Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Irish Soda Bread

The Joy of Cooking should be in every kitchen -- although some of the techniques and recipes are extremely outdated (I don't know anyone who really needs instructions on how to properly skin a seal and save the blubber) most of the information is relevant to the modern cook. It's especially helpful if you're looking for a basic recipe to build upon: their soup chapter, for example, is fabulous and offers unlimited opportunity to tweak and refine, which is something I often do in the kitchen. I'm especially partial to their chapter on Breads and Coffee Cakes, especially the Quick Breads section. In fact, most of their baking instructions are both simple and methodical, offering opportunity to experiment but retaining the essentials. Baking is basically chemistry, and I'm always concerned that a key part of my experiment will go awry if I deviate too much, but nothing that I've ever made from this cookbook has turned out wrong.
I mentioned their Quick Breads section, and I have to say that I'm quite averse to using yeast in doughs. It's not because I don't like it, per say, it just seems kind of frightening to me. I've branched out a bit recently: I've been making some pizza dough with surprising success that contains yeast, and I'm going to try a real loaf of bread at some point in the near future. I must conquer my fear of baking with yeast! I love baking, though, and I love breads, so I've made a whole slew of these quick breads from Joy. They're easy, fast, and most of them don't include yeast. Score! I always have success with their Zucchini Bread, and their Banana Bread recipe is great (although a bit boring, considering that there are banana breads out there that sound much more enticing. Ones with candied ginger and coconut. Hold me!) I have yet to try many of these quick loafs, however: honey bread, Sally Lunn (described as light and brioche-like) or Gugelhupf (which has white raisins in it!)
Last year for St. Patrick's day we made their quick Irish Soda bread, and it was both simple and fantastic. We'll certainly make it again this year, but with a few minor tweaks: I recall it being a bit bland. I will probably use a combination of butter and shortening instead of just shortening and I'll put in an extra pinch or two of sugar and salt. Also, this time I'll use real buttermilk: I have a habit of mixing white vinegar with regular milk to make buttermilk (did you know this trick? It works, but it's not as great -- at all -- as pure buttermilk. Simply add 1 tablespoon of vinegar to each 1 cup milk and stir. Allow it to sit on the counter for 10 to 15 minutes until the milk thickens: instant buttermilk!) I'll probably throw in an extra handful of raisins (which the recipe calls for instead of currants, a more traditional ingredient in Irish soda bread) and a few more caraway seeds for good measure. On the whole, though, this bread was extremely easy to make and has a wonderful texture. It's pretty hearty, and the recipe makes a gigantic loaf, so I might split it in half this time around: an 8-inch-round loaf that rises a few inches is a lot of bread for two people.

Quick Irish Soda Bread
Begin by preheating the oven to 375º and greasing an 8-inch round loaf pan. I always use a springform pan when I bake, not because it's any easier to deal with (although it is much easier to remove the bread from the pan!) but because I own three of them, in varying sizes. They were on sale and cost less than just buying one! How fortuitious. I recommend using a springform pan if you have one, because as I said before: it makes removing the bread extremely easy, but it's not necessary: a normal loaf pan should do just fine. Keep in mind, though, that the traditional way to serve Irish soda bread is in a round. I'm not sure why, exactly, but it's the traditional shape. Most likely because it's an easy shape to make. In case you were wondering, there are two types of traditional Irish soda bread: the round, which is crossed on the top in order to allow the loaf to expand, and a flat variety, called farl, which is found only in Northern Ireland.
As the oven preheats, mix together the following dry ingredients: 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour, 1-1/2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1 tablespoon sugar. As I said above, I may tweak this a bit, adding an extra pinch or two of the sugar and salt the next time around. I'm not sure, though -- I'm always afraid to mess with recipes like this! It's hard for me to tell what parts of it are integral to the "chemistry" aspect of baking and what parts are more malleable.
The next part of this recipe calls for chilled shortening, which is always a bit of a bugger. I keep my shortening in the pantry -- cool, but not chilly, by any means. So when I have to chill it, I simply measure the amount I need and pop it in the freezer for a few minutes until it's cold. In this case, I'll measure out 1/4 cup of shortening. After it's sufficiently chilly, cut it into the flour with a pastry blender until the mixture resembles cornmeal. As you probably guessed, I use my KitchenAid stand mixer for this and have never had any issues. What a great friend that little monster is! After the dough looks crumbly enough, add 1/2 a cup to 1 cup raisins (err on the side of too many, folks) and 2 teaspoons caraway seeds -- again, maybe 2 heaping teaspoons. On the side, mix together 1 egg and 2/3 a cup of buttermilk. Add to the dry ingredients and combine, but do not overmix. Overmixing causes the dough to be tough, resulting in a funny texture. Once the mixture is just combined, place the dough on a surface and knead, lightly, until the dough is smooth (or as smooth as it can possibly be, what with all the raisins and caraway seeds that are in there.) Place the dough in your greased pan and press down so it fills the pan entirely. With a knife, cut a "bold cross" in the top of the loaf -- this helps the bread expand and prevents cracking -- and brush the entire top with milk. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until the loaf has risen and is lightly browned.
This bread is an excellent accompaniment to stew or soup and is a delightful morning treat. It has to be eaten fairly quickly -- within two or three days -- due to the small air pockets in the loaf (formed by the reaction of the baking powder with the buttermilk, which has lactic acid in it) but you can stretch its life by toasting slices for breakfast.


