Saturday, March 13, 2010

Irish Soda Bread

Sometimes it is almost hard to admit the reasons behind my recipe choices. Of course, the harder something is to admit, the more likely I am to cough it up here, publicly and without remorse. It isn't the confession itself that embarrasses me so much as the fact that I did something so ridiculous in the first place that it bears confessing.

I should have been Catholic.

Last week for instance, with The Carnivore out of town for four days, and The Boy Wonder's soccer season just beginning, I broke down and bought a Kashi frozen pizza for dinner. The thought of doing The Boy Wonder's lessons all morning, taking him to his homeschool PE class in the afternoon, doing the grocery shopping, picking up new cleats, and still getting to soccer practice and then putting the kids to bed seemed like enough to fill my dance card for the day. So I thought I would cut myself a wee bit of slack and skip the cooking and cleaning for dinner.

The thing was, I was kind of mortified to be buying a frozen pizza. I tried to justify it with it's Kashi name. Minimal packaging was involved, it claimed to be "all natural," and there were whole-grains involved, but it still tasted like a frozen pizza, only slightly better than cardboard, and I felt terrible bringing it to the table. Even The Boy Wonder turned his nose up, complaining that it wasn't a fresh-made crust.

The embarrassment was all in the purchase and the serving though. I went straight to Twitter and owned up to what I had fed my children for dinner.

See? Being Catholic would be so easy...

And so it is that I feel obligated to 'fess up to the story behind this Irish Soda Bread. The recipe turned out well; so deliciously, in fact, that I made two batches last week, eating it for breakfast and dinner on some days (the bread is so filling that it makes lunch a moot point), but even if it had turned out badly, I am sure I would have still brought the whole sordid affair into this little forum just so I could stick a 'Kick Me' sign on my back.

Irish soda bread wasn't even on my radar before a few weeks ago, when the March issue of Bon Appetit landed in my hands and I flipped through the magazine to see what jumped out at me. There towards the end, in an article not even alluded to on the cover, was a giant two-page picture of a piece of brown bread just slathered in butter.

Yum, right? Homemade bread topped with nothing but butter does it to me every time, and this photo got me all worked up. The title gave me pause though. 'A Slice of Ireland,' it said, which confounded me. Irish bread? Never even heard of it. I made to flip right on past, but the next few photographs, one of cows and another of a castle, were enough to make me turn right back to the beginning of the article, where I saw this: "In the countryside, there are as many versions of soda bread as there are cooks. Andrew McCarthy goes in search of the ultimate recipe."

Andrew McCarthy?

Like the Andrew McCarthy from Pretty in Pink and St. Elmo's Fire and Less Than Zero? The same one I had a deep, abiding teenage crush on through much of the late eighties?

Well, obviously it wasn't really THAT Andrew McCarthy, though just the memory was enough to make me giggle. I had forgotten all about him, so seeing his name in print (and remembering how badly I had wanted a pink Karmann Ghia for my 16th birthday) was a funny little blast from the past that made me stop right there and read the article anyway. Even though I knew it wasn't THAT Andrew McCarthy.

The article was interesting, of course, like all food/travel articles tend to be for me, but since baking bread isn't high on my list of things to cook, I finished the story and, with nary a glance at the accompanying recipe, flipped back to the front of the mag to commence my cover-to-cover reading. The whole 80's flashback had already slipped my mind when I reached the Letter from the Editor on page 16 and saw, there at the top of the page, "[Y]es, he is that Andrew McCarthy of Brat Pack fame."

Well, I'll be.

The absurdity was almost enough for me to go ahead and try the recipe. I already had all the ingredients on hand, after all, and I do love fresh bread, but, I mean really. Andrew McCarthy?

Maybe if Christian Slater had written the article...

So the bread was forgotten, in favor of Molly Wizenberg's British flapjack recipe (the only recipe that really caught my eye in the whole issue) and I tossed the magazine onto the menu desk, with the page turned down for the flapjacks, where it got pushed aside to make room for the baby squirrel and his shoebox (which is another story altogether).

Life went on, though the Psychedelic Furs stayed in my head on perpetual playback for a few days, as always happens when I come upon mention of a Brat Packer's arrest or addiction recovery or what-have-you.

Then, while skimming Facebook status updates on my phone a few weeks later, bored because everyone was yammering on about the Oscars (which interest me not), I saw more than a couple updates that mentioned The Brat Pack, Molly Ringwald's appearance and the John Hughes tribute.


I mean, I might have actually watched The Oscars had I known Judd Nelson was going to be on.

