The First Loaf of the Season: Rye

My mother’s father, Howard Baugh, came from a family of long-Americanized Germans. It never occurred to me that not everyone’s family ate pickles in everything from potato and egg salad to lunchmeat. (Don’t get me started on pickle/pimento loaf!) Beer was the grown-ups’ adult beverage of choice–though I confess I never saw any of my female relatives drink beer. We adored sweet baked goods, and there were plenty to be had in Cincinnati–including doughy, salted soft pretzels. I don’t think my grandmother cared much for sausages, but there was sauerkraut, and we ate plenty of bread. Lots and lots of bread.

Aside from the occasional holiday bakery rolls, most of our bread came out of plastic bags. So, naturally, when I grew up, I quickly scorned the lowly breads of my youth–particularly white bread. With lots of help from various books, including and especially Julia Child’s the Way to Cook, I taught myself to make bread. When I made white bread, it was–ta da!–actually French bread. Later, I learned to use starters, including a poolish, which gives bread more body and a longer life. I flirted with multi-grain breads, but the family were not fans. Last year I set out to find a really good recipe for cranberry-walnut bread. I tried a couple, to no avail. I’ll try again this holiday season. (Or I’ll buy it from Trader Joe’s. Theirs is excellent.)

Last week I made rye bread for the first time in my life. With fall here, I’m ready to head back to the oven for some comfort food. My childhood rye bread came from a plastic bag, but that doesn’t mean it was bad. We ate some fairly hearty rye, and often lighter Jewish rye. Nearly always it was slathered with a great deal of cream cheese, or held slices of ham and Swiss cheese–with lots of mustard. As I looked for rye bread recipes, I went no further than Joe Ortiz’s 1993 book, The Village Baker. It contains a lifetime of bread recipes, explained by a master. Lucky me–my very good friend Maggie Caldwell of Life In a Skillet fame lives close to Ortiz’s Capitola bakery, Gayle’s Bakery, and sent me the book almost 20 years ago. It’s one of my treasures. See, she even inscribed it!

Rather than take on a serious, rye-heavy loaf right away, I went for the Jewish-Style Rye Bread recipe. Ortiz writes, “It is the closest thing I could find to a tangy rye loaf similar to those I remember from bakeries in New York and Los Angeles.” I suspected it was just what I was looking for, and it definitely was.

I didn’t have high hopes for my first loaf. In fact, I made sure I had ingredients for more than one, just in case. If you make bread, or want to, please know that it’s a kind of craft. Not a difficult craft, but a craft nonetheless. Like most rewarding exercises, it takes practice. (I can’t speak to bread machines. I’ve never wanted one. I have to feel the dough come together in my fingers and work it. But let it be known: I have absolutely nothing against them!)

The recipe has three parts: The Milk Sour, which includes buttermilk (another Grandpa Baugh favorite) and rye flour; The Rye Sponge, which adds the Sour, plus yeast, water, and rye and wheat flours; and The Dough, which adds salt, honey, water, and caraway seeds (optional).

The thing about a Milk Sour is that it sits out overnight. For two nights. First, it’s just the buttermilk. Then the rye flour is mixed in on day 2. Surprisingly, it didn’t smell too bad. I kept it on top of the refrigerator.

I started on a Monday morning, and finished the loaf on Wednesday afternoon. Talk about a commitment. I’ve spent less time drafting a short story.

For pizza dough and French bread, I usually use my trusty Kitchen Aid Mixer to gather the dough into a loose ball before I knead it. But I did this loaf by hand, just for fun. Ortiz warned that the dough would be wet and loose, and that I needed to be careful and not add more flour. I don’t know what he means by wet and loose, but my hands were fat and helpless with wet dough. So I kneaded in more flour–not much. Maybe another 1/3 cup. I did let it stay wet enough that it had a quite pliable consistency. Enough that I fretted it would remain floppy as it had its second rise.

Rise, it did. Though you can see puckish indentations and folds that wouldn’t normally be on a wheat flour loaf.

Here it is in the oven, before I misted it. It was perfectly naughty of me to pause and take a pic. Just having a standard electric oven means it loses heat quickly when the door opens for even a few seconds. The yellow on it is the single egg/milk wash. See how flat it looks? I was worried.

The good news is that it plumped right up. Here’s what it looked like after it cooled.

Homemade bread can look a bit homely, I know. I’m definitely a crust person, so the rougher, the better. Oh, I like the inside, but I like a substantial crust. Even though I don’t use a bread machine, I do use King Arthur’s Unbleached Bread Flour for most recipes. This recipe called for all-purpose flour, so that’s what I used. The rye crust had a nice, crisp sound, but also a little chew to it, which was rather delightful.

My first rye loaf weighed nearly 3 pounds–as much as our dog Scout weighed at 8 weeks. (He has gotten NONE of this bread, by the way.) We have a couple of ounces left, even seven days later, I’m happy to say. It stayed appropriately fresh in a plastic bag. Originally, I thought we’d have it with smoked salmon, but the salmon sits unopened in the fridge. We’ve had it variously with chicken soup, peanut butter, sharp cheddar and brie, butter, smoked trout with cream cheese and a dab of horseradish. And more cream cheese of course. Lots of cream cheese. I think Grandpa Baugh would have loved it. (I would even have forgiven his putting pickle loaf on it. Maybe.)

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