How Molly Yeh Baked Her Way Home
Three years ago, a Jewish-Chinese music student and fledgling food blogger followed her fiance from New York City to a sugar beet farm just south of nowhere. This is the story of how Molly Yeh baked her way home.
Flying into Grand Forks, North Dakota, in winter, you can see the wind before you feel it. Snow sifts across the ashy grid of farms and empty roads, blown into rippling ribbons by an arctic wind that knows no end. If a first-timer had any doubts she had landed at the far end of the Midwest, a sign outside the airport plots the location in stark terms: Turn right for Fargo, left for Winnipeg.
Or go straight, through town. Cross the state line into East Grand Forks, Minnesota, drive a ways up a country highway, and pull up to a tiny ranch home hidden behind a windbreak of thick pines. Inside, Molly Yeh pads around her postage-stamp kitchen in wool socks, arranging cupcakes she's testing for her first cookbook, Molly on the Range: Recipes and Stories from an Unlikely Life on a Farm (Rodale, $32.50). Made with last spring's rhubarb, they cast a ray of warm sunshine into a very, very cold day.
Raised in the Chicago suburbs by her Chinese father and Jewish mother, Molly went East for school and studied percussion at Juilliard. There she met Nick Hagen, a Norwegian-American trombonist who was beginning to realize he wanted to go home to Minnesota. One summer Molly visited his family's fifth-generation farm and realized she was craving a quiet life, too. "Nick never wanted to pressure me," she says. "Finally I told him, ‘I'm moving out here whether you're with me or not.'"
After arriving in 2013, Molly dived into her blog (mynameisyeh.com), mastering photography and cooking feverishly. She and Nick married in 2015. On days when rural domesticity felt more like culture shock and loneliness, food bridged the divide. Molly embraced Nick's mom's tater tot hot dish, and his family, in turn, welcomed her Israeli eggs in tomatoes. When she craved good pizza or Vietnamese banh mi, she got busy and made her own. And like her own mother, Molly baked challah (HAH-lah), a rich, glossy Jewish egg bread traditionally served on the Sabbath.
"This dough is so lovely to work with," she explains, stretching a pillowy ball into three golden ropes. "It's like my comfort blanket. I use it for everything." In Molly's hands, challah takes many forms. Petite spirals receive a modern flurry of flaky sea salt. A braid threaded with green onions pays tribute to her Asian heritage. Cardamom-flecked buns echo the Scandinavian Christmas breads Nick's ancestors might have baked.
In fact, as Molly pulls loaves from the oven and Nick stamps snow from his boots, the memory of those hardy homesteaders feels startlingly close. Then and now, the surest way to stay warm on a vast, frozen prairie is to wrap yourself in the flavors of home.
Molly often twists her challahs into simple spirals. This recipe makes four small loaves, perfect for freezing or sharing. (Slightly stale challah also makes dreamy French toast.) Classic Challah Recipe
Scallion Pancake Challah
Molly fills each of the three strands of dough with chopped green onion, sesame oil and red pepper flakes, creating a braided loaf that quite literally weaves together both sides of her ancestry. Scallion Pancake Challah Recipe
Orange-Spice Challah Buns
Loosely inspired by traditional Swedish Christmas buns, these soft, sweet holiday rolls are laced with cinnamon and cardamom and topped with crunchy pearl sugar. Orange-Spice Challan Buns Recipe
Nick avoids dairy, so Molly makes hot chocolate with coconut milk. Another twist: She sprinkles each mug with hawaij, a pumpkin-spicelike blend she discovered in Israel and figured out how to re-create at home. Hot Cocoa-Nut Recipe
Bread should cool completely before slicing, but Molly can rarely wait: "I like to rip into it while it's still warm."