But, and here is that embarrassing admission that I brought up lo these many paragraphs ago (because, yes, there are more embarrassing things than admitting to crushes on Andrew McCarthy and thinking John Hughes was a directorial genius), the first thing I did was dig for that soda bread recipe, because, suddenly, its tenuous connection to John Hughes was enough to make me want to bake it. Are there support groups for people like me?

Hi, my name is Sarah and I bake bread from recipes that appear in articles written by people who were in movies I was enamored with 25 years ago.

Like I said though (if anyone is still paying attention and is still able to take me at all seriously), this bread was deliciousness-itself and I ended up baking it not once, but twice, within a few days. See, I am no good at bread, so any trained monkey could handle this recipe if I managed to pull it together two times.

It is a quick bread, with none of the fussiness involved with expiration dates on yeast and multiple rising times and dough punching and all of the other nonsense that always trips me up when I try (and usually fail) at making ciabatta; and can be pulled together in less than an hour, including baking time.

The bread is rustic and beautifully dense, with a hint of sweet and a touch of sour, but it's best feature by far is it's craggy, crusty exterior. I could nibble all day on the crumbs that break off the crust when the bread is being sliced, and somehow, even with the density of the loaf and the coarseness of the crust, the bread itself is not dry, not overly heavy. It is perfect on it's own, torn off in chunks and served alongside chowder (as we had it the first night), but is a revelation when sliced, toasted and slathered in butter and FROG jam (as the kids and I ate it every morning for breakfast).

The kids were huge fans, and they virtually begged me to bake it again when the first loaf was finished. As for myself, I'm kind of in love with this bread. I can only hope this crush lasts longer than the one I had on a certain actor.


MRS. O'CALLAGHAN'S SODA BREAD (makes one loaf, adapted from Bon Appetit)
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 cup chilled butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees, and grease heavy baking sheet with nonstick spray.
  2. Whisk the flours, sugar and baking soda in a medium bowl.
  3. Cut the butter into the flour mixture until the butter is in pea-size pieces.
  4. Add buttermilk, and stir until shaggy dough forms.
  5. Turn dough out onto lightly floured work surface. Knead until dough comes together, about 10 turns. Dough will still have visible folds and will not be smooth and elastic.
  6. Shape dough into imperfect oval, maybe 9-inch-ish by 4-inch-ish. (the "-ish" should be embraced here).
  7. Cut large X, 1/2-inch deep, in top of dough.
  8. Bake bread for 40 to 50 minutes, until deep brown and bottom sounds hollow when firmly tapped.


Mo said...

A fun thing we do with soda bread is make smaller loaves, cut the top off, scoop out some of the bread and then you have a great edible bowl for soup!! We eat the bowls as we spoon out the soup.
Potato and leek being my favourite combo on that.
Happy Scottish Mother's Day to you!!

Sarah Beam said...

Extra nice tip there, Mo. I think I'm going to try that this week. Happy Scottish Mother's Day to you, too.

Jennifer Jo said...

1. What's FROG jam?

2. What did you think of Molly's flapjacks? Or didn't you make them yet?

3. The Oscars? What Oscars?

4. I'm wanting to make the Irish Soda Bread, but I have a feeling that I'll be the only one who'll enjoy it---the rest of the family is fully dedicated to sourdough. But I won't know for sure till I try, right?

Sarah Beam said...

JJ, FROG jam is some super cool stuff. The name is an acronym (fig, raspberry, orange, ginger), and we buy it from a local farm. The kids LOVE asking for frog jam on their toast.

I have not yet made the flapjacks yet, and I'm pretty sure the recipe has been buried under squirrel paraphernalia again. Try the bread. Who cares if the rest of the family likes it, right?

Dee said...

This was really a good bread. I think my kneading technique needs work. Thanks for the recipe.

Sarah Beam said...

Dee, I'm a lousy kneader. I decided, though, that lame kneading technique actually creates a better soda bread because it results in more crags and crevices.

Leslie said...

I am so excited to try this! I've just recently started baking bread and I've tried only one recipe so far. I have two questions:
--what do you cook this on/in? Baking pan? Casserole dish?
--do you store it in something so that it stays fresh?

I've been leaving the bread in a ceramic dish on my counter (with a lid), but I wonder if there is a better way to store the bread so it retains its freshness.

Sarah Beam said...

Leslie, I bake the bread on a very large jelly-roll pan (very similar to a cookie sheet, only heavier). For storing, I use a plastic bread bag saved from loaves purchased from the bakery, and I keep it in the fridge. The last loaf lasted 4 or 5 days.

Leslie said...