Pumpernickel: Not Chocolate, But a Favorite Nonetheless

Pumpernickel: Not Chocolate, But a Favorite Nonetheless

“When you were little, did you think pumpernickel was chocolate bread?”

These are the kinds of questions my husband asks me. The answer, I’m pretty sure, is No, because as far back as I can remember I loved the tangy, chewy heft of pumpernickel. My mom would take us to Waldbaum’s on Thursday afternoons (pay day—we’d usually be out of money by then, so we’d do the shopping, fill the cart until it seemed likely to collapse, and then wait for my dad to show up with a fresh supply of cash), and since Waldbaum’s is a Jewish-inflected supermarket, their deli counter stocked the most amazing fresh rye and pumpernickel breads. My mom would usually get rye, sliced, which pleased the most people in our large family, but sometimes she’d throw a curveball and order the dark stuff—or even more thrilling, the swirl. I’d fish around for the pesky heels, which always seemed to slip down inside the bag, and munch on them while we finished the shopping.

Nowadays, I don’t get too much pumpernickel. Stephen hates it (maybe stemming from childhood disappointment that it wasn’t chocolate?) and I try not to eat too much bread (ha!), so buying a loaf is generally wasteful. But for Harry’s birthday party on Sunday I made a variety of sandwiches, which presented a rare opportunity. For the party I recreated a combo I’ve enjoyed at a local café: peanut butter, banana, honey, and cinnamon on pump. Sounds weird, I know, but if you picture sourdough instead of the dark one, I bet you’ll lick your lips. And surprise! Pumpernickel generally uses a sourdough starter. They’re first cousins. Oh, and health bonus: it’s often made with whole grain flour, which we should all be eating regularly.

I had about half a loaf left over from the party, and since I work from home my lunch often involves simple cooking: How could I resist? Regular readers will know that I’m not a cheese fan, not by a country mile, but today there was just something about that pumpernickel that cried out for cheese. Grilled cheese. The thought of slightly crunchy, buttery bread mixed with salty, gooey cheddar… Oh my. I was ridiculously excited. Standing in front of the fridge, I decided to really get fancy and pulled out the Parmesan. But that didn’t seem to be quite thrilling enough. I know, I know, it’s just lunch, but I was still in the mood to be wowed. And then I saw it: the jar of fig jam, most of which had been used on a different party sandwich (with turkey and manchego, if you’re interested), and which I knew to be the perfect source of sweet—the salty/sweet interplay being a particular favorite of mine. A few minutes in the frying pan, and lunch was ready.

Wowed, I tellya. I was wowed. Who needs chocolate?

Figgy Grilled Cheese on Pumpernickel
Serves 1, but feel free to multiply

2 slices pumpernickel bread (from a bakery, if you can find it)
Sliced cheddar cheese, as much as you like (I only used a single slice, given my non-cheesy nature)
Grated Parmesan cheese, as much as you like
Fig jam

Butter the outside of both slices of bread, and put one in a frying pan over medium heat. Top with cheddar, then sprinkle Parmesan over it to fill in any gaps. Spread a thin layer of fig jam on the unbuttered side of the remaining bread (your hand will get greasy from holding it buttered side down, but it’s worth it), and place it jam side down on top of the cheesed slice.

Cook until the first side is a little crunchy—you don’t want it to burn, so keep a close eye—and flip. Cook on that side until it’s a bit crunchy, too, then remove from the pan. Cut in half, and try not to eat the whole thing before you’re even sitting down.