When you have to travel in a car for a very long distance, and, thus, a very long period of time, it’s a challenge to try and figure out what you can do to make your time trapped in a car a little less unpleasant. Last summer, while undertaking a nearly 700 mile drive south, we prepared the car for the needs of a child: toys, books, and a makeshift desk top crafted out of a strategically-cut piece of plywood. A couple of weeks ago, preparing for a drive that would be half as long with a turnaround time twice as fast (last summer’s trip netted roughly 1400 miles in 8 days, but our most recent trip spanned 900 miles in only 4 days), we planned not for maximum entertainment while in the car, but rather for maximum efficiency.
Maximum efficiency in this case relegated lunch and snacks to the car, allowing for the most efficient use of driving time with the least amount of stops (or so we thought, until a certain preschool-aged child decided that it was of utmost importance to announce his desire to visit a restroom every 20 minutes, but that’s another story). It also meant that I was going to be able to plan a small menu of picnic-type items, which gave me a certain amount of pleasure. I am a big fan of meals that consist of many small bites of many different things, so this was right up my alley.
The first order of business, as it is in life, was snacks. I roasted some nuts, sprinkled them lightly with sea salt, then combined them with some dried cherries and dried cranberries. To excite our child, I also threw in some chocolate chips (be sure to combine these items AFTER the roasted nuts have cooled off, lest you inadvertently end up creating some sort of chocolate/nut blob that will cool into the world’s lumpiest candy bar. Which, come to think of it, actually sounds sort of appealing…). Baby carrots are always welcome, so I added those to the snack pile. Strawberries and blueberries were fortuitously on sale at the market, so they came along, too. I sliced up a pear and an apple, packed them into a tightly sealed container, and moved on to lunch items.
In the interest of keeping things simple, I planned to pack what amounted to tiny little sandwich fixings, only without the messiness of spreads and condiments. The best way to accomplish this, obviously, is with cheese. You slap some cheese on slices of bread and you’ve got the beginning of many a delicious sandwich. You can pack cucumber slices and slices of red pepper, and those apple and pears I mentioned earlier are absolutely wonderful when tucked in between slices of sharp cheddar cheese and spicy black bread.
And now, having listed all the foods we managed to pack into one canvas bag for one very long drive, I have to admit something. The most absolutely essential element to everything we ate? The bread. We ate it slathered with almond butter, we ate it enveloping vegetables, cheese and fruit, and we ate it plain, as a snack, managing to totally obliterate the entire supply within the first day of our trip.
Dense, satisfying, and packed with flavor (including hits of fennel, chocolate, espresso, and rye), it’s almost tough to imagine getting into a car now without a little disc of this bread to keep me company. Luckily, car travel is not required of anyone in order to enjoy this bread, so you can bake it and enjoy it in preparation of another event. Like, for instance, the fact that it is Tuesday. Or Wednesday. Or Thursday. You get the idea.
Black Bread Rolls
Adapted slightly from Beth Hensperger’s The Bread Bible
2 1/4 cups warm water (105-115 degrees F)
2 tablespoons active dry yeast
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted
3 tablespoons molasses
1 tablespoon instant espresso powder
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon caraway seends
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/3 cup wheat bran
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3 cups medium rye flour
3 to 3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
cornmeal, for sprinkling (optional)
1) Pour the warm water into a small bowl. Sprinkle the yeast and sugar over the surface of the water. Stir to dissolve and let stand at room temperature until foamy, about 10 minutes.
2) Combine caraway seeds and fennel seeds in a spice grinder and coarsely grind until no longer whole, but still slightly chunky (you can use a mortar and pestle for this, but I use an old coffee grinder). In a large bowl using a whisk or in the work bowl of a heavy-duty electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the butter, molasses, instant espresso powder, salt, caraway seeds, fennel seeds, bran, cocoa powder, and rye flour. Mix until smooth and add yeast mixture. Beat for about 3 minutes. Add the unbleached flour, 1/2 cup at a time, and continue to beat (with paddle attachment if using a machine, or with a wooden spoon if mixing by hand) until too stiff to stir.
3) Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth, elastic, and no longer sticky, about 5 minutes, dusting with flour only 1 tablespoon at a time as needed to prevent sticking.
If kneading by machine, switch from the paddle to the dough hook and knead for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and springy and springs back when pressed. If desired, transfer the dough to a floured surface and knead briefly by hand.
4) Place the dough in a greased bowl. Turn once to grease the top and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
5) Gently deflate the dough. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Grease or parchment-line a baking sheet and sprinkle with cornmeal, if desired. Divide the dough into 12 equal portions. Shape each dough portion into a round ball and place seam side down on the baking sheet. Flatted each ball with your palm. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in bulk and puffy, about 25 minutes.
6) Twenty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Place the baking sheet on the center lower rack in the oven and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until slightly browned and firm to the touch. Transfer to a rack to cool.