by Ari Weinzweig
One of the first things that English settlers did when they got to North America was to plant wheat. Bread was the taste of home that they had a hard time living without. While the wheat growing didn’t always work out, they always found ways to make bread. Though few American s know it, this is one of the first, and to my taste, the best, of old time American breads.
I won’t say that I’m addicted to this bread because I’m sure I could live ok without it. Plus “addiction” is probably better applied to stuff like chocolate or . . . but damn, if this bread doesn’t just keep growing on me. The longer we make it, the more I taste it, the more I like it. If I’m not careful this is going supplant Farm as my favorite bread. I know I’m not alone because more and more regular customer and crew have been telling me much the same thing. Somewhat ironically it’s been very popular amongst many Europeans who, although the recipe is all American, go for the high density and high flavor of the bread. In the last week I’ve had a Dutchman, a German and a Czech all come calling for it. I shared these thoughts just last night with a long time and very loyal customer, and she immediately shot back, “It is MY favorite!”
Two hundred years ago Roadhouse bread would have been as everyday an event in New England as a baguettes would be today in Paris. But while so many traditional breads have made big comebacks this one remains our little culinary secret—hardly anyone out of this area other than Ann Arbor expats and Zingerman’s Mail Order customers has still even heard of it. Back in the spring of ’03 when we were working on American foods to get ready to open the Roadhouse I’d barely even heard it either. And yet there it was, right in every old American cookbook. A bread that most everyone seems to have baked at home in the 19th century that, best I could tell, wasn’t being made anywhere any more by anyone in any sort of commercial setting that I know about.
Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about it in “Little House on the Prairie,” marking its by-then-national prominence in the second half of the 19th century. What we’re making at the Bakehouse is pretty much done as it was two hundred years ago from a blend of cornmeal, rye, and wheat, sweetened with a touch of molasses. If they’d had their druthers, the colonists were very clear that they’d have been baking bread made only from wheat. But in the early days after their arrival wheat was hard to get and rather costly—poor families typically reserved it for special occasions or ornamental elements of their baking, like the top layer of a pie or pot pie crust. Rye and cornmeal were cheaper and more readily available so those were used to bake with everyday. Molasses—commonly used by colonists near ports trafficking in the rum trade with the Caribbean Islands—was the most common sweetener (along with maple syrup).
Anyways, on to the flavor, which, as I’ve already said, I think is really ridiculously good. The kind of “good’ that may not grab you the minute you taste it but rather grows and grows and grows on you until one day you realize (as I have) that you’ve become enormously emotionally attached to the item at hand. It’s great just like it is. It’s even better toasted or put back in the oven for 20 minutes at 350°F ‘til the crust is crisp and the inside all warm. It’s outstanding with smoked salmon. It’s excellent with Creamery cream cheese. Great for grilled cheese with any of the aged mountain cheeses or cheddars and maybe some bacon.
If you have any of this great bread sitting around for too long it makes really tasty croutons. It also holds up really well so it’s a gift item—definitely put this on the list of foods to send to food-loving friends and family around the country if you want them to get to eat something special. Because special is the key here. This is really good American food. There is no other bread like this anywhere in the world.