than all-purpose flour, with higher protein and lower gluten. As a less expensive flour, it's presumably a good candidate for the invention of an Israeli daily bread back in the austerity period. Anyway, that's my theory.
I've found that a proportion of about one third whole wheat to two-thirds all-purpose flour replicates black bread very well at home. In my local kosher market, there are both American (Jewish/kosher) and Israeli brands premixed in this proportion, but I've not seen them in regular US supermarkets in my area. In the recipe I have directions for combining whole wheat plus all-purpose flours.
How to make lechem achid at home
You'll notice a few fussy details in this recipe, including some special ingredients—vital wheat gluten and diastatic malt—and baking with steam. There's also a bit of futzing with the oven temperature, which is there to give you the characteristic crust that lechem achid has. But don't let any of that put you off. I'm here to tell you that the gluten and malt are absolutely optional. (You might have these if you're into bread baking; if not, just skip them.) You can also skip the steam and the convection and you'll get a wonderful loaf that's very close to Israeli bakery version. Just set the timer for the one switchover from high to medium heat and you'll get a crust that's plenty great. I often do this. That being said, the fussy details will give you a replica you won't believe!
How to shape lechem achid
Israeli sandwich bread has a distinctive shape: a tapered oblong loaf, though some bakery versions will be panned and have a more squared cross-section. To make the shape at home, plump it up into a oblong, then fold in the long ends. Finally, tuck the short ends under, like in the photo above. This bread benefits from being lightly handled, so minimal shaping is the way to go.
Cornstarch glaze for the crust
A further mystery of black bread solved for me by the aforementioed dynamic (and sparring) duo of Greenstein & Ginsberg. I'd never heard of it before, but it's apparently an old baker's trick that provides the just-slightly shiny, thin brown crust that a proper loaf of lechem achid requires. You make the cornstarch glaze by dissolving cornstarch in a little water, then adding to it boiling water, along with a pinch of salt, honey, and, optionally, instant coffee. The glaze gets brushed on the bread before it goes into the oven, and then again right when it comes out.
Lechem Achid - Israeli "Black" Sandwich Bread (parve)
- Stand mixer
- 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- ¾ cup whole wheat flour
- 1 tsp active dry yeast
- ½ Tbsp brown sugar
- 1 ¼ cup warm water
- ½ tsp salt
- 2 tsp vital wheat gluten - optional
- ½ tsp diastatic malt - optional
- 1 tsp cornstarch
- 2 tsp water
- ½ cup boiling water
- pinch salt
- ¼ tsp honey or sugar
- pinch instant coffee powder - optional
Make the dough and rise:
- Combine all of the dough ingredients in a stand mixer and knead until the dough is smooth, supple, no longer tacky, and generally nice to work with. Form into a ball and leave to rise in a greased, covered bowl for 1 hour.
Shape and second rise:
- Line a sheet pan. Shape the ball of dough into a rounded, elongated loaf by tucking the two short ends under and pulling the long ends to the center seam. Place the loaf seam-side down on the baking sheet. Cover and leave to rise for another 1 hour.
Make the cornstarch glaze (while the oven is heating up):
- In a glass measuring cup, whisk together the cornstarch and 2 tsp water. Add the boiling water and stir. Microwave for 15-20 seconds. Remove and stir in the instant coffee, salt, and honey. Set aside to cool slightly.
When ready to bake the bread:
- Place a roasting pan or other metal pan on the lowest rack in the oven. Adjust a second rack just above it. Prepare a large measuring cup with 2-4 cups water.
- Preheat oven to 400°F / 200°C on the convection setting (fan), or 425°F / 220°C without convection.
- When the oven is hot, brush the top of the loaf with the cornstarch glaze, using a pastry brush.
- Open the oven door, place the bread in the oven, then immediately pour the water into the hot pan in the bottom of the oven. Close the door and bake at high heat for 5 minutes.
- After five minutes, turn down the heat to 400, no fan. Bake for 20 more minutes.
- Lower the heat to 350 and bake for an additional 15-20 minutes.
- Brush with more glaze as the bread comes out of the oven. Cool on a rack.