Soda Bread (not just for the Irish)
Is it just wishful thinking or are there really somewhat fewer green glitter shamrocks (and similar) this year? Not that I have anything against the good Saint, and I know Irish immigrants have made huge contributions. But it’s always seemed like a bit of a stretch to make the thing into a National Holiday. The only reason I can see is that, Easter being a movable feast, you have to be sure there’s something you can celebrate in March.
On the other hand, it’s useful to be reminded of soda bread and potatoes, two splendid foodstuffs that get a lot less respect than they should.
Soda bread fresh out of the oven. The funny looking butter pat is because the very good cultured butter is packaged in a fat plastic tube (the better to preserve its freshness, I assume), by Vermont Butter and Cheese.
Properly made, with a good proportion of fresh whole wheat flour, without any fat or sugar, this is probably the loveliest, most intensely bread-tasting bread you can make without yeast: crisp crusted, tender crumbed, the partner for which butter was invented – or so it seems when you have that first chunk. It takes less than 5 minutes to prepare and about 40 minutes to bake, so adding in oven heating time you arrive at a one hour wonder. Admittedly, it doesn’t stay wonderful too much longer than that; but omigod, what terrific toast.
A word about oven-enhancement: Putting this on a flat pan and baking it will produce delicious bread. Putting it in a heated iron kettle and covering same with a hot iron lid will produce bread that is delicious plus. (The cast iron evens out oven heat and the lid traps steam, enabling you to get a crust that’s crisp without being hard. ) This technique got a recent boost from Mark Bittman, who uses it to good effect for a no-knead “European-style boule”, but of course it’s nothing new. They don’t call those kettles Dutch ovens for nothin.’
Actually, this is a chicken fryer – terrific pan, btw, just like a Dutch oven but shorter – given the necessary height with a make-do lid.
For one 8 to 9 inch round
1 ¼ cups unbleached flour
1 ½ tsp. salt
1 tsp baking soda
2 ¼ cups whole wheat flour*
@1 ½ cups buttermilk
cornmeal to sprinkle on the pan
1. Heat the oven to 425. If using an iron pot, put it and the lid in to heat up about 5 minutes before you start the dough.
2. Put the unbleached flour, soda and salt in a large bowl and stir with a wire whisk until well combined. Stir in the whole wheat flour.
3. Using a wooden spoon, make a well in the flour and pour in most of the buttermilk. Mix thoroughly, quickly, adding additional buttermilk as needed until you have a soft, slightly sticky dough. Lightly flour your hands, reach in and knead just enough to bring everything together, then form the dough into a round.
4. Sprinkle cornmeal on the baking sheet or the bottom of the hot heavy pot. Place the dough on it, seam side down. Use a sharp thin-bladed knife to cut a cross about ½ inch deep into the top of the bread. Put on the hot heavy lid, if using, and put the pan in the oven.
Ready to bake. You can’t really see it but the cornmeal is smoking slightly. Not to worry.
5. Check after 30 minutes. The bread should be well risen and brown. If it’s still on the pale gold side, give it a few more minutes, still under cover if you’re using a lid.
Tarting it up in traditional fashion: stir in 1 teaspoon caraway seeds when you stir in the whole wheat flour and stir in 3/4 cup of plump raisins when the dough is approaching complete but has not yet come together.
Eat it while it’s still hot, if possible
* Whole wheat flour is pretty much it in the flavoring department, so quality really matters. If yours has been sitting around for a while, treat yourself to a new sack. The bread in the picture was made with a combination of King Arthur Organic Whole Wheat, available ( mirabile dictu! Who’d have thought it in the old days) at large supermarkets, and Wild Hive Farm Wholegrain Soft White Winter Wheat, which we buy – along with the butter – at Adams.
A garden miracle, easy to plant, easy to care for, tremendous yields, and a terrific thing to plant with kids. More about planting at planting time ( soon but not yet) . Right now, the thing to know is that time is running out for ordering from one of my favorite sources, Moose Tubers (Fedco) 45 varieties to choose from but only until March 14th. After that, there’s always Wood Prairie Farm, a far slicker but no less trustworthy establishment.