The best part of the job
When I found out that I was pregnant, I asked my publisher to extend my deadline, which was supposed to be March 1. I wasn’t sure how ill I would feel, but I’d heard plenty of pregnant lady horror stories, and I thought it was best to plan for the worst. Happily, I wasn’t very ill, but I was very unproductive. I was very, very tired. One morning, when the alarm was going off and I showed no signs of movement, Brandon checked to make sure I was still breathing.
I am pleased to report that I am no longer that tired. I am less pleased to report that I will be living at my desk for several weeks to come. But I’m also sort of excited about it. After a year of feeling like I was mostly writing around the story, alternating between panic and elation and panic and elation and desperately needing a beer, I feel like I’m finally inside of it. I can see the story differently in here, and I’m finding a lot that I didn’t know about: details, ideas, explanations, a number of stupid jokes (which will hopefully improve before publication). This, to me, is the best part of the job: the way that the act of writing often shows me, for the first time, what was there all along. I could say a lot more about that, but all I really should say is THANK YOU, UNIVERSE, FOR SAVING ME, and then get back to work.
You, however, can bake some rye crumble bars. The recipe for these comes from Kim Boyce’s terrific Good to the Grain, and I stumbled upon it last week, at the end of a good day, while looking for a way to use up some rye flour I had bought. I’d bought the flour for a different recipe, a recipe that I wound up not liking, and I don’t know how things go in your house, but in mine, rye flour will not disappear of its own accord. So I got out Kim Boyce’s book, because it’s yet to fail me, and boom, the streak continues.
This recipe might look a little daunting, time-wise, because it consists of three parts: the shortbread crust, the crumble topping, and, in between, the jam. I didn’t have a lot of time to spend in the kitchen, so I took Boyce’s advice and made mine over the course of a couple of days, as the moments presented themselves, and stashed the components in the fridge until I was ready to assemble the whole thing. Basically, you make a quick shortbread dough from a mixture of rye flour and all-purpose, and then you press that evenly into a pan. (I did a notably crappy job of this, because I was rushing to make a phone date with my mother, and my pressed-out dough wound up looking less like a pastry crust and more like a gently rolling sand dune. But it came out fine.) You bake the crust until it’s firm, and then you spread jam - you slather jam, actually; you’re using quite a lot - over the crust. Then you top the jam with a crumble made from oats, both flours, two types of sugar, and melted butter, and you slide the pan back into the oven.
Judging by the ingredients, I knew that the bars would be tasty, but the result was even better than I could have expected. I tend to think of rye in the context of rye bread with caraway seeds, which have a strong, sour flavor; I forget how subtle and sweet the flour itself is. It’s nutty, almost malty. I like rye bread, but rye crumble bars have nothing to do with it. Anything with a shortbread base and a crumble topping is bound to taste good, unless you fill the space in between with wood putty, but it’s the sweet, toasty rye flour that makes this recipe, and the way the sweet, toasty rye flour tastes with butter. I filled my crumble bars with a homemade mirabelle plum jam that a friend sent us last spring, and while I doubt it gets any better than that, I’m also eager to try a batch with apricot jam, or maybe strawberry. But there’s work to do first.
Rye Crumble Bars with Jam
Adapted slightly from Good to the Grain, by Kim Boyce
For this recipe, I used Bob’s Red Mill dark rye flour. You can also buy light rye flour, in which some parts of the grain have been removed before milling, but Boyce suggests the dark type, which has a deeper, nuttier flavor, and I second her recommendation.
As for jam, choose any one you like, but make sure that it has a good level of brightness and acidity. That’ll help it hold up to the richness of the buttery crust. Also, if you come up a little short, don’t worry. I only had 1 ¼ cups, not 1 ½ cups, and it was no problem.
65 grams (½ cup) dark rye flour
120 grams (1 cup) all-purpose flour
50 grams (1/3 cup) dark brown sugar
½ tsp. kosher salt
113 grams (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 tsp. vanilla extract
100 grams (1 cup) rolled oats
32 grams (3 Tbsp.) dark brown sugar
52 grams (¼ cup plus 2 Tbsp.) dark rye flour
30 grams (¼ cup) all-purpose flour
38 grams (3 Tbsp.) sugar
1 tsp. kosher salt
85 grams (6 Tbsp.) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
350 ml (1 ½ cups) jam, preserves, or fruit butter
Set a rack in the middle of the oven, and preheat to 275°F. Rub a 9-inch springform pan with butter, or grease with cooking spray.
To make the shortbread crust, combine the flours, sugar, and salt in a large bowl, and whisk to mix well. Add the melted butter and vanilla extract, and stir until thoroughly combined. (I found the mixture a little dry at first, so I put my hand in and squeezed and massaged a bit to bring the dough together.) Using your hands, press the dough evenly into the bottom of the prepared pan. Put the pan in the freezer for 30 minutes, while you make the crumble. [Or, if you’re doing this step ahead of time, wrap the pan in plastic wrap and put it in the fridge or freezer. If it’s in the fridge, just remember to transfer it to the freezer for 30 minutes before baking.]
To make the crumble, put all of the crumble ingredients except the melted butter into the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until the oats are partially ground, about 5 or 10 seconds. Pour the mixture into a bowl. Add the melted butter and stir with your hands, squeezing the mixture as you stir to create small crumbly bits. Set aside. [Or, if you’re doing this step ahead of time, wrap the bowl in plastic wrap and put it in the fridge. Take it out about 30 minutes before using, and if needed, use a fork to break up any giant clumps that have hardened.]
Bake the frozen shortbread until pale brown and firm when touched, about 50 to 55 minutes. Remove from the oven, and raise the oven temperature to 350°F.
To assemble the bars, spread the jam over the shortbread crust, and then top with the crumble, evenly sprinkling it over the surface and squeezing bits of it together to create irregular nubs. Bake for 50 to 55 minutes, or until golden brown on top, rotating the pan halfway through for even baking.
When the pan is cool enough to handle but still warm, run a sharp knife around the edge of the pan to loosen any jam that may have stuck. Remove the ring. Completely (or mostly, anyway) cool the bars on the pan base before cutting into wedges.
Note: These bars are best when eaten in fairly short order. After three days or so, the flavors taste less clear.
Yield: Boyce says 10 wedges, but these bars are rich, so I’d say more than that. Maybe 12 to 16 wedges, depending on the size you choose.