Sunday, October 23, 2011

Rye bread is the best bread


I love rye bread. Crusty, tart, slightly sour, rye is truly the ultimate grain for a good loaf. The thought of toasted rye with butter and pickles makes me…very happy. Very, very happy. I am very much a good Jewish boy: give me my rye with bits of caraway, and I am your willing slave.

The entire country of Finland also loves rye bread – Finland has more varieties of ruisleipä, or rye bread, than any country. Finnish immigrants brought recipes with them to the United States, and one version somehow made it into a vegetarian cookbook from Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca.

Last week, while I was baking kugel with Sharon in her dormitory, we found a collection of cookbooks. I found that the vegetarian cookbook had forty pages of Finnish recipes. Given my obsession with all things Finnish, I got really excited, and proceeded to copy down some of the recipes. I then decided: the following Saturday, I would write my essay and make rye bread. I adjusted the recipe to my taste – a bit more butter, and the essential addition of caraway.

The original plan was to go up to the Swedish grocery in Andersonville in the morning to buy a good, proper Scandinavian rye flour, but that didn’t happen because of combined fatigue and laziness. So I went to Treasure Island – Hyde Park’s very own overpriced supermarket. Luckily, TI did have a decent quality rye flour.

Then it was time to make bread (and write my essay in between). I hadn’t made bread for years, so I approached the process as a novice (though I did know how to knead). It was quite the experience.

Firstly: making bread is a lot of work. Kneading is damn good exercise for the arms, and the whole process is pretty long – although the ingredients are pretty simple. You all should give bakers a ton of respect.

Secondly: making bread is really rewarding. It’s such a staple food, but it’s such an art. You really can’t appreciate bread until you’ve tried to make it yourself. It’s hard, and frustrated. When you’re holding that loaf in your hand, a feeling of achievement like no other comes over you. You’ve made bread! Crusty bread! The ultimate food!

I’m pretty happy with how the bread turned out. In retrospect, I should have used darker rye flour, but the bread was still tasty and filling. My dormmates really seemed to like it, as did my friends Aaron, David and Douglas. I definitely plan to make this recipe again – especially given that I have requests from three people now.

The recipe is below, for your culinary pleasure.

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Ruisleipä – Finnish-Style Rye Bread
Based on a recipe by Susan Harville, with additions from the Jewish tradition

1 ½ cups milk (apparently, you can use beer instead!)
2 tablespoons butter, plus additional for surface coating and glazing
1 teaspoon salt
1 pack dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
½ cup warm water (a bit extra is recommended, but not more than 2/3rds of a cup)
2 cups rye flour
½-¾ teaspoon caraway seeds
3 ½ cups white flour, plus additional for surface-coating

1.       Heat the milk until warm, but not beginning to bubble – you should be able to touch the warm milk without saying “ow.” Add the butter and salt and stir in until blended. Set aside to cool.
2.       Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the warm water. Let stand until the yeast starts foaming royally.
3.       Stir the yeast and cooled liquid together in a fairly large mixing bowl.
4.       Add the rye flour and caraway seeds; stir until smooth.
5.       Add the white flour to the mixture cup by cup, and stir until you have a stiff dough. You may need about half a cup of extra white flour.
6.       Dust a surface (cutting board or cookie sheet recommended) with white flour. I recommend dusting your hands as well with flour when you knead – the dough sticks less to your hands.
7.       Dump the dough onto the surface and knead until the dough is stiff enough to be about the same texture as your earlobe. An alternate test is to check if the dough holds the shape of a finger after the finger is stuck into the dough and removed. The dough should be a rough ball.
8.       Cover the dough with a damp cloth and let stand for 15 minutes. In the meantime, coat a large mixing bowl with butter. Be sure to coat the bowl well.
9.       Once the dough has rested, knead the dough until it is smooth and passes the earlobe test. Again, dust your hands with flour beforehand.
10.   Place the dough in the buttered bowl, cover with a damp cloth, and let rise for two hours – it should be about double in size at the end. Flour your hands again!
11.   Punch the dough – and we’re talking a good punch here. Knead the dough for one minute or so, until it’s at earlobe test level again.
12.   Butter a large-ish cookie sheet very well, then divide the dough into two parts. Form two rough, round, low loaves, then place each on the baking sheet. Cut a hole through the center of each.
13.   Cover the dough with damp cloths, and let rise for half an hour – the loaves will increase in size.
14.   Preheat your oven to 375F. Brush the loaves with water, and if you choose, some melted butter. Puncture the loaves with a fork in several places – I recommend doing a nice pattern for this. If you wish, sprinkle some more caraway seeds on top of the loaf.
15.   Bake the loaves for about 30-35 minutes, or until they sound hollow when knocked on the bottom. Cool, and nom. 

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