It is such a strange feeling to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, take a triumphant inhale, and realize that — big exhale — everything around you is still quite a mess. I mean, it was nice to get one big answer to one big, looming question sorted, and now, what on earth do we do with the rest of this?
Often, in the days after a something big goes down — say an election or a holiday dedicated to abundance with the kitchen table groaning underneath its bounty — I feel the need to steady myself. This week there have been vegetables on my mind. Beets, spinach, carrots, cooked simply so they taste like themselves. I’ve also had a craving for cold poached fish with cucumber salad and horseradish cream. This isn’t about austerity, it’s about reliability. This kind of craving requires bread. Bread that you knead yourself.
Please, do not panic: I have no talent for bread baking. What I’m sharing with you today has nothing to do with an heirloom sourdough starter, and it does not merit sharing on Instagram. It did, however, get a dear Belarusian friend of mine to press his nose all the way up against a slice, breathe in deeply, and declare this to be “real bread.” These are the moments that make baking worth it.
This bread is pretty well impervious to clumsiness. Usually, I forget to add the water bath to the oven until the last minute and end up leaving the loaves proofing on the counter for an extra half hour. The last time I made it, I accidentally mixed in the seasonings before dissolving the starter into the slurry. This bread cares not for the folly of man, this bread just wants to be made. All this bread demands of you is that you get your hands on some rye flour, that you start it the night before, and that you knead it like you mean it for a full 10 minutes.
I always mean to brush some egg whites onto this bread before I bake it, so it will be burnished and shiny. I always forget. It does not matter. This bread is not glamorous, it is sustenance. This bread is not beautiful, it is comforting. It’s as sturdy as something you’d buy from the supermarket, but it tastes better. It slices perfectly for sandwiches and toasts very well for a few days after you make it.
Maybe more than anything, making this allows you a clear victory — it feels really nice to knock something out of the park right about now.
New York Deli Rye Bread
Makes 2 loaves
The words “sourdough starter” strikes fear into people’s hearts. Ignore it. This sourdough is different. The original recipe is from Sheila Lukins’s USA Cookbook and I’ve adapted it only slightly over the years, never seeing the method anywhere else. The starter does not really ferment long enough for the bread to taste “sour” the way we think of sourdough bread. I’m no bread wizard, but I suspect that the reasoning for it is that it allows you to use less commercially produced yeast, so that YEAST is not the thing you taste first.
Overnight sourdough starter:
¼ tsp. active dry yeast
1 cup warm water (wrist temperature)
1½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup rye flour
2 tsp. active dry yeast
1 cup warm water (wrist temperature)
1 Tbsp. salt
3 Tbsp. peanut (or vegetable) oil
2 Tbsp. sugar
3 Tbsp. caraway seeds
2½ cups all-purpose flour
1½ cups rye flour, plus a bit more for kneading
Yellow cornmeal, to dust the baking sheet
Prepare the sourdough starter the night before you plan to bake your bread. Stir the yeast into the warm water in a medium-size bowl. Set it aside for around 5 minutes — it should start to look foamy. Add both flours and stir them into the yeast mixture with your hands until incorporated. It will be messy. Try to enjoy it. Cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap and set it aside in a warm place overnight.
The next day, prepare the dough. Stir the yeast into the warm water in a large bowl, and set it aside for about 5 minutes, until foamy. Add the sourdough starter you made yesterday and stir it to dissolve in the yeasty water.
Next, add the salt, 2 tablespoons of the vegetable oil, the sugar, and the caraway seeds. Mix well. Gradually, add the all-purpose flour and 1½ cups of the rye flour, stirring it with a wooden spoon until it makes more sense to use your hands. Mix until a stiff dough is formed.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface (use the rye flour), and knead until it is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes, adding additional rye flour as necessary to keep it from sticking to your work surface. Set a timer — 10 minutes is a lot longer than you think it is.
Quickly wash up the large bowl you were mixing in and grease it generously with the remaining tablespoon of oil. Shape the dough into a ball and put it in the bowl, rolling it around to coat it with oil. Cover loosely with plastic wrap, and rest in a warm place until the dough has doubled in volume, about an hour.
Turn the dough out onto your work surface and divide it in half. Shape each half into an elongated loaf, about 8 inches long, pushing the dough away from you and tapering the ends. Sprinkle a large baking sheet with the cornmeal. Place the 2 loaves on the sheet and cover it loosely with plastic wrap. Let rest for about 30 minutes, until the loaves have doubled in volume.
Preheat your oven to 425 F, and 15 minutes before baking, fill an 8-inch square baking pan with boiling water and place it on the bottom rack to create steam in the oven. Using a small, sharp knife, slash the loaves diagonally, about quarter of an inch deep, in four places.
Bake the loaves in the center of the oven until they’re a deep golden brown, about 40 minutes. When they are done, the loaves will sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Cool them on a wire rack.