I got into cooking through baking bread. I have always thought there’s a magical component in taking a few simple ingredients and turning them into something completely different. I mean, I love cooking all things, but when you cook chicken, you get chicken; when you cook carrots, you get carrots. When you bake, the metamorphosis of flour, water, and yeast into a delicious loaf of bread is transcendental. I can prepare a 7 course meal for 30 people and not feel as accomplished as when I bake bread from scratch. It’s empowering.
Years ago when I lived in Los Angeles, my parents had a large log cabin in Big Sur. I loved to bake in that house. The smell of the bread intermingling with the house’s wood logs and the verdant woods outside was like nothing I’ve ever smelled before. Even when I was unsuccessful with making the PERFECT loaf, which you are a lot when you’re learning, it smelled amazing.
My folks have always been very supportive of my ambitious baking – and testing the results, of course. I experimented with fresh croissants one year, which took three days but were incredible. And casatiello (http://awonderlandofwords.com/waiting-for-good-dough-featuring-tunnel-bread-with-salami-cheese-and-sundried-tomatoes/) and challah and pumpernickel and so many more. One Christmas, I decided I’d try to bake a rye bread. My (Jewish) dad was delighted with the idea and picked up some pastrami, sauerkraut, and Swiss cheese at a famous old deli in LA before heading up to Big Sur. Rye breads, like sourdoughs, begin with a starter which normally contains yeast, water, rye flour, caraway seeds, and onions. I gave my starter a day to ferment and then added the other ingredients to form the final dough. I popped it into the preheated oven and my family waited impatiently for it to bake.
My dad futzed around the kitchen. He took the various Reuben sandwich ingredients out of the fridge and lined them up in a row on the counter.
“I don’t know, Pop. Just wrap it in foil and put it in the oven?” I had bread on my mind and knew he would reject any answer I gave him anyway.
“But the meat could get dry!!!” He looked really stressed out.
My mom, who was drying lettuce for a salad, heard my dad’s tone.
“What about the rice steamer, honey? Couldn’t you use that to heat the meat?”
“Huh. Maybe. Just may-be.” He stared at the machine and then looked at the deli wrapped packages on the counter, frowning and nodding, frowning and nodding. Such a fucking production, you’d think he was splitting the atom, but I get it, it’s good to be sure when your expectations are high. The sweet/ sour aroma of the rye bread had started emanating from the oven and I think we were all getting really anxious with anticipation. Bread baking has that tantalizing 10 minutes where you know that it’s going to taste amazing but it’s not done baking yet. It’s like foreplay with a kitchen timer.
My dad plugged in the rice cooker, wrapped the pastrami in some wax paper, and placed it into the steamer. We stood, as a family, staring at the contraption, waiting for something to happen. And then it did. A slow exhale of moist, meaty fog wafted out of the cooker. We all jumped back for a second, as if we were afraid the steam would hurt us in some way. But then we leaned into it. Oh my god, the smell was incredible. Now the house was filled with the combined aromas of meat steam and rye loaf. If you could make a candle that smelled as good, you’d be a billionaire.
“My skin has never felt so clean… or meaty!” I said.
My dad’s tension disappeared as he switched into performance mode. He introduced the product with a deep over-produced host voice.
“After a long, hard day, you want to forget about the stressful world outside. Relax with the new Pastrami Steamer Facial Home Spa. It’s like turning your own home into a sliced-meat-resort!”
My brother chimed in, “Hey mom, I want my pores to be meaty too! Can I have a facial?!?”
We were all focused on one spot in the corner of the kitchen where we imagined the camera to be.
My mom jumped in in her fakest sing-song voice, “My husband has never been so supportive of my skin cleaning routine. And now even our teenage son is interested in skin care. I can’t tell you how it’s helped his acne!” We all fake laughed – like they do on infomercials, too enthusiastically.
“Act now, and you’ll also get the veggie steamer, for the vegans in your life”, I chimed in. “Oooohhh, mom, you smell like onions!”
“And the kraut cream adds extra smoothness!” my mom said as we smelled each other’s faces.
My dad added, in a quick and sterile voice, “Warning, do not let meat sit in steamer for over an hour. Clean your Pastrami Steamer thoroughly after using. 7 out of 10 users will get violently ill from using the Pastrami Steamer. Mustard and Russian Dressing sold separately.”
We laughed and laughed, until the bread was done and the meat was warm and tender.
It was the best freakin’ sandwich I’ve ever tasted- with a pretty fantabulous group of people too.
This year, I decided it had been too long since my last rye bread. I did some research and found a recipe that did not use a traditional starter that needed to ferment for at least a day. Instead, the sponge is made with yeast, rye flour, caraway seeds, and, instead of water… PICKLE BRINE. Holy smokes. This sounded good. As luck would have it, the night before I headed up to my folk’s house (in Connecticut now), I was downtown to see a movie and walked by a Horman’s Pickle guy. Fate? Kismet? Undeniably. I bought a pint of pickles with extra brine and a pint of sauerkraut. Reubens, here we come!
This bread recipe is from the King Arthur Flour blog. I adjusted it slightly, as I like to use white whole wheat flour as well as all-purpose flour. The loaf was outstanding… and does not take a day and a half to make. There is still that 10 minutes before the bread is fully cooked of torturous bread-teasing, but maybe that’s what life is all about.
Pastrami Steamer not included.
- ¾ cup dill pickle brine
- ¼ cup lukewarm water
- 2 ¼ teaspoons instant yeast
- 4 teaspoons sugar
1 cup rye flour
- 1 ½ tablespoons caraway seeds
- ½ cup sour cream
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 ½ cups white whole wheat flour
- 1 cup all-purpose white flour
For the sponge:
- Put the pickle brine and water in a medium bowl. Stir the yeast and the sugar into the liquids and let rest for 5 minutes. Stir in the rye flour and caraway seeds, mixing gently. You’ll have a wet batter. Let batter sit for a half hour.
For the dough:
- Put the sponge into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Turn the machine on, and add the sour cream, salt, and each of the flours ½ cup at a time. Knead for 7-10 minutes, resisting the urge to add more flour. The dough should be sticky but soft.
- Lightly oil a large bowl and place the dough in it, turning once to make sure that the bottom of the loaf is lightly oiled (this will keep a crust from forming on the rising dough). Let rise for 1 ½ hours.
- Punch dough down and form one or two loaves on a baking sheet covered with parchment or a baking mat, draped with a dry kitchen towel or plastic wrap.
- Let rise for another hour and a half until doubled.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Slash the tops of the loaves a few times with a serrated knife.
- Right before you’re ready to bake, spritz the oven floor and the tops of the loaves with water.
- Place baking sheet in oven and cook for 35-40 minutes if you’ve formed into two loaves or 45-50 minutes for one large loaf. The bread will sound hollow when tapped on the bottom when it’s done.