Monday, September 18, 2006

My Search for the Perfect Rye Bread

I grew up on bread. Yes, the staff of life-- rye bread and bagels. Toast is the ultimate comfort food. I'm second generation American. My grandparents were eastern European, from Kiev and Galicia (which is sometimes in Austria, sometimes in Poland depending on the year). My mother was born in Newark, NJ, her older brother was born in Germany. My father's family was also from eastern Europe -- (but a generation earlier). Family gatherings were always about breaking bread. Loaves of rye and baskets of bagels adorned the tables. As young children we knew that the real pain of Passover was the week of breadless meals. Some of my happiest memories are of Sunday mornings when my father would awaken early and drive to Silvers Bakery and bring home rye bread and streisel. Oh that streisel, I can still remember it even though it's probably been over forty years since I've eaten it. But it was that reliably delicious rye bread of my youth that spoiled me for what was to come.

Over the years I've had other rye breads that recalled the bakeries of the past, perhaps even recalled the old country that I've never experienced, but that my genes immediately recognized. When I eat a slice it's familiar and rich, has a full flavor and a dense texture that I sense would be hardy enough to sustain a peasant in the fields all day. Those limp, insipid things that come wrapped in plastic and nearly faint away at the sight of a toaster, that's not real rye bread. Trader Joe's once had a corn rye that came close, was edible and almost delicious. We would buy two loaves, and put one in the freezer every week, just in case the worst happened, which of course it did. It was discontinued in favor some balloony thing they call rye bread, but that always collapsed under the weight of its own airiness.

When we first moved to the Olympic Peninsula there was a fine bagelry with good hard-crusted bagels, and an artisan bread maker who baked a delicious caraway rye on Wednesdays and Saturdays. It wasn't old country bread, but it was a fine rye that satisfied my taste buds and fulfilled my hankering. Not anymore. The bagelry closed its door a few months ago, and the bread baker sold his business, but not his recipes. It seems that the new baker can't make the caraway rye the way it's supposed to taste and has stopped trying. I've called him and we've talked, commiserated. No rye.

I've been baking my own whole wheat bread for years, but rye is an entirely different thing. It's an undertaking, a journey into sour starter philosophies and kitchen myths and secrets. I've searched the internet with various search strings to find a recipe that might yield the bread of my youth. I found a recipe that called for a starter of potato water, yeast, and rye flour. It has to sit for three days. I'm willing to give it a try. So I have a rye starter in our kitchen greenhouse window. If it looks anything like the rye in the above photo, I'm going to be living on bread again.

Is this just me, or do you miss a food or something like that from your youth? What do you miss, and how far have you gone to find it?

No comments:

Post a Comment