Les Misérables Black Rye Bread

by Cara Nicoletti on January 21, 2013


When people talk about Les Misérables it’s rare that they’re talking about Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel. Embarrassingly enough, until I was fifteen, I didn’t know that it was a book at all. I did, however, know a good bit about the musical from one of my childhood best friends, Julia. She was obsessed with it and every year her parents took her to New York City to see it. Julia was the ultimate girly-girl and her bedroom was absolutely fascinating to me—-all floral country bedding and lacy bed-skirts—it was nothing like the bedroom I shared with my sisters, my corner of which was covered in reproductions of antique baseball cards that I had bought at Bop City Comics and stuck to the wall with my older sister’s braces wax.


The centerpiece of Julia’s bedroom was her most prized possession: a dome-shaped glass music box filled with fiber-optic flowers that spit light like some kind of deep-sea amoeba and swayed to “Castle on a Cloud” when she turned the dome’s big iron crank (and she, of course, was the only one who was allowed turn it). I hated that thing and wanted it, needed it, in equal measure, it tortured me.


Years later, my aunt gave me a beautiful copy of Les Misérables as a fifteenth birthday gift and I learned for the first time that it wasn’t just a musical but a book—an enormous and very serious-looking book—one that looked nothing like the inspiration for Julia’s dome of flowers or the precious song that emanated from it. I tore through the book in a week and a half, staying up late and neglecting my freshman year assigned reading to find out whom Marius would end up with.  I loved Jean Valjean through all of his transformations and missteps, going so far as to scribble his name inside of a heart in the bathroom stall at school where every girl wrote the initials of her crush in ragged ballpoint pen (I feel very raw admitting this).


Despite my love of the book, I still have yet to ever see the play, and as of now still haven’t gone to see the movie. It could be that the play will always be too much associated with Julia’s girliness, or that in general I despise musicals (which could, at its root, also stem from Julia), but since Christmas, every time I am about to buy a ticket to go and see the movie, I just can’t bring myself to do it. The constant loop of the movie’s trailer on TV and the barrage of posters in every subway did fill me with the desire to read the book again, though—a decision that immediately thwarted my New Year’s resolution to eat less bread in 2013.


Any post about food in Les Misérables, or really any post about Les Misérables in general, would be incomplete without the mention of bread. The entire plot of the novel is driven by Jean Valjean’s nineteen-year imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. The French Revolution is always quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) present in the novel, which mostly takes place in 1815, only 15 years after Marie Antoinette reportedly declared “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” upon hearing that the peasants had no bread to eat. Throughout the novel, people’s stations and the direness of their situations are often described in reference to whether or not they have bread, or, more specifically, what kind of bread they do have.


When we first meet Jean Valjean he has just been released from prison, and he is wandering through Digne starving after being turned away from every inn and household for being an ex-prisoner. Finally, he is sent to the Bishop Myriel’s house, where he is given one of my most favorite literary meals.

“The supper consisted of a piece of mutton, figs, a fresh cheese, and a loaf of rye bread. She had herself added a bottle of old Mauves wine.”

The meal is beautiful in its simplicity, and especially satisfying after reading pages and pages describing Valjean’s desperate hunger.

IMG_5455Black rye bread was especially prevalent throughout France at the time Les Misérables was written, it was a staple for lower and middle class people alike, and was one of the main foods provided in prisons like the one Valjean lived in for nineteen years. This black rye is nothing like what Valjean would have eaten in prison, it is sweet and bitter and complex and incredibly delicious. I ate mine with a stinky soft cheese and figs for extra literary meal authenticity, but feel free to top it with whatever you like. It would be great with cream cheese and lox, or honey and butter, or even some almond or cashew butter–really, I can’t think of anything that it wouldn’t compliment, go nuts!

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Les Miserables Black Rye Bread

  • 2 ¼ teaspoons active dry yeast? (usually 1 packet’s worth)
  • 1 1/3 cups warm water (110 F)
  • 1 teaspoon dark brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 2 tablespoons finely ground espresso beans or instant espresso powder
  • 1/4 cup dark molasses
  • 6 teaspoons caraway seeds, plus more for topping
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 teaspoons fine grain sea salt
  • 1 1/3  cup rye flour
  • 3 ¼ cup bread flour plus more for dusting
  • olive oil for brushing
  • flaky sea salt for sprinkling on top



Place your yeast in a small bowl and combine it with dark brown sugar and 1 1/3 of your warm water to activate it. Within about 5 minutes the yeast should be foamy—if it isn’t, toss it and start again (you had a dud yeast packet).  While you are waiting for the yeast to activate, combine your cocoa powder, espresso, molasses, caraway seeds, butter and salt in a medium saucepan and stir constantly over medium heat until butter is melted and ingredients are well-combined. Add molasses mixture to active yeast mixture (molasses mixture should be warm, not scorching hot when you do this), and pour into a mixing bowl fitted with a bread hook attachment. In a separate bowl mix rye and bread flour together and with your mixer running, slowly add flour to molasses/yeast mixture. One everything comes together knead the dough for 5 minutes or until dough is pulling away from the sides of the bowl and hugging the bread hook—dough should also spring back when you poke your thumb into it. If it is too dry, add more water, or if it is too wet add more flour, until you get the desired consistency. Shape the dough into a ball and place seam-side down in an oiled bowl. Cover loosely with a towel and let it rise for 2 hours in a warm place.


