There’s more than one way to loaf around in Ireland…..
White and Brown
Most of what will be passing for Irish bread this week is actually cake – tea cake and seedy cake. If it has sugar, butter, seeds or raisins in it – it’s a cake and not a bread. It’s delicious and delightful, please enjoy, allowing me my Marie Antoinette moment by letting you all eat cake, but bread is bread and all that added stuff is cake.
Oatcakes have morphed into a kind of biscuit – or cookie – for the most part and are probably the most traditional bread of Ireland, although not the most famous. Oats and griddle baking go back to the medieval period when Ireland was saving civilization for the world. Don’t believe me? Read Thomas Cahill.
Blaa is a sort of yeasted white bread roll, perhaps named from the Norman ‘blanc’ when they stopped in to conquer Ireland. Recently it was a headline in a New York Time travel article, Dining in Dublin from Boxty to Blaa ( http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/02/travel/dining-in-dublin-from-boxty-to-blaa.html?_r=0 ) which includes “In November, I spent a week in Dublin eating my way through some of these restaurants, most of which opened in the last few years. It was my fourth visit to this stately city of Georgian townhouses and lively pubs, and I’ve never eaten better.” a sentence I hope to make my own some day.
Soda Bread is the kind of bread that screams “Irish Bread” in the month of March around here. It is a bread that is leavened with baking soda and not yeast. Commonly referred to as “quick bread” they go together quickly – no rising time – and are ready as soon as they come out of the oven. Many of them are best warm….and are improved the next day by toasting, because they do stale up almost as quickly as they cook.
Because milk is an important part of the Irish diet – it’s called the Emerald Isle because of all the grass that grows there, which I great fodder for cows, so the butter and beef of the country is not a cliché, but an important part of the culinary landscape for centuries – Soda bread is often made with sour milk or butter milk. The slight acidity level of this liquid actually makes the soda work better.
The classic Soda Bread is a pound of flour and a pint of sour milk, a spoonful of soda and a little salt. Mix together, form into a rough ball, slash a cross into the top to allow the steam to escape the middle so it bakes all the way inside OR to divide it into quarters, or farls, for griddle baking. The cross has no religious significance, or if it does I’d like to see a reference from someone who isn’t a detractor about the superstitious Irish. But in typical Irish fashion, we accept the venom of our detractors into as compliments. thus confusing them, and then start to believe our own press. Sigh.
And now for a recipe that isn’t particularly Irish in it’s origins, but turns out a really nice loaf in American kitchens.
Irish Whole Wheat Soda Bread
3 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup all purpose flour (four cups of flour is roughly a pound – measure it by weight if you have a scale…..)
1 Tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon double acting baking powder
1 ½ -2 cups buttermilk (2 cups is a pint, and a pint’s a pound the world around….)
- Combine the dry ingredients. Make sure there are no lumps in the soda, it’ll leave dark patches in the bread. I toss it into a bowl and use a whisk to combine everything.
- Add enough buttermilk to make a soft dough.
- Knead it until it comes together, maybe for a minute or two. It should be firm, velvety and able to hold it’s shape.
- Form into a round loaf and place on a greased cookie sheet (or on a silpat on the cookie sheet). IF the dough is a little slack and starts to schlump on the sheet, butter a 8-inch cake pan or casserole dish and bake in that to give the bread it’s form. (How do I know this? You know how I know this)
- OR in a genius move from the current Martha Stewart Living Good Thing: form the dough into 16 equal pieces and place on a lined cookie sheet – YES – Irish Bread in Individual Loaf Form!!!! I’m planning to freeze it at this point, and then making as much bread as I need at any given moment. (Marthastewart.com/soda-bread http://www.marthastewart.com/1055131/pull-apart-soda-bread)Or divide into farls and bake on a griddle and let me know how it works for you.
- Bake in a 375° oven for 35-40 minutes. The loaf will be brown and have a hollow sound when rapped with your knuckles.
- James Beard let the loaf cool before slicing….let it cool at least a little, it makes it easier to slice. Slather with butter…maybe some marmalade….with bread like this who needs cake?
From James Beard. Beard On Bread. Alfred A. Knopf. 1973. pp.164-5