Friday, March 16, 2007

Irish Soda Bread for St. Paddy's Day Tea

For a baking class on "breads of the world" I will be doing at our deli in Athens Monday with a troop of Girl Scouts who are working on a merit badge, I researched something I've made before and always found intriguing: Irish Soda Bread. When I had the "real" thing years ago, at a mission convent of Irish nursing nuns in the mountains in western Cameroon, Sr. Joan Russell, a nurse midwife, called it "brown bread". Apparently in the north of Ireland it is also called "wheaten" bread. I had it warm and slathered with butter and fresh cheese and accompanied by Irish whisky, sipped neat (hey, the good Sisters were Irish -- and their post-partum mothers were always given a full glass of Guiness Stout, provided free by the caseload by the Guiness Brewery). The bread and whisky (note no "e" in whisky from Scotland and Ireland) were for "tea" and enjoyed seated in front of a stone fireplace with a crackling fire in the nuns' home on a misty chill late afternoon. It was hardly the weather you expect in West Africa, nor the food, nor the company.

The real peasant soda bread is simple, made with whole wheat and white flour, oatmeal (optional), salt, baking soda, and buttermilk. (Irish flour was low in gluten, being light for baking but also not so good for yeast-raised breads.) The leavening action is from carbon dioxide bubbles released by the interaction of lactic acid from the buttermilk and the bicarbonate of the baking soda. Traditional soda bread has no shortening or sweetening, but can have some currants or raisins in it, in which case it can be called "spotted dog". Thus the bread is simple, requires no yeast, and could have been quickly made in the Irish countryside with readily available ingredients, and baked in a 3-legged iron pan nestled in the embers of the fire with some additional hot embers on the iron lid to bake the top. The bread is best warm, either just after baking or, if eaten later, toasted.

So here is the recipe I will use with the girl scouts. When tested last night and for breakfast this morning, it was a bit dense but tasted great, with a delicious wheaty taste and no soda aftertaste. I used stone-ground whole wheat flour and the South's secret baking ingredient, White Lily flour, made from soft winter wheat -- the flour that makes biscuits light.

Irish Soda Bread Tim

2 cups whole wheat flour, preferably stone ground
2 cups plain flour (White Lily or other soft flour preferred)
1/2 cup rolled oats
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
About 2 cups buttermilk

Combine the flour, oats, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. Add enough buttermilk to form a soft dough, but do not over mix. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured board. Knead the dough very lightly and do not overwork or bread will develop gluten and become tough.

Shape into one large or two smaller rounds and place on a greased baking tray. Flatten the bread a little and cut a deep cross in the top of the round. Bake at 400F for 10 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350F for 20-30 minutes until loaf sounds hollow when tapped underneath.

Eat while still warm with butter or with butter and jam!

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