Pain Au Cumin: Cumin and Other Members of the Parsley Family in French Pastry

In preparing the last post on pains au chocolat, I came across a recipe for petits pains au cumin, or cumin rolls, in Urbain-Dubois's, La Boulangerie d'Aujourd'hui (1933).  Although cumin has a long history in European cuisine and is often seen in recipes from the Medieval period, particularly in Northern and Eastern Europe, I was not familiar with its use in French breads and desserts.  Yet, no description or explanation of the bread prefaced the recipe, suggesting that cumin was a known and perhaps common flavoring for bread.  Intrigued by the use of this pungent spice in baked goods, I looked for other examples in late 19th and early 20th century cookbooks and found cumin to be a popular flavoring in spice cakes and breads.  Known in both English and French as 'cumin', Cuminum cyminum is native to the Mediterranean and Mesopotamian regions.  A member of the parsley family, cumin is related to caraway and fennel, both of which are sometimes called 'faux cumin' and said to be interchangeable if not on hand for recipes calling for one of these spices.  Caraway, or Carum carvi, is a European native commonly known as caraway in English, but referred to in French variously as 'carvi', 'cumin des prés' (wild cumin), or often simply 'cumin'.  

According to Dictionnaire Universel du Pain (2010), caraway's most common bread association is in the Polish pain au cumin, which is described as a rye bread.  The dictionary further clarifies that this use of the word 'cumin' is not to be confused with true cumin, typically found in Arab cuisine.  Yet the French recipes I consulted did not use rye flour, but rather a gluten-rich pastry four.

In Le Livre de Patisserie (1873), cumin is a prominent ingredient in both Gâteau de Compiègne and Manqué, both molded cakes made with a rich, sweet dough and flavored with dried fruit or spices.   Cumin is used similarly in Lina Rytz's La Bonne Cuisinière Bourgeoise (1868) in a recipe for Gâteau au Cumin. Since I did not find any mention of caraway among the recipes in these 19th century cookbooks, it was not clear whether the spice in use was Cuminum cyminum, native to the Mediterranean and Mesopotamian regions, or its eponym, the more mild and domestically available caraway.

Manuel de L'Épicier (1904), a treatise on spices by Léon Arnou, collocates cumin with Dutch cheeses and German breads and German and Russian liqueurs. Arnou also notes that caraway is used in some patisseries in the North and in a variety of other food preparations.  This likely includes the Alsace region, where caraway seeds often accompany cheese.  In the household book, Un Ménage Bourgeois (1892), E. Heilmann, a chemist, refers to both cumin and cumin des prés in the preparation of liqueurs.  But it was in the Dictionnaire Universel de Cuisine Pratique (1905) by Joseph Favre that I found mention of cumin in association with bread.  An entry on batonnets, or breadsticks, mentions that in the North these are made with cumin.  This may reference true cumin, as Favre specifically differentiates between cumin and cumin des prés elsewhere in the book, stating that cumin is used in bread in many European countries, particularly in the North.  Yet Favre describes the other members of the parsley family--including nigella and caraway--as varieties of cumin, thus confirming the use of 'cumin' as a general term for various members of the parsley family.  While I could not find a definite answer to whether true cumin was used in bread, it seems likely that this spice was employed at times, as was caraway and fennel, in the breads and cheeses of Germany and other countries in Northern Europe.  The author of a 1930 travel article in La Femme de France, a French women's magazine, describes pain au cumin as an everyday bread, seen on the streets of Germany.  I've provided an adaptation of the recipe from La Boulangerie d'Aujourd'hui and recommend making half with cumin and half with caraway.


Petits Pains Au Cumin, adapted from La Boulangerie d'Aujourd'hui (1933)

1 litre milk
50g yeast (assuming this to be baker's yeast, this should convert to roughly 2 packets of dry yeast--1/2 oz. total)
150g butter, softened
2 eggs, beaten
2 egg yolks, beaten
cumin and caraway
1 tsp salt
all-purpose flour

1. Heat the milk until warm, pour into a large bowl and sprinkle yeast over surface.  Stir until yeast is dissolved.  Mix in softened butter, eggs, and salt.  Add a cup of flour, stir to combine, and gradually mix in additional flour, about a 1/2 cup at a time, stirring after each addition of flour until the liquid is absorbed and you have a shaggy dough.

2. Knead until the dough is smooth and soft, about 10 minutes.  Cover with a cloth and rise until doubled in volume.  Preheat oven at 400-425°F.  Form dumpling-sized balls with the dough or shape into small logs.

3. Arrange on a greased pan and let rise again, covered with cloth.  Brush with beaten eggs and sprinkle with cumin seeds.  Bake for 20 to 25 minutes.