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The best part of the job

I am supposed to be writing a manuscript, not baking rye crumble bars. No more rye crumble bars no more rye crumble bars no more rye crumble bars no more rye crumble bars no more rye crumble bars.

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.

Shortbread crust:
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

To assemble:
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.


This is important

You people. YOU PEOPLE.

I’m still blinking in disbelief at the kindness you’ve shared with me and Brandon and Tiny Person Under My Shirt. I hate secrets, and this secret, no matter how well intentioned, surprised me with how heavy it felt, how unwieldy it was to carry around. It’s been a relief to to share it with you, and an unexpected thrill to have it met with such encouragement and excitement. I should have gotten pregnant a long time ago, just for the morale boost! Thank you for that.

In return, I give you a waffle.

Initially, I planned to give you some orange buns, and then I planned to give you these seeded breadsticks that my mom used to make, and then I considered a rye cake with muscovado sugar and apples. But I’ve been having what I think you could safely call a month of totally mediocre cooking. Totally mediocre baking, I mean. (Totally mediocre ability to complete a thought, also.) Actually, I was starting to think that there must be some old wives’ tale about pregnant women baking with yeast, something akin to the one that says that menstruating women can’t make mayonnaise. (Note: despite the contents of the previous sentence, this is not going to turn into a blog about the female reproductive system. I don’t always know what this blog is about, but I feel confident ruling that out.) Then, this past Monday, I made a batch of yeasted buckwheat waffles, and boom, the streak was broken. Marion Cunningham is, now and forever, the solution to every problem.

Marion Cunningham’s yeasted waffle recipe is a tried-and-true for me, and I first wrote about it, in exuberant terms, close to two years ago. Her waffle is perfect. It’s crisp and crunchy on the outside, but inside, the crumb is tender, speckled with tiny air holes, and slightly, pleasingly damp (if I can use that word without causing you to think instantly of basements and mildew and the pair of jeans that you took out of the dryer and put on while they were still warm and only realized weren’t actually dry once you had your shoes on.) There’s a decent amount of butter in the batter, and between that and the yeast, you wind up with a lot of flavor - rich and lightly sweet, but also deep somehow, a little interesting. I knew all of that couple of years ago, but what I didn’t know until recently is how adaptable these waffles are, how readily they would welcome other flours and flavors.

I have a sweet tooth, and it’s only gotten larger in the past couple of months. I have alternately addressed this problem with Graeter’s ice cream - now available in Seattle! At Fred Meyer! And some QFCs, I hear! - Cadbury Mini Eggs, a few donuts, and, in moments of restraint and sanity, a teacup of plain yogurt with jam or honey stirred in. In the interest of exercising some degree of control over how much sugar and other ridiculous nonsense I ingest, I’ve been increasingly trying to make my sweets at home, and to make them with a variety of flours, not just the usual white. I’ve been doing my favorite banana bread (the one in my first book) with a third or half whole wheat flour, which gives a nice, nutty flavor, and I’ve been playing around with pancakes and waffles, too. None of it is rocket science or wheel-reinventing; it’s the kind of tinkering that I think we all do sometimes, to feel better about the way we eat. But when I made a buckwheat version of Marion Cunningham’s classic overnight yeasted waffle, I knew I had to tell you about it.

I have long believed that buckwheat plus maple syrup is a union that cannot be improved upon, but I am now prepared to go on record as saying that buckwheat plus maple syrup plus yeast plus a waffle iron is even better. The outside of a yeasted buckwheat waffle, where it crisps against the iron, gets toasty and almost caramelized. It’s a little savory, and when the maple syrup comes along, it feels especially welcome, especially right. You could put the maple syrup on top of the waffle, the usual way, but I like to put it in a puddle on the side of the plate instead, and then pick up the waffle with my hand - this is very important - and drag it and sort of smash it through the syrup, and then take a bite, and then drag it again, and take another bite, and so on. You probably will get syrup on your hand. You will not be sorry.

Yeasted Buckwheat Waffles
Adapted from Marion Cunningham's The Breakfast Book

This batter requires an overnight rest, so keep that in mind when you decide to make it! Most of the work is done the night before, and that requires some planning, but you’ll be amply rewarded in the morning.

This recipe uses active dry yeast, which should not be confused with instant (also sold as “rapid rise”) yeast. And as for the warm water and warm milk, they need not be very warm. Tepid is fine. In any case, it’s better to err on the cool side than the hot side. The most recent time I made this recipe, I actually didn't warm the milk at all, and it was absolutely okay. The only thing to watch out for with cold milk, though, is that it could re-solidify the melted butter. So if you happen not to warm your milk, for whatever reason, just do as I did: briefly mix together the milk, salt, sugar, and flours, and then stir in the melted butter bit by bit. This way, the cold milk and melted butter don’t run straight into each other and make trouble.

I use one-third buckwheat flour here, and that seems just about right. A word of caution: I wouldn’t use too much buckwheat flour in this recipe, because buckwheat flour is gluten-free, and you need a certain amount of gluten for structure. I’m sure there are other recipes, though, for making gluten-free buckwheat waffles, should you wish to.

Most waffle recipes work in any kind of waffle maker, but I think this one was made ideally for use on a standard (not Belgian) waffle maker. Mine is Belgian-style, and the batter is a bit too thin to really fill it properly. It’s not a biggie, though. The finished waffles just look prettier on one side than the other.

120 ml (½ cup) warm water
7 grams (1 package; 2 ¼ tsp.) active dry yeast
475 ml (2 cups) whole milk, warmed
113 grams (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. sugar
170 grams (1 1/3 cups) all-purpose flour
85 grams (2/3 cup) buckwheat flour
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
¼ tsp. baking soda

Pour the water into a large mixing bowl. (The batter will rise to double its volume, so keep that in mind when you choose the bowl.) Sprinkle the yeast over the water, and let stand to dissolve, about 5 minutes. Then add the milk, butter, salt, sugar, and flours, and stir well, until smooth. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let it stand overnight at room temperature.

When you're ready to cook the waffles, preheat a waffle maker. Follow your waffle maker’s instruction manual for this, but you’ll probably want to heat it on whichever setting is approximately medium-high. My waffle maker has a heat dial that runs from 1 to 7, and I turn it to 5. My waffle maker is nonstick, so I don’t grease it, and Marion Cunningham doesn’t call for greasing it, either.

Just before cooking the waffles, add the eggs and baking soda to the yeasted batter, and stir to mix well. The batter will be very thin. Pour an appropriate amount of batter into your hot waffle maker: this amount will vary from machine to machine, and you should plan to use your first waffle as a test specimen, which you get the treat of eating while you cook the rest. Cook until golden and crisp.

Yield: I wind up with 12 Belgian waffles, but yield depends on the size and configuration of your waffle iron