Tuesday, November 29, 2011

'r' is for russian rye bread

All sorrows are less with bread. ~ Miguel de Cervantes

As you know from a past post, dear readers, there are few things I love more than bread. So imagine my delight when I happened upon a new bakery offering complimentary bread samples at our local farmer's market. After just one bite I was completely smitten. Dark, dense, aromatic and flavorful, it was like no other bread I had ever tasted. Naturally, I wanted to know everything about this bread and its baker. 

Meet Alex Roginsky-Podlyas, proprietor of Alex's Russian Bakery and baker of wonderful Russian rye breads. Born in the Ukraine, Alex came to the United States with his family when he was 14 years old. He always enjoyed cooking with his mother, and while in high school, he worked as an interim chef for a small Japanese restaurant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in Political Science and Law Studies. "I had no clue what I wanted to do when I 'grew up'," said Alex. "I knew I loved all things food, but I also knew that line of work was grossly underpaid. Serving up teriyaki skewers and tempura shrimp was not going to make me wealthy."

So he set out to conquer the world of finance. He held various jobs in financial sales and retail banking, eventually moving to Jacksonville, Florida, to accept a position with a Wall Street bank. He was very successful - so much so that he traveled to India to train recent university graduates to work on the bank's systems. "I was the go-to guy for all of the 'important guys' in our Wall Street office and was the ace who either knew answers or could find answers to everything very quickly," he explained. But alas, one year when it came time for his annual performance review and potential bonus, he received surprisingly low marks. Alex was confused. "I thought I was being read another person's performance review," he said. Politics, favoritism or some other corporate wheels were evidently in motion and, as far as Alex was concerned, the writing was on the wall as it related to his future with the bank.

His disillusionment with his financial position led him back to his first love - food. After considering his options, he decided to work with sourdough bread. "I thought my fellow Russian peers would love my bread," he said, "and given there are not many options for Russian bread in the United States, I thought my business would do well."

Alex is focused on producing both sourdough rye and wheat breads, using only natural yeasts. He explained that sourdough breads do not necessarily have to be 'sour' (his breads are not) and likened the skill involved in managing the yeast in bread baking to that in beer brewing; the yeast is what gives flavor to both. The art is in creating the perfect balance.

Perfecting that balance, however, was no simple task. "I must have had 200 trials and failures before my bread looked and tasted like the real thing; like it was made in a real, old-fashioned, countryside bakery in some obscure location in Latvia," he said. And although I have never been to a real, old-fashioned, countryside bakery in an obscure Latvian location,  I would bet real serious money the bread there would taste just like Alex's. "I researched scientific journals of modern times for months to understand what Latvians figured out a few centuries ago without modern science - scalding flour with boiling water and 'sweetening' dough through a slow multi-step fermentation produces bread that is both nutritious and delicious (read more about it here). Modern science proves rye bread is the healthiest bread," he says. Healthy, and hearty - one (albeit very large) loaf can weigh almost 20 pounds!

My favorite among the breads he produces is the dark and spicy Borodinsky, which is beyond delicious. Did you know that the village of Borodino was the site of a decisive battle between the Russian army and Napoleon in 1812? It's true! Legend has it that on the eve of the clash, the wife of a Russian general wanted to bake some special bread to fortify and encourage the soldiers. She seasoned the bread with coriander, a beloved local spice. Napoleon subsequently lost thousands of troops in the battle, and Borodinsky acquired its heroic status among Russian breads. Officials at the Museum of Bread (yes, there is such a thing) in St. Petersburg dispute the relationship of Borodinsky and the Battle of Borodino, but...it's a good story nonetheless, no?

Alex is passionate about producing a pure and authentic product. "I believe we've been living in an era of decreasing knowledge about bread and nutrition in general. My bread contains six ingredients or less. They are the most basic ingredients - water, flour, salt, roasted barley, sugar or molasses, spices. This is as fundamental as fire, wind, earth, water," he says. It seems that Alex has at long last found the real wealth he was seeking, and we are fortunate he has chosen to share it with us.

You can find Alex most Saturdays at the Riverside Arts Market, and he has plans for a brick-and-mortar location on Edgewood Avenue in the heart of Murray Hill. Hooray! In the meantime, you can follow and support his delicious journey via his Facebook page.


  1. I must buy some of this bread!!!!!

  2. I really do love these kinds of stories when people find their true passion in such unexpected ways. There is hope for us lost souls!

  3. This is such a great story. How far do you think this bread could travel?

  4. This is fabulolous. I love this post! -AS

  5. Thanks you guys! @Anon, I bet the bread could travel very well - it has a surprisingly long shelf life!

  6. I am inspired! I love that life can take you in such interesting directions if you are open to the change!

    1. Folks, thank you for reading LeeAnn's story about me. Life can be full of unexpected surprises. I have been meeting wonderful people along my journey an LeeAnn has been one of them.

