Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Brown Soda Bread

In honor of St. Patrick's Day today, and my love for all things Irish, this week will boast two traditional Irish favorites. And by traditional, I mean the real thing- not an Americanized, "fusion" style Irish dish, full of butter or raisins or seeds, etc, but something that could have appeared on any family's table in Ireland. Our first Irish recipe is soda bread, which happens to be one of the easiest ways to bring a little taste of traditional Ireland to your home. And did I mention that it tastes a lot better than pre-packaged corned beef that shares a frightening resemblance to spam?

In an interview on epicurious, Irish chef Rory O'Connell explains exactly what soda bread is: "What we would consider to be a basic table bread—what we call a brown soda bread, which is made with whole-meal flour, or a white soda bread, which is with white flour—is just flour, bread soda, buttermilk, and salt. That's the basic recipe. The white flour would have been more refined than the whole-meal flour, so that would have been for a slightly more special occasion."

To me, the most interesting thing about soda bread is the cross that always appears on the top. It actually has a scientific, as well as cultural, meaning. Cutting a cross in the top of the loaf allows the heat of the oven to more easily penetrate into the thickest part of the bread, helping it to cook faster and more evenly. Symbolically, the cross is the shape of a crucifix, which seems very appropriate in a Catholic country like Ireland. It also allows the bread to break more evenly into 4 parts.

Soda bread should be eaten on the day of baking, preferably with a healthy dose of butter or jam. Serve it with soup, fresh vegetables, or, if you insist, corned beef and cabbage.

Brown Soda Bread
from Irish Food and Cooking
Pictures by Caroline

4 cups whole-wheat flour
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups buttermilk
  1. Preheat the oven to 400° and grease a baking sheet. Combine the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl and stir in enough buttermilk to make a fairly soft dough. Turn on to a work surface dusted with flour and mix lightly just until smooth.
  2. Form the dough into a circle , about 1 1/2 inch thick. Lay on the baking sheet and mark a deep cross in the top with a floured knife.
  3. Bake about 45 minutes, or until the bread is browned and sounds hollow when tapped on the base. Cool on a wire rack. If you prefer a soft crust, wrap the loaf in a clean dishtowel while cooling.

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