Jewish corn rye is the egg cream of the bread-baking world.
Let me explain. Egg creams were the crowning drink of the corner soda fountain culture that flourished in New York between the 1930s and the 1960s. Corn rye was the glory of that era's many Jewish bakeries: a dense, moist, aromatic loaf that was best consumed hot from the oven, topped with just a smear of butter. Egg creams famously contain neither eggs nor cream; corn rye contains no corn (except for a cornmeal crust on the bottom), though it does get its delicious flavor from rye flour. And both egg creams and corn rye are threatened, like many other classic New York Jewish foods, with the risk of falling into the dustbin of culinary history. Stuffed gooseneck anyone?
Luckily, egg creams have found a niche in the city's retro diner market. Corn rye, however, is more endangered, with the number of bakeries producing the specialty reduced to a handful. Fifty years ago, you could buy corn rye in just about any neighborhood with a significant Jewish population. Today, the corn rye belt looks like a gerrymandered Congressional district: a narrow strip stretching from Whitestone, Queens down into Canarsie, Flatbush, and Midwood in Brooklyn. I recently spent an afternoon traversing that terrain, fighting traffic and rainstorms, to collect loaves for perhaps the first tasting of corn rye in journalism history.
Before we get to the results, a few notes: Bakeries only make a few loaves a week, so you should order in advance. They usually call it "corn bread," not "corn rye." The loaves are big, weighing between two and a half and four pounds. You can buy it by the pound ($1.99 to $2.59 a lb.) if you don't want a whole loaf. They're not the most attractive loaves—big lumpy boules with a few puncture marks in their leathery glazed crust. In today's artisan bread scene, where the most popular loaves are all dark and crispy crust enclosing airy an crumb, they're totally out of style.
Could corn rye compete in the city's current bread market? That was one of the questions we hoped to answer at our tasting. The attendees included food writers, chefs, the patriarch of an appetizing store clan, and assorted hungry people who wondered what all the fuss was about. They brought matjes herring, pot cheese, Russian butter and sour cream, gefilte fish, and other toppings. After the blessing ("Let's eat already!") the bread was cut and the judging began.
The loaves came from Stork's Bakery (Whitestone), Teena's Cake Center (Canarsie), Lord's Bakery (Flatbush), and Chiffon's Kosher Cake Center (Midwood). The smallest and darkest was the Stork's corn, while the largest was the Chiffon's loaf. The participants judged them by looks, smell, texture, taste, and, if they had a corn rye history, how they measured up to the loaves of memory. Very quickly, a hierarchy appeared.
The top two loaves were the corns from Stork's and Chiffon's, in that order. After tasting a slice of Stork's, one food writer, with butter-dripped memories of the corn rye of her youth, stated: "Proust can have his madeleines." For most of the judges, the Stork's bread had the best texture and richest rye flavor. However, the appetizing patriarch dubbed the Chiffon's loaf the closest to the corn of yore. He said: "The Stork's, I like it, but it doesn't taste like corn." Others called the Chiffon's bread the best looking, and one judge also preferred its flavor over the rest. Of the remaining loaves, the judges considered the Teena's corn the better, with an okay flavor and texture. The Lord's loaf was the least popular, with a sour, slightly funky aroma and the appearance of a very dense white bread. The judges' consensus: they'd love to eat corn rye again, particularly if it came from Stork's or Chiffon's.
Chiffon's Kosher Cake Center
430 Avenue P, Brooklyn NY 11223 (map) 718-998-7530
Teena's Cake Fair
1568 Ralph Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11236 (map) 718-763-9100