Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Food Connections—Lithuanian Rye Bread

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Success! Two loaves of rye bread–a bit rough looking but very tasty.

Lately I’ve been wondering what to write about. Right now, the world seems especially crazy. Sometimes I feel like I’m in the “Groundhog Day” movie, repeatedly reliving the lockdown because some people feel like wearing a mask or keeping safely distant threatens their “freedom.” Or they’ve read an article that convinces them that vaccines are unsafe. If they’re that worried about what is going into their body, their time might be better spent thinking about what ingredients and chemicals are in the fast food or soda or snacks that they’re eating.

However, as I don’t want to get trolled by folks who find pleasure in being mean and cowardly online, I am going to write my next couple of blogs on food. These are foods that gave me comfort or helped me connect to my family and friends, or people I met on assignment, photographing for National Geographic or non-profit groups. Food is a universal connector, bringing us closer to those we know, and making friends of strangers as well as evoke life’s memories..

While I am not a chef, I love tasting new foods, then trying to cook them when I get home. The idea of giving nourishment to someone fulfills me, in much the same way as when I take a memorable photograph.

Certain foods remind me of particular moments in my life. Some are wonderful, others are not. Cooking helped me survive a dysfunctional upbringing, living under the sharp bitter tongue of a mother who seemed never to be happy and blamed everyone but herself for that. My father, a career Navy sailor, was a good man, but seldom around.

With my parents–the two people I enjoy cooking for, taken around 1996.

Yet despite my uneven relationship with my parents, I liked cooking for them. It made them happy and created good memories. With my Japanese mother I shared a love of mochis, a cake made from rice flour, which she made using a machine she brought back from one of her trips to Japan. Mochis were my comfort food. After my father passed, I asked her to make me a batch, which she did, one last time. She and I both loved takuwan, a pickled Japanese radish, along with tofu, oden, a Japanese hotpot and konnyaku, a rubbery food made from a taro-like potato that takes on the flavor of the dish it is in. Japanese crave it. On my parents visits to northern Virginia where I moved after I married, I’d make her ramen or take her out for sushi.

For my father, whose grandparents came from Lithuania and Poland, I made the eastern European dishes that he remembered from his childhood. I tried my hand at cream puffs, donuts, cabbage rolls and pork chops. From my cousin, I pieced together the recipe for a dish called Kugalas. Laden with meat, butter, and cream, it was delicious, though so loaded with cholesterol that it was doubtless a health hazard. I never made it again. I drew the line at duck blood soup, a dish my father said his mother often prepared during the Depression. My father loved Manhattan’s and I loved making that cocktail for him. My secret ingredient was adding a tad of cherry juice from the jar of cherries I used for garnish. I never told him how I made my version, but he liked it so much, that I could count on him asking for it every time he visited.

On those visits, the one place my dad always wanted to go was a Vietnamese restaurant called Four Sisters. During his long military career, he had two tours of duty in Vietnam. The second was just before the US presence came to an end. At that point, food was scarce, and my father and his group pooled their money to hire a local cook who made Pho and other savory dishes for the team. Despite my father’s intense dislike of the war, he loved the food of Vietnam. At the Four Sisters, he always ordered lemon grass grilled chicken and rice.

The copy my father gave me in 1980.

In 1980, my father gave me a copy of a Lithuanian cookbook that was published in 1955. The copy was printed on only one side of each page and the pages were bound together with a plastic spiral. Not long ago I rediscovered it in my library. Looking through the faded pages, I decided to attempt making Lithuanian Rye Bread once again.

I hadn’t tried this recipe in nearly 40 years and reading it brought back all sorts of memories. Back then I was living in Norfolk in my own apartment, but I decided to make the bread at my parent’s house. It was a turbulent time. My parents were fighting a lot and my mother was constantly yelling at my younger brother, calling him a failure. Distracted by these conflicts, all three of my attempts to bake this bread failed. The dough would ferment but not rise and the result left the house smelling like a brewery. Looking back, I wondered what I was trying to achieve. Did I hope making this bread would somehow bring us all together again?  At the time, I was a (marginal) Catholic. Had I been thinking about the example of Jesus breaking bread? Did all that negative energy in the house cause the failure of the bread to rise? After the third unsuccessful try, I put the cookbook away until last week, when I decided it was time for a fresh attempt.

Seasoning the bowl with onion, caraway seeds and salt–but how much?