Sarah said...

haha, i did know that trick...mostly because buttermilk doesn't exist in italy-surprise. and don't think i haven't asked a lot of shopowners, who obviously look at me like i'm a fat american who wants milk made of butter!

remember st. patty's day 2 years ago in south carolina? so fun! last year i made a bailey's chocolate cheesecake (YUMMERS!)...i think this year i'm not going to eat anything and see how many guinness i can drink-that's how st. patty would have wanted it!

Sarah said...

sorry, me again. just read this article....yes i'm actually leaving a relevant comment!

K8 said...

that article was pretty interesting, and she said a bunch of things that I didn't include in my post but considered -- the most important being that this really isn't a traditional recipe for soda bread, and it's more like a soda cake. Breads don't contain eggs and sugar, and authentic soda bread doesn't have raisins or currants in it.
The reason that I'd rather use this recipe, though, has to do with the crumbling factor: authentic soda bread recipes tend to produce bread that turns stale almost immediately after it cools. If I were serving the loaf to a party of twelve, that would be fine, but for two people? I want a bread that can stick around for a few days in the fridge before it's inedible.
That was the best St. Patrick's day ever, in the history of all St. Patrick's days. What an awesome day. Can't I be in college still? Stupid real life! Hahahhahah.
Speaking of not being in college still, I stayed up really late last night (way past my normal bedtime of 9:00) putting together a package for you! I think I had more fun wrapping it than you'll have opening it -- beware: I love packing tape. A whole lot. You'll need a sharp knife to pry that thing open! HAHAHHAHAH!!!
Miss you! You almost got me to write an entire post here in the comments, what with all the topics I had to discuss...!

Susan said...

You can certainly tweak this recipe by any/all of these methods:
1 adding more sugar to the mixture,
2 adding more raisins/currants,
3 scattering and pressing sugar into the top of the bread right before you bake it, and
4 replacing some of the shortening with butter.

Butter is where the flavor is and works similarly to vegetable shortening whether you are substituting it for a cool solid or melted fat.

And don't worry about working with yeast. There's a relatively new quick rise strain that cuts the wait time (and fret time). Sally Lunn, is a batter style bread, among the easiest and most delicious. When the time comes, I'd be glad to step you through.

(Thanks, by the way!)

K8 said...

Hi Susan!
Thanks for those suggestions. I do like the idea of pressing some sugar on top and replacing some shortening with butter. I agree: butter will definitely give this bread a bit more flavor and probably a bit more "oomph" in the texture department as well. I'll use the sugar on top sparingly, if at all, because this bread doesn't really have a "sweet" attitude -- it's more stoic, in my opinion.
I'm trying to get over my mental roadblock concerning yeast -- maybe it's just because it's something that grows. I think I just have to get my hands dirty and experiment a bit with it to get over my fear.
Thanks for all the ideas, and for visiting!

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