After 2 hours, punch down the risen dough with your fist gently (yes, I said punch it gently), and turn it out onto a floured surface. Shape the dough into your desired shape, place it in your dutch oven (or any heavy-bottomed, oven-safe dish with a lid) and allow it to rise for another 1-2 hours, or until doubled in size. Once it is doubled in size, turn your oven to 425, brush the bread with olive oil, sprinkle it with caraway seeds and sea salt. When your oven is up to temp, place bread in and bake for 20 minutes with the lid on. After 20 minutes remove the lid and turn the heat down to 350, bake for another 20-25 minutes. Top with whatever you like and enjoy!


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Leave a Comment

brcorson January 21, 2013 at 2:24 pm

This looks fantastic!


yummybooks February 1, 2013 at 2:20 pm

It was! Make it, Brett!


Becky January 21, 2013 at 2:44 pm

Wonderful post!


yummybooks February 1, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Thank you, Becky!


Susan Corson January 21, 2013 at 2:54 pm

This looks amazing. I think it would be wonderful slathered in butter and served with a hearty beef stew. In fact I better go to the market now before the snow! Thanks so much for the inspiration!


yummybooks February 1, 2013 at 1:58 pm

I hope you made it for the snow storm, Sue! It would be amazing with beef stew!


irena078 January 21, 2013 at 3:01 pm

Looks great! You actually baked it cast iron cocotte?


yummybooks February 1, 2013 at 1:59 pm

Thanks Irena! I used my big cast iron dutch oven, which I highly recommend for bread-baking. Leaving the lid on for the first 20 minutes or so steams it a little bit and gives its a great crust that you can actually hear crackling when you take it out of the oven!


IRENA & dots February 1, 2013 at 2:26 pm

If I could keep only one thing from my kitchen that would be me my cast iron. But I never thought about using it for bread. Definitely must try, thank you so much for that!


elizabeyta January 21, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Looks intersting. When my Beloved wishes to try rye again, I will try this with sourdough and probably more rye.


yummybooks February 1, 2013 at 2:00 pm

That sounds lovely, let me know how it goes with your adjustments!


Deb January 21, 2013 at 3:36 pm

My mouth is watering! Once again, a beautiful post!!


yummybooks February 1, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Thank you Deb!


Kristen January 21, 2013 at 3:48 pm

I have never read the book but I absolutely LOVED the movie, if you see it bring tissues. Great post!


yummybooks February 1, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Thank you, Kristen! I still haven’t seen it yet, but everyone keeps telling me it’s a real tear-jerker. I cried from the book a million years ago but I was a very melodramtic teenager.


Samantha January 21, 2013 at 3:50 pm

Oh my gosh, rye bread is my favorite! I have never thought to make it from scratch because we have an amazing deli down the street that sells it fresh, but you make it look so easy I think I have to try it!


yummybooks February 1, 2013 at 2:05 pm

I know, me neither! New York is the land of amazing Jewish delis so I’ve gotten spoiled when it comes to my rye and challah bread. This one is worth making though, if only to prove to yourself that you can do it as well as your neighborhood deli!


Dee January 21, 2013 at 3:51 pm

Do I have to use bread flour or would all purpose do? I want to make this but I can never seem to find bread flour.


yummybooks January 21, 2013 at 10:05 pm

Yes you can absolutely use all purpose flour instead of bread flour as a 1:1 substitution. Bread flour has a high gluten content–around 14%, while all-purpose flour is around 10% (cake flour is around 6%). The higher gluten makes the flour ideal for bread because it creates a more structured dough that will rise higher, but the difference isn’t major. Try letting the dough rise an hour longer each time, or adding an extra 1/2 teaspoon of yeast to make it less dense and let me know how it works out!


Chandra January 21, 2013 at 3:53 pm

Ugh, I’m trying to eat less bread this year too. This is not helpful! But it looks so delicious…


yummybooks February 1, 2013 at 2:09 pm

Chandra, I understand. That was one of my top resolutions too, probably because I ate an ENTIRE LOAF of sourdough bread on New Years Eve (the things we admit on the internet…) Thankfully this bread isn’t THAT bad for you, if you want to up the rye flour and cut some of the bread flour out you can–it’s got tons of health-benefits (http://nutrition.indobase.com/articles/rye-flour-nutrition.php). Stay strong! But also, eat this bread!


Elizabeth January 21, 2013 at 6:14 pm

This is truly all I’ll need of Les Miserables — besides the book, of course! I share many of your likes and dislikes, and in this case, I refuse to see the movie and have an irrational hatred of musicals.