I had forgotten how vague the cookbook’s recipe was. Actual baking temperatures were never listed, just suggestions for a “very hot oven” or reducing the heat to “a “moderate oven.” To make the dough I should use “enough boiling water to make a thin paste.” The only precise amounts in the recipe were for two pounds of black rye flour and a half of cup of vinegar. Everything else seemed like guesswork. The recipe called for the bread to be made in a wooden bucket. Not having one, I used a large wooden bowl. If the bucket (or bowl) was used for the first time, then the bowl should be seasoned with chopped onions, salt, and caraway seeds. Again, the vague instructions offered no amounts. Everything seemed to be done by estimating and then eyeballing the results.

Still, I decided to give it a try, pouring nearly two quarts of boiling water over the black rye flour, until it finally achieved what I hoped was the thin paste described in the recipe. As my wooden bowl filled to the brim, I realized why the large wooden bucket was recommended. Knowing that the dough would expand as it rose, I put several towels under the bowl and covered the top with plastic wrap. The next morning, to my relief, the dough had stretched out to the edges of the plastic but didn’t overflow.

The recipe then called for adding enough all-purpose flour to make a stiff dough. Now a stiff dough to one person may not be stiff enough for another. I ended up adding well over three pounds of all-purpose flour, finally producing what seemed like a “stiff,” if very sticky mixture. At this point I was looking at a five-pound ball of dough, which seemed like an awful lot of bread. I was frustrated by the vague directions and wondered if I was just wasting good ingredients.

A finished loaf-enough to feed a big family.

But then I started thinking about the community who created this cookbook and what a woman using this recipe might be doing. Lithuania is largely Roman Catholic and big families were common back when this recipe was written down. With six to ten mouths to feed, baking big loaves of bread was probably an everyday chore. She’d likely buy big sacks of flour—25 or 50 pounds worth—and add handfuls from the bag until she got the texture she wanted from the dough. With that much experience, she didn’t need the recipe to provide more than a few general directions.

Adding the all-purpose flour softened the taste of the rye.

For me, however, this was unfamiliar territory. I thought about adding more flour but then I remembered the recipe said to first cook the dough on very high heat to brown the top, followed by moderate heat for three hours to cook the entire loaf. I assumed the dough still had to have plenty of moisture to bake that long. But what was moderate heat? 300 degrees? 350 degrees?  And how would I know when the bread was done? Without a Lithuanian grandmother to consult, I turned—as we all do these days—to Google, where I read that once the center of the loaf was 190 degrees it would be hot enough to be safe.

The cookbook recipe with the somewhat vague instructions.

To my delight, the recipe worked. The finished loaf, brown and crusty on the outside, was moist and richly textured, if a bit crumbly. I’d baked my way through this whole long COVID ordeal making sourdough bread, pizza, pancakes, and rolls. It was time to return to my heritage—and perfect my version of “stiff dough.”

Written by kasmauski

August 10, 2021 at 6:22 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Love your blog and bread looks delicious!


    August 10, 2021 at 7:45 pm

  2. Karen, I so enjoyed reading this.  My mother used to have a friend, Polly, who made butternut pound cake.  She made it every week because she had an egg man who delivered fresh eggs weekly and she didn’t want to lose the egg man.  It was the best pound cake!  6 eggs!  I had another friend who died a few years ago.  At her memorial on the back of the card “Celebrating a Life of Love” was her famous Noodle Kugle recipe.  Hand-me-down recipes are important for everyone.  Hopefully brings back a happy time and great food made easy.  Thanks for the blog! Mary One for You: GRILLED BANANAS 4 ripened bananas (keep the peels on the bananas even when served.)1 cup chocolate chipsice cream (vanilla is good) Lay bananas on their sides and slice length-wise careful not to cut through to the peel underneath.Sprinkle chips in the slit and cook on grill until chips melt.  The peels will be ugly (dark brown) but that makes them really good.  Remove from grill.  Leaving peels on, scoop ice cream on top of melted chips and bananas.  Oh la la.


    August 10, 2021 at 8:16 pm

    • Thanks Mary for the recipe, I’ve copied over and will try to make it!! Love bananas as well as chocolate and ice cream, all the basic food groups!!


      August 10, 2021 at 8:21 pm

  3. Oh my, I just returned from a family reunion where we discussed my grandmother’s tea cakes and my mother’s cookies. Isn’t it wonderful that food ties us together in times of joy, times of stress and times of division. You have so many different cultural ties and food is the perfect way to celebrate them. Love, Amy

    Amy Savery

    August 10, 2021 at 9:31 pm

    • I still have those tiny muffin tins of your mother’s and I remember those peanut butter kisses cookies she made in them. I use that tin every Christmas to make cookies for the neighborhood cookie exchange!


      August 11, 2021 at 1:58 pm

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