INTENSE AS THE opening notes of Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5,” rye bread always meant precisely two options to me: pumpernickel bagels as an occasional break in my bagel routine, and a Reuben, one of the sandwich god’s greatest gifts to humanity. These have changed recently, thanks to creative bakers and local flour mills. If you associate rye flour solely with the flavors of molasses and caraway, it’s time for another bite.
Temple Pastries offers a delectable chocolate rye croissant, and there’s a salty chocolate rye cookie at Salmonberry Goods. Uptown’s newish Bake Shop has vegan chocolate tahini rye cake; Flora Bakehouse bakes seasonal chocolate rye cake, adds rye to their croissants and kouign-amann, and makes rye-infused ice cream for Café Flora. The London Plane has a whiskey rye chocolate chip cookie (frozen dough also is available), and a seeded rye cracker.
There also are celebrated rye breads all over town: Byen Bakeri bakes limpa (lighter and sweeter) and rugbrød (dense and seedy). Tall Grass Bakery produces six rye breads, including cherry pumpernickel. Sea Wolf Bakers‘ sourdough rye and seeded rye might be the gold standard; they also offer a sourdough rye class that includes starter, bread and a loaf-in-progress to finish at home.
Before baking rye bread yourself, that class seems wise. Ben Campbell (his Ben’s Bread is expected to open in Phinney Ridge later this year, and it’s currently a pop-up) says, “Freshly milled whole-grain rye increases fermentation, either by speeding it up or kind of amping it a bit. I’ve noticed differences by throwing small amounts of rye into dough, as low as 2% to 3%. You get to 10% to 30%, the flavor is outstanding, and doughs ferment differently. All-rye starters can make for additional effort, with more feedings and lots of activity.”
Reading between the lines: Rye comes across as a complete pain for bread bakers — but also potentially wonderful. For simpler home baking, Krista Nelson at Bake Shop suggests a slow and steady route, saying, “Rye flour is dense and flavorful, and a little goes a long way, so if a recipe calls for a cup of all-purpose flour, start by substituting ¼ cup [or 25% of the total all-purpose flour] for rye, and see what you think!”
I promptly ignored this wisdom with a batch of chocolate chip cookies, substituting all the flour for Cairnspring Mills rye. Tender and nutty-tasting, the cookies weren’t the disaster I deserved.
For all its whole-grainy, hippie-friendly texture, rye is very low protein, so it bakes somewhat like pastry flour. Two mills in the Skagit Valley offer their rye flours online, both vastly fresher and tastier than national brands I’ve tried. Cairnspring Mills (cairnspring.com, a mill and social purpose corporation) is my favorite, thanks to its pleasant sweetness. Fairhaven Mill (fairhavenmill.com; farmer-owned and certified organic) has both fine- and coarse-ground rye, with a minerally flavor.
While local bakeries clearly adore chocolate and rye, my experiments led me elsewhere. I love whole-grain shortbread, and I love ginger shortbread, and the combination is pure pleasure. If you’re inclined to dip these cookies in chocolate, you have my wholehearted support.
Ginger Rye Shortbread
Loosely adapted from Tartine’s whole-grain shortbread with einkorn and rye flour
Makes 36 cookies
1⅓ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup rye flour
5 tablespoons cornstarch
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup butter, extremely soft
¼ cup granulated sugar, plus 1 tablespoon for topping
¼ cup dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons finely chopped candied ginger
1. Heat oven to 325℉. Lightly butter a 9×9-inch baking dish.
2. Sift together both flours, cornstarch and salt. Set aside.
3. Using an electric mixer, beat butter, granulated sugar and brown sugar on medium just until smooth. Add flour mixture all at once, and blend until dough has just a few streaks of flour remaining. Sprinkle on candied ginger, and mix until dough comes together.
4. Press dough into prepared pan, patting with fingertips or offset spatula until it’s even. Prick gently with a fork, dipping the tines in water if the dough sticks. Bake for 35 minutes, until the edges are toasty brown. Cool for 5 minutes, then sprinkle a thin layer of granulated sugar across the top of the shortbread, tipping the pan to coat. Slice into bars immediately, about 1½ inch wide and 2½ inches long. Cut while still warm, but leave in the pan to cool completely after slicing.
5. Use a small, offset spatula to remove the first cookie — they get easier after the first one. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.