I LOVE the post, love you and everything you do here.


yummybooks February 1, 2013 at 2:10 pm

I know we were twins in a past life, Elizabeth. Musicals are just the worst.


notesonte January 21, 2013 at 9:03 pm

Is there an acceptable substitute for the molasses?
I have not baked bread this way before – I used to have a bread machine – but your post is encouraging.


yummybooks January 21, 2013 at 9:26 pm

Luckily there are lots of substitutes for molasses! The flavor and color will definitely change if you leave out the molasses but honey, barley malt syrup, maple syrup or golden syrup will all work as 1:1 substitutes. I’m considering using barley malt syrup with this recipe myself, just because I’m intrigued by the flavor. If you do make it let me know how it goes!


becominganarmywife January 22, 2013 at 3:30 pm

I just love every part of this post. I have a bag of rye flour in the fridge that I have got to use, and I have been wanting to read Les Mis for years! I love the play but obviously I loved it before the book, so I’m not sure how I’d feel if it were the other way around. I haven’t seen the movie yet… not sure I want to.

But I do want to eat this bread!


yummybooks February 1, 2013 at 2:11 pm

Oh I am so happy to hear all of this, Becca! Les Mis is certainly a huge undertaking as far as books go, but it’s a great cozy winter read. If you make the bread please let me know how it turns out, and keep up the great work on your blog!


india January 22, 2013 at 7:01 pm

NOM NOM NOM. I’ve never made my own bread. I’m so scared to try and mess it up. You make it look so easyyy. Also, I like you a lot too. xx


yummybooks February 1, 2013 at 2:12 pm

ughhhh you’re so great.


Michelle January 22, 2013 at 11:04 pm

Beautiful photos, great-looking recipe. I had the much the same reaction to Les Mis (the book) when I read it as a teen, too. But what will stick with me the most from this post is the vision of Julia’s music box. Brilliant!


Laura January 23, 2013 at 1:01 pm

Just came across your blog, and it’s wonderful! I did something similar for a while (novelbite.com), but haven’t been able to keep up. So glad to see another eater/reader/writer take on the topic of food and literature. And so beautifully!


yummybooks February 1, 2013 at 2:14 pm

Laura, so wonderful to hear from you, I just checked out novelbite–such amazing work! I am so happy to meet (or sort of meet) someone who shares this dual passion. Please stay in touch, and I’ll be checking to see if novelbite gets any new updates!


El Oso con Botas January 23, 2013 at 3:36 pm

The recipe sounds really good..¡¡ I’ll try it


yummybooks February 1, 2013 at 2:15 pm

if you do let me know how it goes!


Mia January 27, 2013 at 12:39 pm

Just tried this yesterday. It turned out wonderful.
This recipe is a real keeper ( love when that happens ).
We had it warm with butter, and bowls of potato and corn chowder. Excellent!


yummybooks February 1, 2013 at 2:20 pm

I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to hear that, Mia! I wish I could be in everyone’s kitchen when they try a recipe that I post just to make sure that it turns out well. I bet it was so amazing paired with your chowder, that sounds like a fantastic combo.


Lynnette Pease February 16, 2013 at 7:07 pm

I just made this bread for the second time and I love it. I am always happy to find recipes that make only one loaf. This is a lovely, dense, rye bread with a nice texture and taste. It goes well with a nice bowl of hearty bean soup, but also works well with herbed ricotta spread, cheese, and marmalade. The two long rises allow for time to do other things before it has to be baked.


Jenny March 29, 2013 at 7:26 pm

I finally finished reading Les Misérables last night, and made this bread today in celebration. It’s delicious! the texture is especially wonderful. :)


Cara Nicoletti March 30, 2013 at 8:37 am

Oh I’m so happy to hear that, Jenny! If you have any pictures I would love to see them!


Jenny March 31, 2013 at 6:12 pm

one two three. I’ll be making this again for sure :)


Suzanne Powers February 11, 2015 at 6:37 am

Love your idea of food and good books. Wonderful rustic (rustic is one of my favorite art styles) mouth watering photography, one of the most beautiful blogs I have seen, very inspiring! I am going traveling to Venice Carnival (will board a plane today!), my costume will be loosely based on the musical “Les Miserable.” The theme this year for Carnival is food, I Googled how food related to the musical and your blog was listed! I would love to have a loaf of your bread to put under my arm but alas I don’t have time to make it. The best to you and your new book! If you have time take a look at my blog in a few days and I will hopefully have a post on my costume and visit to Venice.


Mia October 3, 2015 at 3:46 pm

This was wonderful! Had this gorgeous bread with a pot of homemade soup. A keeper recipe!
Thank you.
Love the literary association too. There’s something very attractive about literary associations with food, that enhances the entire experience of making and eating.
(I still adore simple bread and cheese for lunch, ever since reading Johnnie Tremaine as a teenager.)


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