      I transformed from an elitist office-desk, butt-in-the-chair, email jockey, to a more humble -- but nevertheless Bourdain-esque -- amateur artisan bread baker. Everyday I found myself among 'friend' colleagues who hid behind their computer screens, pretending to be productive while I carried the water.

      The link below provides an accurate (IMHO) description of my old life in the office


      While I'm no longer exposed to the kind of non-sense and dumbing-down-of-America formalities that exist in every large office, my headaches consist of sourcing the best and most natural flour, baking, and getting into nearest farmers markets.

      Good flour is hard to find! King Arthur is one of the best and natural flours and is rarely carried by commercial distributors. Other brands of flour that are non-GMO, non bromated, non bleached or spiked with some other additive innocently labeled 'enzyme' is very difficult. So now I worry about what I put your bread. I found King Arthur distributor and use it in all wheat bread.

  7. part 2

    Then there's the actual bake of sourdough wheat breads before market days (I bake and freeze rye bread during the week). It's a race from start to finish to get the sourdough culture prepared just right - very active and not sour tasting. Mix everything by hand and find and break every clump of flour, stretch and fold the dough. Then portion, bench rest, and envelope fold every loaf of bread, and put into proofing basket. And then comes the bake 7 hours later. And even here, every loaf has to be supervised and rotated in the oven - how's the oven spring and carmelization of crust. Enough steam being piped by my clothes steamers inside a 60 year old pizza oven to produce the right crust? Pretty ingenious, eh? All this over a simple mixture of flour, water and salt that's allowed to ferment!

    And at the end of every Friday bake, which often ends way past bar-time, I wonder if market patrons will differentiate my wheat sourdough from every other vendor's machine produced bread that stales after 24 hours or will I be taking home unsold bread?

    Recently a market patron told me she hasn't had bread like this since she visited the Union Station Farmers Market in NYC - this is where restaurant chefs shop for really good ingredients and products which will end up on customers plates that evening. She bought several loaves presumably to share with family, friends, and some to be frozen.

    I think it's meaningful if I meet one shoppers like this for every three who'll prefer 'dead' bread, manufactured at the speed of 800 loaves an hour from another ‘artisan‘ bakery. This bread will stale in 24 hours and has no nutritional resemblance or quality to bread that sustained many civilizations.

    Regardless of the frequency of nowadays common gluten intolerance and general avoidance of wheat, bread still has a special place in hearts of every American.
    People tend to have strong opinions about it and approach bread as something special, the holy grail of every dinner table meal. Back in the Old World, however, people still get a fresh loaf from a neighborhood bakery on the way home from work without worrying how well this or that loaf can freeze. And they don’t pull into a parking lot of Europe’s Panera Bread Company – they walk down the street to the quintessential bakery on the corner. This loaf will be gone same-day or by tomorrow and will not see the dark freezer.

    No wonder we are told to eat less bread – look at all those chemicals on the list of ingredients for the sake of manufacturing more affordable bread. This bread manufacturing process parallels that of cattle/poultry commercial ‘farming’ by the Big Meat processors. Think of chickens cramped inside dark warehouses and forced to grow at twice the natural pace; and cows fed on corn rather than grass while cramped inside tight enclosures – all this to make meat more affordable.

    So, my advice to you folks, keep your day-jobs for now. Read and re-read ‘Kitchen Confidentials’ and ask yourself why you maybe going into any type of food business like why you would ‘want to open a restaurant’. I, for example, obsess daily over how to bake what other will not touch because it’s hard! …but well worth it. It’s either go big and bake the real thing or go home. And it all starts only with fermented flour, water, and salt.

  8. O.K. may mighty Zeus smite me if this isn't the truth. I was in line at the sorta Whole Foods-y grocery that's a block from my domicile, and the young man ringing my purchases asked in all sincerity, "So, um, what exactly IS rye bread?"
    I mean you could've knocked me over with a quark (or some similar sub-atomic particle). So dumbfounded was I that the best answer I could come up with was "Uhhhh, something without which one cannot make a patty melt."
    Those with sufficient powers of deduction have probably already ascertained the denouement.
    "What's a patty melt?"
    I responded with something I knew he'd understand. "Google it."
    Truly, this is a sign of the end of times.

    1. LOL. Shoppers at local farmers markets ask me all the time, 'What is sourdough?' And these questions do not come from Generation Y. They come from parents of Generation Y. The end is near indeed lol


  9. You guys are too funny! Alex, we are counting on you to change all of this with your rye bread. No pressure. : )

    Alan, as you know, I, for one, would not want to live in a world without patty melts. : )

  10. Yours truly. See below in todays FLorida Times Union


  11. I have you to thank for my introduction to the glory of the patty melt, VERY late one night at the Denny's at Central and Knox, lo these many years ago. Life changing I tells ya!