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Flex and the City: Comfort Food

Michael Byrne Jr. (left) with his dad, Michael Byrne Sr. Courtesy photo

In his latest column, West Hartford resident Michael Byrne writes about baking a legacy through bread, and his collaboration with Small State Provisions.

Freshly-baked rye bread from Small State Provisions. Courtesy photo

By Michael Byrne

My wife, Rebecca, and I recently created a playlist on Spotify of all our favorite songs from when we were younger (think middle school, high school, college era) to share with our children (and to answer your question, yes, No Scrubs by TLC was of course on the playlist). It’s a music appreciation of sorts to share memories with our kids, to expose them to different bands and artists that they may not enjoy or find on their own.

The power of music and the attachment to memories and milestones in our lives is simply uncanny. With each song that would blast out of our speakers in the house, car, etc. we would immediately transport back in time to a specific moment, taking the proverbial walk down memory lane. Sharing the most intricate details of where we were in our lives when we first heard THAT song, more often than not is received with eye rolls and a “That’s great Mom/Dad” from our children.

Certain songs I could even recall what I was wearing (more often than not it was JNCO jeans, Airwalks and something Abercrombie), how I felt, how the song made me feel … it’s almost like time travel.

I am sure that for most reading this, you, too, have certain songs or occurrences that take you back to the very moment when you first stumbled upon a song.

Our senses have massive power in the present, they also seem to have memory (just like water in Arendelle), an innate ability to recall vivid moments in our lives providing opportunity to reflect on events gone by, to savor where we’ve been and slingshot back to the present and even provide a vehicle to contemplate where we are heading.

Digging a bit deeper into the transportive properties of our senses, I was curious as to which sense was the most impactful. After a bit of internal reflection, a bit of research externally and general dialogue, I concluded that actually smell and taste had stronger tie to memories than the other senses. I guess that’s why realtors bake cookies for open houses, or candles are created to smell like pastries (for the record, I definitely don’t own candles that smell like BBQ ribs). These scents elicit emotion, they change moods, they allow you to time travel.

Family recipes and traditions are important in my family. Thanksgiving stuffing, Christmas cookies, grilled cheese and soup when I was home sick (or faking an illness to watch the first round of the NCAA tournament in high school … sorry not sorry mom), the majority of meaningful moments in life have a foundation in food.

In my family, these recipes are not only delicious, they are passed down through generations. It is part of my family’s DNA, part of our legacy, a way of keep our ancestors alive in the presence of my children and hopefully to my grandchildren (and beyond).

A ritual my father and I had was breakfast, specifically diner breakfasts. As far back as I can remember, when we shared time together from a young boy to most recently, we shared moments at a diner, talking about nothing, which ended up being everything to me. We were pros, knew the staff by first name, hell we didn’t even need menus as we had the same order ALWAYS: Eggs, corned beef hash and of course, rye toast.

The eggs yolks were runny and decadent, the corned beef hash was tender and hearty, and of course the star of the show – rye toast – a masterful balance of crunchy crust, a light crispy exterior, an airy warm and soft middle with always too much (but really the perfect amount) of a salted butter pad slowly melting and working its way into the crevasses between caraway seeds and rye … perfection. These were special moments. It’s so cliché, but one comes to find along the journey in life that these in between times, these moments before and after the more significant ones, are the ones we come to cherish the most. Simple times, just sharing company and time (our most precious asset) with someone we love dearly.

I lost my father this summer. It was sudden, it was unexpected, he was relatively young and in good health. It was, and still is, excruciating.

I still cry most days. I didn’t get to say goodbye, but I’m working to find peace, to process this immensely difficult event as healthily as possible. Steadfast in my duty as a son in making Dad proud, I’m relentlessly searching to keep his memory alive, the flame of his impact on my life (and others) burning brightly.

As I’ve matured, I’ve thought a lot about legacy, future impact for my children’s children. Will I be relevant and alive in their memories and heart when I’m gone?

I was somewhat panicked at the prospect of my children and the generations to come forgetting our patriarch, as photos rotate in frames, memory fades and life goes on. Cooking in my family is sacred time, a time to shed screens, halt the pace of the day and be present in the moment with a most delicious activity. This is why Thanksgiving is so important to my family – no pretense, no materialistic agenda, just time shared with salt, fat, acid, and heat (and fantastic wine).

A baking timer in my mind dinged and I had an idea. I reached out to my friend, master baker, and with most sincerity an incredibly genuine person – Kevin Masse – owner/creator/visionary of Small State Provisions, now located at GastroPark in West Hartford. My idea was simple: to add to my family recipe book. My breakfast ritual with my father could be immortalized in my family by creating a rye bread recipe for my family to make and hopefully pass it down to my grandchildren and beyond.

