The Catcher in the Rye

Baking master Beatrice Ojakangas puts the final, doughy nail into Dr. Atkins's coffin
Courtesy of Beatrice Ojakangas

It's as close to a weekend routine as I get: Every couple of weeks I bake two or three round loaves of Finnish rye bread and stash them in the freezer.

I found the recipe, attributed to Minnesotan Beatrice Ojakangas with a glowing note, in Nigella Lawson's How to Be a Domestic Goddess, the everybody-loves-to-hate-it cookbook of 2001. It's simple as pie. White and rye flour, yeast, brown sugar, and salt go into the food processor, chased by warm water and melted butter. Whiz until the dough turns into a ball, usually 45 seconds on the nose. Then, after that little unorthodox shortcut, everything is as it should be: Knead it a few times, let it rise, punch it down, let it rise again, and into the oven it goes until you can make that proverbial hollow sound by rapping on the bottom. (And then, of course, add more butter.)

It's such a forgiving, reliable recipe. And it makes a loaf you simply cannot find in a grocery store or bakery around here. The crumb is coarse and dense without being heavy. With almost equal amounts of rye and white flour, it is nutty and flavorful, with just a touch of old-world tang. (True story: My neighbor once offered to buy a couple of loaves for some shindig in the local Latvian community. No money changed hands, of course, but I'm still so tickled about it that I might add, "Baker for old Latvian women" to my résumé.)

What's significant here, besides the fact that you, too, can have a loaf of fantastic Finnish rye bread ready to pull out of the freezer at any time, is that my introduction to Beatrice Ojakangas came via the of-the-moment queen of sexy, privileged, indulgent food fantasies. I'd be the last person to knock Nigella, but I'll agree that she really is more about eating—and showing off her sunny, stainless steel London kitchen—than about cooking.

Ojakangas, by contrast, is about cooking—skillful, science-based cooking that she learned as a girl in 4H and has constantly refined over her four-decade career. And she is most definitely not about fashionable-address, TV-ready flash: Right now she's gearing up for a very busy holiday season, starting with a series of lefse-making classes at her church in Duluth. Participants can eat the mistakes, but most of the fruits of their efforts will be served at the church's annual lutefisk, salmon, and meatball dinner in early December. (Ojakangas's tip for lefse bakers out there: Use Burbank russet potatoes.)

Ojakangas is also all about a seasonal way of eating that, for all the lip service we're giving it these days, has gone the way of the dodo. (My greatest fear, in fact, is that the local/seasonal trend will give way to a backlash of hip New Zealand lamb stew in July. Maybe it already has.) She is an expert in, among many other things, Scandinavian cooking, a tradition that is by geographic necessity as seasonal as it gets. The Nordic table veers from light, crisp open-faced vegetable and cheese sandwiches in the endless days of summer to heavy stews in the long, dark days of winter.

"It's nothing really new," Ojakangas says of the Scandinavian approach to eating, "and it's a lot we've been hearing about lately—eating in season. In the summertime, you rely on farmers' market kind of stuff and in the wintertime, stuff that can be stored. I think the Scandinavian way is actually much simpler. You don't use a lot of prepared foods.

"In the winter, you hunker down and do a lot of stews and vegetables," she adds. "You spend more time in the kitchen if you can, because it's a cozy place."

Her first book, The Finnish Cookbook (Crown Publishers, 1964), is still in print, and she has followed it with Scandinavian Cooking, Scandinavian Feasts, and The Great Scandinavian Baking Book (for which she won a prestigious James Beard Award in 2005—take that, Nigella). Her other volumes have tackled quick breads, wild rice, whole grains, and more—there are 25 in all. Her collected work is a true comfort-food panoply, even though I don't think she ever once invokes that newfangled word.

Since this is the time of year when food writers start to trot out the comfort-food recipes—slow-simmered this and gratin of that—I thought I'd ask the queen of that palate what she has been cooking lately.

"Casseroles, of course!" she laughs. "That's really not a fair question right now."

The joke here is that Ojakangas is hard at work on her 26th cookbook, a compilation for Chronicle Books of 500 casserole recipes. That means she's been cooking them, tweaking them, and handing out experimental recipes to friends for months on end. She may even serve casseroles at her annual New Year's Eve bash this year.

"It's a big job," she says, a day or two after the deadline has passed to turn in the first of 500 recipes and 15 chapters, "especially if I want to get some variety and integrity in the recipes. My editor says, 'Well, you could use a little cream of mushroom soup.'" Ojakangas sounds genuinely appalled by the idea.

Ojakangas earned a degree in home economics—"which sounds very '50s," she concedes—then traveled and worked in a hospital kitchen before landing a job at Sunset Magazine in California. She wrote The Finnish Cookbook while she was on staff there, then moved to Duluth where her husband Dick had found a job. "I had so much fun working at that magazine," she says. "I kept trying to make life as interesting as it was there, after having this fantastic job."

Her way of making life interesting, then, was to crank out a cookbook every year or two and, as if she needed a further challenge, to open a restaurant in Duluth in the late 1960s and early '70s, called Somebody's House. The way she tells it, it was a tiny operation, barely more than a hamburger stand. But then Dick, listening in on the conversation, points out that at one point they had 45 employees.

Even today, with 25 books under her belt, "it's not just sitting down and eating casseroles and putting our feet up," Ojakangas says with smile. Recently she's been busy writing a regular column for the Duluth-based Woman Today, cooking a Peruvian dinner for 12 she had donated to a silent auction, staying active in the church choir, and giving a talk on coping with rationing during World War II. It must have been hard to get by on just two and a half pounds of red meat per person per week, she scoffs.

Could this be the meaty seed for Ojakangas's 27th cookbook?

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