Bread by the Book

Latvian Rye Bread

First Attempt at Baking Latvian Rye Bread

         Reading has gotten me in trouble more than once. It’s probably Emma Bovary’s fault, and that of her boring hubby, that I never married. Anna Karenina didn’t help. An article in the local paper prompted me to try making soap. It turned out a lot like bricks. A recipe in a cooking magazine caused me to run all over the place looking for candied violets. When I found them in Seattle, they turned out to be gray, ugly, and spiky. I never used them for the paska (Russian Easter dessert) that I made. These are just a few examples of my impressionability.

            A book that nearly did me in was a book of Latvian baking recipes. Correction. Not the book, the recipe and my own ignorance.

            The best source of Latvian rye bread is a Latvian who bakes it. My mother did not, so I never learned how. She did not have to. In those days there were many Latvian ladies who baked rye bread and were willing to share. Local Latvian organizations held frequent events, which included potlucks featuring our unique and delicious bread. It never occurred to young and foolish me that these bakers would eventually get old and pass away.

            Latvians are as even more passionate about rye bread than they are about potatoes. The right kind of rye bread is impossible to find in supermarkets. The pumpernickel bread I found in a German deli, which is also available in some supermarkets) is close. The loaves are small and expensive. A little European grocery store near me carries Lithuanian rye bread. Very close, but not quite right.

            The baking ladies may have passed away, but my desire for Latvian rye bread did not.

           Oh, the bread was still available at the Latvian Christmas bazaar held for two days in November. That requires a ninety mile round trip to Seattle. I’ve made that trip many times. However, eating Latvian rye bread once a year is not enough. That’s when the big blue book got me in trouble.

            The trouble-making book is a compendium of Latvian, and non-Latvian, baking recipes. I decided that the only way to satisfy my craving was to bake rye bread myself. How hard could it be? I’d baked bread before with a modicum of success. True that was wheat bread. But flour’s flour, right? Wrong.

           From time to time I had looked at the recipe for rye bread before. Each time I was intimidated by the mountain of flour and the long list of ingredients and put the book back on the shelf. It’s necessary to make starter first, so the process takes two days. That wouldn’t be so bad, but the list of ingredients includes twenty cups of flour. TWENTY! Of course, that much flour results in four loaves. I could probably go for a couple of weeks without having to bake again and would have enough to share.

            Then one day the longing got to be too much for me. I decided I will bake Latvian rye bread. I could have cut the recipe. However, I didn’t want to do that much work again anytime soon. I’d make the whole batch. I had no idea what I was getting into and no one to ask.

            First I had to figure out what coarse rye flour is. I ran around from store to store, looking for coarse rye flour. All I could find was dark rye. Was that the same thing? Again, I had no idea. Since that was the only rye flour available, it would have to do.

            Since I had no one from whom to beg starter, I’d have to make it myself, which meant buying supermarket rye bread. Too bad they don’t sell it by the slice. What would I do with commercially baked bread when I would soon have delicious home baked loaves? Maybe feed it to the ducks in the park.

            Making the starter wasn’t that difficult. In addition to the store-bought bread, the starter calls for boiling and mashing a potato, adding buttermilk, sugar, and warm water and beat the heck out of it. When it’s done, lightly sprinkle the starter with flour, cover the mixing container with a clean towel and wait until morning.

            Chagrin under that towel the next day. I can’t tell if the starter has grown any. Maybe a little. Isn’t it supposed to bubble? It’s thicker than yeast water, but still. A few bubbles seem in order and I don’t see any. I’m not about to waster all those ingredients, so I’ll proceed with the baking.

           I add the other ingredients: rye flour, wheat flour, sugar, salt, yeast, caraway seeds, and grated orange peel go into the dough. The proportion of rye to wheat flour (four to one) and the last two ingredients are what make Latvian rye bread unique.

           The only container I have that’s big enough to hold all those ingredients is a metal canner. Metal makes it hard for dough to rise. The surface is too smooth for it to cling to. But it’s all I have. On the counter the canner is too high for me to reach so I can knead. The container goes on the floor and I do, too, on my knees.

      

           I mix. Let the dough rise. I knead. I’m accustomed to dough that comes together in a nice, smooth ball. This does not. I knead and add more flour. The dough remains the consistency of wet cement. I’ve run out of rye flour so add more wheat flour. I knead until my arms, shoulders, and back ache. No difference in texture.

            Finally, I’ve had enough. My pecs hurt so much, that if I had a heart attack, I’d never know it. I put the dough into regular loaf pans.

           The baking process is also complicated and long. Two hours. The oven temp starts at 375 and is gradually lowered to 300. When the bread is finally done, I’m disappointed once again. The loaves don’t seem to have risen at all. In disgust, I take them out of the oven and go to bed.

            My aching muscles keep me awake. After tossing and turning for a couple of hours, I get up and go to the kitchen. I take a package of frozen peas from the freezer, wrap it in a kitchen towel and hold it to my chest.

            The forlorn loaves wait under clean towels. After all that work and pain, I might as well taste it. Is it that disaster it seems? I cut a slice. It’s the best bread I’ve ever eaten.

Note: Not every Latvian bakes rye bread this way. People use their mother’s or grandmother’s recipes, which can be quite different. For one, no orange peel. Some people use white wheat flour. It’s a travesty. No color. No flavor. What I didn’t learn until much later is that rye flour makes for a “slack” dough. No kidding! No matter how much you knead it, it’s not going to turn into a smooth ball. Give up before it kills you.

Note 2: If I ever bake rye bread again, I will cut this recipe to make only one loaf. Or, I will get one of the recipes from the King Arthur Flour website or from their 200th anniversary cook book. Their products and recipes are wonderful. They are not paying me to write this.

Baking, Latvian rye bread, rye bread, rye flour, Latvian baking book
The Book That Started It All

9 thoughts on “Bread by the Book”

  1. This is a great story. I love your writing and your determination to find flavour. My husband is half Latvian (Bekeris is his family name) and we live in Adelaide, South Australia where we have an active Latvian Club. We attend the occasional cooking class and it’s so nice to connect through food. There is a woman in the LV community who bakes two types of rupjmaize, one is 100% rye flour and the other is half wheat / half rye, to sell at the little club shop and library. It is a thing of beauty. But the woman is getting older and I don’t know if there is anyone to take over from her. Already she has reduced her baking. It would be sad to lose this wonderful bread.

    Good luck with your book habit. The blue book has a lovely cover. We will have to look for one in my husband’s family in Latvia. MaryLou

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  2. Liked your story, and I’m afraid I’m craving latvian bread too 😀
    Could you post the name of the blue cepumi book? I’ve never seen it before.
    Thank you!

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  3. You made my mouth water. I love good bread and rarely find it. Also, it was an unexpected pleasure to read your surprise result: the best bread you ever ate (:

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    1. How nice to hear my post had that effect on you. Tasting that bread was an expected pleasure for me, too.

      Have you ever been to Borracchini’s Bakery? It’s on Rainier. It’s been there for ages. They have very good bread.

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      1. Never been to that bakery but have certainly seen it. Will stop in next time we’re in the area. Thanks!

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  4. Oh, my. The ups and downs of following recipes. Sometimes it is worth the effort. Other times, not. Good chuckles here.

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