For the last four decades, the narrative of Jewish bakeries in America hasn't been a positive one. It consists mainly of bakers retiring, stores closing, and the link between Eastern Europe's great bread-baking traditions and us eroding each day.
Some revivalists are out to change that by reinventing another Jewish tradition—the deli—with a focus on house-cured meats on homemade rye. But outside the bagel and occasional bialy, Jewish-American bread-baking (a major influence in New York's bread heritage) has gone largely ignored, and fans of the dense, flavorful rye breads of old have been wondering if anyone's coming to pick up the slack.
Then came a miracle: 100 years after opening its renowned Lower East Side appetizing counter, the family behind New York's Russ & Daughters did something new: they opened a cafe. And they hired a baker.
The first time I ordered the bread basket at the appetizing store's new Orchard Street eatery, I thought, this is something new: thick slices of rye bread imbued with aromatic seeds and a dark pumpernickel curiously capped with a layer of lighter rye. This is the dense, grain-and-spice-perfumed bread of the Jewish baking tradition. So I flagged down a manager and asked, "Where does your bread come from?" He answered, "We make it ourselves."
The story of the Russ & Daughters bread basket begins in a Manhattan playground early last year, and over a century ago on the Lower East Side. About a year ago, Niki Federman, one of Russ & Daughters' owners, became friendly with an older couple at her local playground. They were longtime customers of the store and they bonded over food, of course. One day the couple told her that the best Jewish bread came from Springfield, Massachusetts. As Niki said, "Springfield didn't strike me as the mecca of Jewish baking." Nevertheless, a few weeks later the couple presented her with two heavy loaves whisked straight from Springfield. Niki tasted them and was overwhelmed:
It transported me back in time and connected me with some primal thing. I had heard people talk about Jewish rye and black breads with deep memory associations. But there was a disconnect for me. I knew about it in theory but I'm not old enough to have tasted old-style Jewish bread myself. But when I tasted Gordie's bread I knew that was it.
Gordie was Gordon Weissman, owner of Gus & Paul's Bakery in Springfield and a third generation baker. His grandfather emigrated from Russia around 1904, settling on the Lower East Side and finding work in a Jewish bakery. He eventually moved to the Bronx and became a member of that borough's bagel bakers' union. Two of his many offspring—Gordie's father Paul and Uncle Gus—went to work in the family's Bronx bakery, receiving their pay in loaves of rye. In the 1950s, Gus and Paul moved to Springfield, where they opened their own bakery, which became a local institution.
Gordie grew up in the family store, learning all the bread-baking secrets as the boss's son. After he took over the business, he churned out Italian loaves, cupcakes, and whole wheat breads, but his heart remained in the bakery's Jewish breads—the ryes, bagels, bialys, and rolls that his family had been making for over a century. Then just before the High Holidays last year, he received an e-mail from Niki Federman.
For over a year, Niki and her cousin Josh Tupper, great grandchildren of Russ & Daughters' founder, had been planning their café. They knew they wanted to offer bread in addition to bagels and bialys, but not just any bread. "It became apparent to us," Niki said, "that we needed breads to match the caliber of things we were doing in the store. We tasted everything out there, but it wasn't just right. Then we tasted Gordie's bread, and it was a quasi-religious experience."
They contacted him and luckily he was ready to explore new opportunities. Springfield's business climate was then mired in an economic downturn, and Gordie wanted to bring his bread back to his family's roots in New York City. By early 2014 Gordie had relocated to the city and found ovens in a start-up space in Long Island City. He brought with him his family's legacy, and an 80-year-old rye starter, and began to bake.
Russ & Daughters currently offers a limited but broad-reaching menu of Jewish baking history. You may have never heard of Shissel Rye before—it's a bread that didn't survive the softening and blandification of the New York rye tradition. "Shissel" means bowl in Yiddish, and maybe it's so named because the loaf looks like an inverted bowl. From the outside, it's easy to mistake it for a corn rye, because it has a similar leathery crust. But it's made from wetter dough than corn rye, which gives the loaf a denser crumb and more pronounced sour twang.
It's also absolutely stuffed with seeds, a blend of caraway and "charnushka," (aka nigella seeds). The seeds bring a heady, almost wild flavor to the bread, so much so that it's best served with something smooth and creamy to tone it down like a pile of pot cheese or a thick slice of smoked sturgeon.
Most pumpernickel these days is simply rye colored brown with molasses, but Gordie's version shows what the loaf is all about it. It's a unique two-tone bread with a thin, chewy charnushka-sprinkled rye top and a dark brown pumpernickel loaf below. The rye "lid" serves to keep the bread moist, and its crumb is enriched with the bittersweet bite of caramel and a fistful of nutty chopped rye berries. Jewish bakers relish texture as much as flavor, and this loaf has both in spades.
He bakes a challah, too, which veers away from industrial bakers' overreliance on butter, egg, and sugar for a more balanced loaf with big plaits that are easy to pull apart.
The cafe is sticking to just three loaves because, as Niki says:
Our first job is to educate people about what Jewish bread really is. Something that's in short supply in our culture is a connection to history. That's what we try to do at Russ & Daughters—connect people to history through food. New York history, Jewish history, immigrant history—you taste history in these breads.
Keep an eye out for a corn rye in seeded and plain varieties along with other breads in the future. But more importantly, take a look around and see what other Jewish breads are being revived around you.
The Great Jewish Bread Revival
Russ & Daughters isn't the only food purveyor helping to revive Old School Jewish baking traditions. New Wave delis and bagel shops across the country are looking back to old recipes for bagels, bialys, and rye breads. They tend to be found on the East and West coasts, where there are not only large Jewish populations but also young chefs seeking to reclaim the dishes of their Jewish heritage.
In New York, Montreal transplants Noah Bernamoff and Rae Cohen opened their Mile End restaurant featuring their Montreal-style smoked meat on housemade rye bread. They also recently opened Black Seed, a Nolita bagel shop with a wood-fired oven that produces hundreds of compact, chewy bagels that are a cross between New York and Montreal styles. That neighborhood is also home to the new Baz Bagel & Restaurant, a cafe making traditional New York bagels alongside Jewish diner fare. The city's bagel-eating community is also looking forward the as-yet-unnamed bagelry that will be led by baker extraordinaire Melissa Weller and the team behind Torrisi. And in Union Square, Breads Bakery bakes Jewish babka, challah, and assorted rye breads that respect tradition but also move beyond it.
San Francisco's Wise Sons is a New School deli featuring a broad menu of Jewish comfort food with a special emphasis on corned beef and pastrami. They make their own deli rye in the Zingerman's model: double-baked with a firm crust to keep the juicy meat from sagging. For some of the city's best bagels, Marla Bakery, which currently sells its burnished, chewy bagels at a take-out window and farmers market, will be opening its own brick and mortar shop soon.
Up in Portland, Oregon, Ken Gordon bemoaned the fact that his city didn't have a good Jewish deli. So he started making his own pastrami, then pickles, rye bread, bagels, and bialys. In 2009, Kenny & Zuke's opened, founded on the principle of serving the best pastrami and rye in the Northwest and perhaps the country. Seeing which way the bread was buttered, his team more recently opened Bagelworks, offering a full slate of bagels and bialys in addition to deli sandwiches.