The scent of drying grain wafts from the door of Coney Island's New York Bread bakery. The aroma emanates from the cooling room, where rack after rack of dark rye and wheat loaves wait to be bagged and shipped. For Brooklyn's Russian community, that smell is the essence of the homeland, of rolling fields of wheat and rye baking in the summer sun.
New York Bread was founded 11 years ago by two expatriates who craved the tastes of home. Victor was raised in St. Petersburg, while Gennady came from a baking family in Minsk, now capital of Belarus, in the heart of the former Soviet Union's grain belt. Seeing the market for real Eastern European-style bread in Brooklyn, they brought over a bread technologist from Minsk who helped them set up the bakery and taught them the recipes. Today, there are perhaps 10 Russian bakeries in South Brooklyn, but Gennady proudly states, "We are the best." New York Bread now produces about three dozen different kinds of bread, many with names like Troitsky, Nezhinsky, and Berdichevsky, each associated with a particular region. For émigrés from Russia, the Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania, these loaves are the essential foodstuff around which the rest of the meal revolves.
A good place to start grazing through New York Bread's bounty is with its Ukrainian rye. This is a big boule, mostly rye with whole wheat mixed in, which gives off a mouth-watering aroma of toasted grain. It's the bakery's best all-around bread, equally tasty as a base for sweet or savory toppings. In the Ukraine, Gennady says, the most popular spread is something called salo—that is, lightly pickled pork fat, sprinkled with chopped onion. With a melting point close to butter's, the shimmering white slices of fat melt into a slice of bread and give it a deliciously unctuous mouthfeel. (You can buy salo, along with an excellent selection of smoked salmon, sausages, pickles, cheese, and the like, in New York Bread's store on the first floor of their Coney Island bakery.)
The bakery's most storied bread is its Borodinsky, a mostly rye loaf notable for the addition of coarsely ground coriander seeds to the dough and sprinkled on top. According to Russian food folklore, the recipe for Borodinsky was invented by a Russian general's wife during the 1812 battle of Borodino, when the Tsar's troops fought Napoleon's army. Presumably, the rye sustained the troops, while the coriander seeds inspired them. (Unfortunately, the Russians lost that bloody battle.) In any case, Borodinsky is considered the acme of the Russian bread-making tradition. New York Bread's version has the typical, faintly sweet-and-sour flavor of Eastern European ryes plus the lovely aroma of the coriander. (Be sure you get a loaf with a generous coating of the seeds!) It's a perfect base for butter and a slab of smoked fish.
For Gennady, the staff of life is his Narochansky bread, named after Lake Narach in his native Belarus. Like many of his dark rye breads, it's made from rye and wheat flours, molasses, malt, caraway seeds, and sourdough starter. The variation comes from the proportions and changes in the mixing and fermentation. The Narochansky is a little softer and milder than the other dark ryes, but I think it achieves a perfect balance of flavor and texture. It goes with everything from salmon caviar to cream cheese and cherry jam.
Back in Minsk, Gennady would drive every week to Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, just to buy homemade loaves from the women in the marketplace. Today, Brooklyn's Russian community retains the taste for Lithuanian breads. New York Bread makes a light rye loaf called Palanga (named after a Baltic resort town) and a dense Lithuanian dark rye. In the latter, the flavors of the caraway seeds and malt dominate, calling for toppings like smoked fish or sausages. To go any darker and denser, you'd have to buy the Baltic rye that New York Bread makes for Black Rooster (previously covered by Good Bread) and also sells in their store.
Beyond these loaves, Gennady and Victor's bakery produces a wide range of loaves, from flax seed health bread to Polish rye to the familiar multigrain. One of their newer offerings is a cranberry walnut bread whose crumb is dyed pink by the berries. Their products are available in many Brooklyn Russian delicatessens, but I recommend going to their store and simply following your nose.