Freshly-baked rye bread from Small State Provisions. Courtesy photo

The smell and taste would resurrect such special moments for me with my father and simultaneously provide an opportunity to spend more time with my children, wife, and other loved ones through this act of baking. This would not only bolster our recipe book, but it would help to keep my father’s flame alive, extending his legacy and memory for generations to come. It might seem small, but this act of keeping the familial spirit alive might be one of the most important things we can do.

Initially, I pitched the idea to Kevin with no intention of writing about it because these personal moments are just that, personal. But as Kevin and I begun to discuss the recipe and intention, I felt that I should use this scenario as a way to provide a forum to not only share some of my path toward healing, but to highlight some of the truly exceptional and genuine people we have in our community.

Rye Bread in progress. Courtesy photo

As an added benefit and to share something of value, Kevin and I have provided this rye bread recipe for you to enjoy. I plan on calling the bread “Mannix Rye” for my family recipe book. My father was Michael Mannix Byrne Sr., to which I am his junior and my son is the third generation of his namesake.

Of course, if you are not up for baking, you can soon find it at Small State Provisions as it will be part of Kevin’s menu. While not yet on the menu, I would recommend getting in line now as everything Kevin and team creates is fantastically delicious and sits mere moments on his shelves.

Family loss or not, we’ve all endured more than our fair share over the last few years. I hope this recipe helps to provide some comfort, whether through making this recipe yourself with those you love, dusting off an old family recipe and having a stroll down memory lane, or sampling the amazing creations at Small State Provisions, I hope no matter where you go, that your first bite is eyes closed and full of comfort and warmth and of course, deliciousness.

I’d be so bold to say that these collection of family recipes are time machines. Each time I measure the ingredients with my family, each roll of the pin to work the pasta dough, each bite of crisp toast I am transported back in time to when these traditions came alive in my life, each time the baton was passed down a generation, to each time when I felt warm and safe and loved. I look forward to incorporating this rye bread recipe into my family’s traditions and yearn for the moment I take that first bite of toast and immediately travel back to the diner counter for breakfast with Dad.

I hope you found this piece worth your time and enjoyable, I want to hear from you. Please reach out to me at [email protected] or find me on Instagram @nodadbod.

Kevin Masse, owner of Small State Provisions. Courtesy photo

Scalded Rye Sourdough Bread
Recipe by Kevin Masse, Owner of Small State Provisions

Makes 2 loaves (~875g/loaf)

17g Salt

825g Water (75 degrees)

177g ripe sourdough starter

250g Medium Rye Flour

584g Bread Flour

10g molasses

2 tbsp caraway seeds (optional)

Method:

Day 1: Bring to a boil 400g of the water stated above and combine with 250g rye flour. Mix to combine and set aside to cool (preferably overnight)

Day 2: In a large mixing bowl, dissolve the salt, molasses and scaled rye mixture in the remaining water (425g at 75 degrees). Add the ripe sourdough starter to the mixture and stir to combine. Add the bread flour and caraway seeds if using and stir to combine to create a shaggy dough (your hands are great tools here). You want to mix just until you have no dry patches of flour remaining. Cover dough and allow it to rest for 45 mins in a warm, draft free spot. Using wet hands, fold the dough 4 times (How to fold dough: grab the edge of the dough at the bottom of the bowl and stretch up and fold on top of the dough; rotate the bowl 45 degrees and fold again – complete these steps for a total of four turns. Allow the dough to rest for 20 minutes longer and complete the four folds again. Repeat this an additional two times for a total of four sets of folds. Once all the folds have been completed, allow the dough to proof for approx. 2-3 hours. Dough will nearly double in volume. Once dough has risen, turn onto a lightly floured work surface and divide into two equal portions. Roll dough into a log and pinch ends closed. Place dough in loaf pans and then cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate dough overnight for final proofing/fermentation.

Day 3: Preheat the oven to 450 degrees with an oval dutch oven inside (use a dutch oven that will fit one of your loaf pans) for one hour. Carefully remove the dutch oven from the oven and place on a heatproof trivet. Using a sharp knife or razor, score the bread about 1/4 inch deep directly down the middle. Carefully place the loaf pan inside the dutch oven and replace the lid. Reduce the oven to 425 degrees and bake bread for approx. 30 minutes. Remove the lid and continue to bake bread for an additional 20 minutes. Remove from oven when a thermometer inserted into the bread reads 203 degrees. Allow bread to cool for approx. 20 minutes before turning out of the pan. Cool bread completely before slicing.

Freshly-baked rye bread from Small State Provisions. Courtesy photo

A version of this article also appeared in the December 2021 issue of West Hartford LIFE

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