Editor's note: Please welcome Andrew Coe, the new Serious Eats bread writer, who'll be introducing you to the best bakers in the boroughs. Andrew has written about egg creams, foie gras, and the history of Chinese food in the United States. When he isn't writing, he's wondering what to have for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
In the old days, Finnish peasants used to live on pine trees and rye bread. They lumbered and produced pine tar for caulking wooden boats and making pine-flavored schnapps that warmed their bellies through the winter. They grew rye and turned it into dense, chewy black bread that was the staff of life. When the rye crop failed, the peasants ground up pine tree bark and made bread from it.
Finns haven't had to eat pine bark bread for more than a century, but the taste for rye loaves remains at the core of their culinary life. Expatriates have come from as far as Buffalo and California to Simo Kuusisto's Nordic Breads stand at the New Amsterdam Market just to get their hands on fresh loaves of his Finnish bread.
Nordic Breads specializes in a flattened doughnut-shaped loaf called the ruis, made from whole-grain rye flour, salt, water, and sourdough starter. The hole in the middle makes it easier for hanging on a stick for storage in the rafters of a barn. Ask Simo what makes ruis so good, and he'll start talking about the health benefits of whole-grain, high-fiber breads. However, what makes people return is the addictive nature of the ruis's taste and texture. The crust is crunchy on the outside, while the crumb inside is moist and dark with a strong rye flavor. It makes a great base for butter and jam, cream cheese and lox, or cheddar and cucumber as Simo Kuusisto serves it at the New Amsterdam Market.
Simo started making ruis bread because he couldn't get it fast enough from the old country. Born in Oulu, Finland's northernmost city, he came to New York over two decades ago to train at the French Culinary Institute. He worked for six years at Aquavit, 10 years at the Swedish delegation to the United Nations, and is now chef to Canada's U.N. ambassador. After taking a bread-making course from King Arthur Flour's head instructor, Simo decided to start selling baguettes, sourdough boules, and ruis bread at a weekend farmers' market out in Port Washington. He realized that competition for baguettes was intense, but nobody else was selling ruis, which people seemed to really like. A business plan was born.
Simo found a farmers' cooperative up in the Finger Lakes district called Farmer Ground that produced the right kind of rye flour (also sold in the Union Square Greenmarket by Cayuga Pure Organics). He went to Finland and brought back a container of precious Finnish sourdough starter. Like many breadmakers, Simo has an intense relationship with his "baby," the starter. He has to check if the starter is hungry even before he has his morning coffee and can never be away from it more than 12 hours due to its feeding schedule. Simo bakes his ruis at Long Island City's Artisan Baking Center, which is a kind of graduate school for aspiring baking entrepreneurs. With his brother Tuomas as partner, Simo sells his Nordic Breads ruis by mail order to Finnish expats and at the New Amsterdam Market.
Even though the market is closing for the season on December 19, Simo sees a bright future for Nordic Breads. He and his brother bake two nights a week and ship 300-400 loaves of ruis around the country. He's talking to the Greenmarket about opening a stand at Union Square and is negotiating with Whole Foods and other stores. He isn't quitting his day job yet, but he is wondering when he will get enough sleep.