OBSESSION: NORDIC RYE BREAD
My obsession with rye bread began when I was a little girl. My grandmother would help me make dainty sandwiches on pieces of cocktail rye and cut them just so. I served them with tea on the lawn to a motley collection of dolls and stuffed animals. Other offerings included corn-silk or asparagus-frond spaghetti and berries tipped into upturned tomato leaves or hollyhock petals. But my guests always liked my sandwiches, especially the cucumber ones, the best.
Regular deli rye bread must have caraway seeds; that warm spiciness is what saves it from itself. Throughout college, my go-to sandwich was this sort of rye, toasted, with creamy peanut butter and bacon. It is delicious, energizing, and satisfying, which is why I still indulge before the opera or an event where I’m not likely to get fed for hours.
And I always order rye toast in a diner. It’s good with corned beef hash, which I actually prefer out of a can, just as long as it’s crisped around the edges on the grill. Of course, rye toast is wonderful with eggs, too, any which way. Hearing the counter man holler “Whiskey down!” to the guy working the flat top is part of the fun.
For the past year or so, I’ve been indulging in the dimpled, dark rye you see above. Made by Finnish chef Simo Kuusisto under the label Nordic Breads, it is nothing short of spectacular, with a great chew and complex sourdough tang. These days, I usually pick up a supply at the Union Square Greenmarket on Saturdays, but it’s becoming more widely available. Look for it at New York–area Whole Foods markets and Dean & DeLuca; you can also order from Fresh Direct or straight from Nordic Breads.
Commercial brands of dark bread often get their color from molasses or caramel coloring; in fact, enriched wheat (i.e., white) flour usually takes precedence over rye flour in the ingredients list. In terms of flavor, as well as good-for-you soluble fiber, they pale in comparison to the Finnish whole-grain style of ruis (rye) bread Kuuisto calls a “legal addiction.” With a day job as executive chef at the Canadian permanent mission to the U.N., he and his brother, Tuomas, produce their Nordic breads at night, in a Long Island City bakery. Their ingredients include organic New York State rye and a traditional Finnish sourdough starter.
The loaves come in various shapes and sizes, but what I like best are the individual flat rounds, which are about the diameter of a sandwich-size English muffin but more substantial. Split one open, and you’ll discover an interior as rugged as Finland’s magnificent coastline—altogether perfect for holding a generous amount of butter or cream cheese. But don’t stop there.
Lightly toasted or warmed in the oven, ruis bread is wonderful with smoked salmon, sturgeon, trout, or eel. It makes a sturdy platform for herring in sour cream, brandade, or leftover céleri rémoulade. Or you can skim-coat a split round with butter, then add thin slices of sharp Cheddar and seedless cucumber—which is how you’ll find enticements prepared for the curious at Nordic’s Union Square market stall. (It’s always mobbed.) Bread-and-butter pickles or a smear of Branston are able stand-ins for the cuke.
Last summer, I was surprised when I didn’t lose my taste for this stuff; it’s very dense and hearty, after all. But for all its assertiveness, it’s extremely versatile. In hot weather, slather it with fresh, mild goat cheese for breakfast, or try it with good sweet butter and thinly sliced radishes or spring onions—just the ticket alongside a bowl of chilled borscht or the Polish buttermilk soup called chlodnik.
On this January day, for lunch I made open-faced ruis bread sandwiches with slices of cured ham and rich-tasting Gruyère. They were excellent with a glass of apple cider, but on a lazy weekend afternoon, I wouldn’t say no to a beer.
Nordic bread keeps beautifully, but if it gets a bit over the hill, resist the urge to shellac the rounds and turn them into paperweights. Take it from me and make croutons instead. They are fabulous in split-pea soup, a rustic, chunky leek-and-potato, or Broccoli, Red-Pepper, and Cheddar Chowder. Sea salt isn’t really necessary, of course—any coarse salt will do—but how often do you get to conjure the Baltic? It’s part of the fun.
Ruis or other good rye bread, split if necessary and roughly cut into smallish (½- to 1-inch) pieces
Unsalted butter, melted
Coarse sea salt
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Drizzle bread with enough melted butter to coat well and transfer to a rimmed baking sheet.
2. Bake the croutons in the middle of the oven, stirring occasionally, until they are crisp and smell done, 12 to 15 minutes (or longer), depending on size and how stale the bread is. Season with salt.