Some foods leave an indelible imprint on your taste buds, no matter how old you are when you taste them. The flavors that grab you as a child not only remain, they often, later in life propel food quests. One of my searches is for great rye. If you grew up eating Wall Bakery’s breads from Woodmere, like I did, you know why. True, the bread from other bakeries—Cedarhurst Bake Shop, or Zomick in Far Rockaway was also very good, excellent really, but Wall’s bread stood alone. It has a crust both crunchy and pliable while the inside is plush, heavy and always moist. It’s what I think of when I hear the phrase “the staff of life”--bread so sustaining I believed I could live on bread alone.
There was a second type of rye at those bakeries called corn bread. Now, this is not my mother’s corn bread. She grew up south of the Mason Dixon line and hers was a quick bread, basically corn muffins in a pan. Old world corn was rye with light rye flour and cornmeal and the one thing both rye’s have in common is simple. No matter how many culinary degrees I get, no matter how many bakers I ask, no matter how many pizza stones I use, sourdough starters I nurture, or the amount water I schpritz while it cooks, darn it, I cannot replicate either of these breads at home.
I decided recently to create a dish to feed my rye flavor need. Fortunately rye, a hard winter cereal that is just as apt to be used for a ground cover crop or cattle feed, is now available in it’s whole grain, full berry form thanks to the 21st century food revolution that has made ancient grains available again.
Today’s rye (secale cereale) originated as an Anatolian weed. It was probably cultivated in northern and central European by the Early Neolithic period. Popular in the Bronze and Iron ages, as a beer component, bread flour and forage cover for animals, it is still used for the same things today. Light rye and dark are the same grain, the equivalent of white flour and whole wheat where the outer bran husk is removed from the grain. The berries are the whole grain in it’s purest, edible form. Rye was initially the food of the elite, but quickly slid behind all processed white wheat flours. Drought resistant and temperature tolerant, rye continues to be a popular grain especially in Northern climates.
When I saw some rye berries in a bulk bin at the market I couldn’t wait to get home and play. I’ve added it to soup the way you might use barley, and I love it in salads, especially mixed with wheat berries because the combo tastes like my childhood rye bread. In summer I add fresh raw corn right off the cob for the quick pop of sweetness when you break into a kernel. Add some cut up ripe, juicy tomatoes and serve it in lettuce cups, Asian style for a summer treat. These salads are my modern, lets say neo-Yiddishkite, cornbread and rye breads.
I’ll never stop trying to make a perfect rye bread, but until that happens I satisfy my taste buds and nourish my memories, knowing it’s also healthy for my family. To me, that’s not just a recipe for now, that’s a recipe wow.