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  Swedish Rye Bread

Rye started as a weed, and even today one of its chief virtues lies in its weed-like ability to grow just about anywhere. It may have arisen in Asia Minor or the Caucasus, though at least a couple of scholars maintain that it got its start in northeastern Europe and bordering regions of Asia. After all, it is a plant that prefers colder weather and grows best in the far north. There is evidence, both archaeological and linguistic, of a more northerly point of origin, but because Asia Minor gave us wheat, oats, and barley, some find it difficult to imagine a grain not coming from this fertile region.

It seems that rye appeared as a distinct grain in about 6500 BC, though it didn’t really come into use in civilized communities until about 1000 BC By the Middle Ages, it had become the principal cereal grain of north-central Europe and Russia, areas that still depend heavily on rye. Rye made the jump to the New World in 1606, when Samuel de Champlain began growing it in his garden at Quebec. It was also an early success in New England, where land was not suited to many other crops.

It is in New England that rye had what is probably its most infamous impact—at least in U.S. history. The parasite fungus Claviceps purpurea, which occasionally attacks rye crops, produces ergot. Eating rye contaminated by ergot causes uncontrollable muscular contractions, which can range from mild to fatal. Add to this that a key component of ergot is ergotamine, which when heated (as in baking bread) transforms into lysergic acid diethylamide—LSD. Bad news for those who ate rye tainted with ergot. While the epidemics and deaths that follow ergot contamination often struck in Europe during the Middle Ages, the most famous case of ergot poisoning in the U.S. was in Salem, MA, in 1692. Widespread incidence of convulsions, hallucinations, and death among humans and animals were viewed as being fairly solid signs of things having gone badly wrong. The people of Salem have often been derided as being hysterical, credulous, or even evil, but their reactions seem less incomprehensible when we understand the horrors with which they were faced. Cattle and people were convulsing and dying, and people were seeing ghastly, impossible things. People could not have known that the horrible manifestations they were witnessing were LSD-induced hallucinations and not reality.

Today, because we know about ergot and ergotamine, we know how to prevent the poisoning. However, rather than wiping it out, we simply control it, because ergot can be used to produce valuable medicines. So you can enjoy the lovely, slightly sour taste of rye without fear—and still possibly benefit someday from the drugs produced from that which once made rye unsafe.

Interestingly, though rye is ranked as being least important among the major grain crops, as far as world trade and volume of production, it is actually the second most important grain crop in the world if measured by acreage sown to it, it is one of the two most important grains used for bread making, and it is in the top three of grains grown for human consumption. Does this seem contradictory? Well, as for world trade, most rye is grown in the countries where it is consumed, so it doesn’t move around much. As for acreage, rye is grown on land where almost nothing else will grow. If it were grown on the best farmland, its volume of production would skyrocket, but good land is saved for frailer crops. And as for its importance to human consumption vs. volume produced, it trails barley, oats, maize, and millet because those are grown primarily to feed animals, while rye (along with wheat and rice) are grown primarily to feed people.

This fragrant, slightly sweet rye bread is traditionally served at Christmas in Sweden. Bread making seems particularly suited to cold winter days, but I don’t save this just for the holidays. I like to serve it for breakfasts and brunches throughout the chillier months. It makes a nice gift, too.

(Swedish Rye Bread)

¼ cup molasses

⅓ cup sugar

1 scant Tbs. salt

2 Tbs. unsalted butter, at room temperature

Finely shredded rind of 2 oranges

1½ cups lukewarm water

2 envelopes dry yeast

2½ cups sifted wholegrain rye flour

2½ to 3 cups sifted white flour

Mix together the molasses, sugar, salt, butter, and orange rind. Stir in the warm water. Sprinkle the yeast over the mixture, and stir until the yeast is dissolved. Add the rye flour, and mix with a spoon until it is completely incorporated. Add the white flour in half-cup amounts, switching from spoon to hands for stirring, as dough thickens. Add enough white flour to make a soft but manageable dough.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured board and cover with a dishtowel or inverted bowl. Let it sit for 10 minutes, then knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic. Place the dough in a greased bowl and cover with a damp cloth. Let the dough rise until it is about double its original size (about 2 hours). Punch down the dough. Form it gently into a ball again and let it rise an additional 45 minutes. Punch down again, then divide the dough in half. Form the dough into 2 round loaves and place them on a lightly greased baking sheet. Cover the loaves with a damp cloth and let rise until double in size (about 1 hour).

Remove the towel. Place the baking sheet in a preheated 375°F oven and bake for about 35 minutes. Cool loaves on a rack.


If you don't have unsalted butter, use salted butter and reduce the additional salt by about ¼ tsp.

Be sure to use warm water, not hot. Hot water will kill the yeast.

Depending on humidity levels, you may not need a full 3 cups of white flour.

When it is time to knead the dough, put a little flour on your hands, to keep the dough from sticking. It is also a good idea to keep the flour close by, so you can flour your hands or the board as needed, if the dough is still a little sticky.

When the dough is left to rise, it is best if it can be in a relatively warm area with no drafts. It should be cozy, not hot.

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