Baking bread reigns as the predominant smell in our house. It perfumes the air like an eccentric foodie’s potpourri. Follow the aroma and a trail of floury fingerprints and there I’ll be, sleeves rolled up and hair pulled back — kneading, kneading. The windows flung wide and a tall glass of peach iced tea to cool myself and the ever-heated kitchen.
I can’t help myself. It’s an addiction. One loaf gone, another is proofing on the counter.
It’s the time of year when my Midwest-programmed brain reacts instinctively to (what should be) changing seasons. Ignorant to the flourishing flora, birds migrating into our area, and beads of sweat that collect on my brow after a stroll around the neighborhood, my brain conjures up imaginary snowflakes, and I desire foods that are warm and hearty.
And in case you’ve been devoid of news, the Midwest was pummeled with its first big storm. You can guess what that means.
Grab the yeast and stoke the oven fires!
My addiction could be much worse. I’m really not too worried. Bread, especially those made with a portion of non-white flour, is inherently healthy. Rye bread worthy of a New York City deli sponged on your own counter, formed with your own two hands, baked in your own oven? Well that’s just satisfying.
Rye and I started young. Being a strictly no fish child rye bread with butter — plus chocolate milk and tiny cups of applesauce — were soft slices of nourishment at Friday fish fries. Who knows how many loaves that adds up to over the years. I suppose I should thank my family for fish fry nights, otherwise rye bread, maybe even the act of baking my own bread, may not have become so enjoyable for me.
The storm rages on in Wisconsin, bringing a deep freeze and what I assume will be all sorts of havoc. All the while I bake — a beautiful rye bread with an impeccably snappy top crust, an appropriately tender bottom crust, and a soft, subtly-flavored interior.
It’s not a rut It’s just sheer enjoyment. And perhaps a subconscious attempt to add a layer of bread and butter to my svelte frame before we fly north for Christmas celebrating.
New York City Deli Rye Bread [Makes one 1 3/4-lb round loaf]
Total time: 8 hours | Hands-on time: 30 minutes + periodic moments of kneading and shaping
For the Sponge:
3/4 c (4 oz, 117 g) bread flour
3/4 c (3.3 oz, 95 g) light rye flour
1/2 t (1.6 g) instant yeast
1 1/2 T (0.6 ounces, 18.7 grams) sugar
1/2 T (4.6 g) malt powder (or honey (10.5 g), or sugar (6.2 g))
1 1/2 c (12.5 oz, 354 g) water, at room temperature
+ + + +
For the Flour Mixture:
2 1/4 c (12.5 oz, 351 g) bread flour
1/2 plus 1/8 t (2 g) instant yeast
2 T (0.5 oz, 14 g) caraway seeds
1/4 T (0.3 oz, 10.5 g) coarse salt
+ + + +
For the Dough and Baking:
1/2 T (0.25 oz, 6.7 g) vegetable oil
cornmeal, for sprinkling on the pans
To make the sponge: Combine sponge ingredients in a large bowl (this will be the bowl your dough rises in, so I recommend stone or glass). Whisk ingredients until very smooth, to intentionally incorporate air — this will yield a thick batter. Set it aside.
To make the flour mixture: In a separate large bowl, whisk together the flour mixture and gently scoop it over the sponge to cover it completely. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and allow it to ferment 1 to 4 hours at room temperature. It’s normal for the sponge to bubble through the flour mixture in places. (I let mine ferment a little over 3 hours.)
Mix the dough: [Either with a stand mixer] Use a rubber scraper to transfer the sponge into the stand mixer bowl. Add the oil and mix with the dough hook on low speed for 1 minute, until the flour is moistened enough to form a rough dough. At this point, raise the speed to the next highest speed and mix 10 minutes. The dough should be very smooth and elastic, and come back when pressed with a fingertip. If the dough sticks to your finger, turn it out on a counter and knead in a little extra flour.
[Or by hand] Add the oil to the sponge-flour mixture and, with a wooden spoon or your hand, stir until the flour is moistened. Knead the dough in the bowl until it comes together, then scrape it onto a lightly floured counter. Knead the dough 5 minutes, after which it might be a little sticky. Cover it with the inverted bowl and allow it to rest 20 minutes. Knead the dough for another 5 to 10 minutes, or until it is very smooth and elastic.
First and second rises: Place the dough in a large container or bowl, lightly oiled. Oil the top of the dough as well. Allow the dough to rise until doubled, 1 1/2 to 2 hours (the bowl loosely covered with the plastic wrap). Flip the bowl over and let the dough fall out on to a lightly floured counter. Press down the dough gently, fold or form it back into a ball and allow it to rise a second time, back in the (re-oiled) bowl covered with plastic wrap for about 45 minutes.
Shaping and the final rise: Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and gently press down again. Form into a ball and set it on a baking sheet lightly sprinkled with cornmeal. Cover the dough ball with oiled plastic wrap and let it rise until almost doubled, about 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes. [Jump to the next paragraph for oven preheating directions.] The dough is ready when it’s gently pressed with a fingertip and the depression fills in very slowly.
Baking: Preheat the oven to 450° F at least 30 minutes, and up to 1 hour, prior to baking. On a shelf at the lowest level, place a baking sheet or bread stone. [If you like: Place a cast-iron skillet or sheet pan on the floor of the oven or lowest rack to preheat.]
With a sharp knife or singled-edged razor blade, make 1/4- to 1/2″-deep slashes in the top of the dough. Mist the dough with water (I spritzed lightly with my fingers a few times) and quickly, but gently place the baking sheet on top of the hot stone or hot baking sheet. [If you've preheated the skillet or pan in the oven: Add a handful of ice cubes into the pan and immediately shut the door.] Bake 15 minutes, lower the temperature to 400° F and continue baking 30 to 40 minutes, or until the bread is golden brown and a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean — a thermometer inserted into the center should read 190° F.
Cool the bread on a wire rack.