Rumor has it that I’m Irish-ish. And by that I mean that we had a Murphy somewhere in my bloodline so it is my duty as an Irish-woman to saturate my liver in whiskey in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. The problem is that I was born in the south (of the new world, not Ireland) and have a taste for that “rough around the edges” American whiskey which is no way to pay homage to my Irish roots. So, I decided my best bet for honoring my heritage is to try to bake something Irish. Partly because I like baking and partly because I’ll need something to soak up all that whiskey.
And thus begins our quest to make Irish Soda Bread.
The first thing I wanted to know is what makes it Irish and I looked it up but I got bored before I really got to the bottom of that mystery. Then I wanted to know why it was called “Soda” bread. Turns out it gets its leavening from baking soda instead of yeast. One mystery solved is good enough for me. So, I started hunting down recipes.
And the plot thickens…
You see, “traditionalists” insist that Irish Soda Bread is just a bread leavened by baking soda and is not sweet and does not include fruit or any fun additives. I suspected this bread might suck.
Modern day cooks seemed to prefer a recipe that traditionalists called “cake” but it had raisins (usually) or other dried fruit and included sugar measured by cups instead of by teaspoonfuls. I suspected this bread did not suck.
But, being the Irish Soda Bread novice that I am, I decided to be true to my roots and at least try to make a traditional Irish Soda Bread and see how it went. I would then make this Irish Soda Bread Non-Traditional-Cakey-Version and compare and contrast.
So, I donned apron! I covered my laptop in plastic wrap to protect it from flying flour and any unfortunate spills (it works great, I recommend it if you also use your laptop for recipes in the kitchen). I flung cabinets open gathering supplies. I removed the cat from a cabinet. I assaulted my pantry in my quest for baking necessities. I removed the cat from the pantry. I pulled needed ingredients from the fridge. I considered making the cat an outdoor cat.
I selected my traditional recipe from my copy of The World Encyclopedia of Bread and Bread Making. This book was obviously European – it called for “Bicarbonate of Soda.” Have you ever heard of a more pretentious-sounding way of saying ‘baking soda’? It’s also in metric. Good thing I’m an engineer because I can convert units all day…but I didn’t have to because lo and behold, there’s the conversion right there on the page. Ok European-bread-making-authors, that redeems you for the pretentious name for baking soda.
Here’s the ingredient list:
- 2 Cups Unbleached Plain Flour
- 2 Cups Wholemeal Flour
- 1 Tsp. Salt
- 2 Tsp. Bicarbonate of Soda
- 2 Tsp. Cream of Tartar
- 3 Tbsp. Butter or Lard
- 1 Tsp. Caster Sugar
- 1 1/2 Cups to 1 2/3 Cups Buttermilk
Well, first obstacle is to figure out what “plain flour” might translate to over here in the colonies. For all I know there might be a choice of “plain flour” in my local mega mart but my choices are limited by what’s in the pantry because I’d already been to the grocery store once and have you SEEN a Publix in Georgia on a Sunday afternoon? It’s bedlam. So, my choices are Bread Flour, All Purpose Flour, Cake Flour, Self Rising Flour, and Whole Wheat Flour. Yes, I may need a flour intervention – all of these were really in my pantry. And if that wasn’t bad enough, I had five 5-lb. bags of all-purpose flour. I’m a little anxious about the idea of running out of flour so I was buying a new bag every time I went to the grocery store. Finally my roommate begged me to cease and desist because our pantry was becoming more of a “flour room” than a pantry. I am proud to say that like Charlie Sheen, I have cured myself of my incessant need to buy flour with my mind and haven’t bought any all-purpose flour since before Christmas. Although I’m down to 5 bags so I might want to put it back on the grocery list.
The sheer volume of all-purpose flour in my pantry was all the fodder I needed to presume that it would be a good “plain flour.” Likewise, while I only have one bag of whole wheat flour, I presumed this was a good equivalent for the wholemeal flour the recipe called for.
Salt – finally an ingredient I’m sure about. I used table salt because for baking the finer the grain the better. I use kosher or sea salt usually for cooking and table salt for baking.
As we already discussed, “Bicarbonate of Soda” is baking soda over here in the new territories.
I have plenty of cream of tartar in the pantry. It’s often used in meringues and since I make lots of pies, I typically have it on hand. I just presumed it’s the same stuff they’d use in Europe.
While I typically have lard on hand because I’m an old-fashioned southern girl and we use our lard in lots of down home cooking, bless my biscuits, I’m out of it…but since I buy butter with the same obsessive compulsive whim that oversees my flour-purchasing binges, we always have butter. Never margarine, always butter.
And, in case you’ve never heard of it, caster sugar is sugar that’s finer than granulated sugar but not as fine as powdered sugar. I didn’t have any (its hard to find) but no worries, you can just dump some granulated sugar into the old food processor and run a blade around it for a few pulses and then not only do you have some super fine sugar but you also get to inhale a nice little dust cloud of sugar. Or if you’re more patient than I am, you can just let the food processor sit closed while the sugar dust settles.
And buttermilk is something else I like to keep on hand for making biscuits so I did have some of that but if you don’t have any, Google is your friend here. You can use a mixture of regular milk and either vinegar or lemon juice as a substitute for buttermilk if you’re out and it works great every time.
The recipe requires you to sift together the dry ingredients and then “rub in” the butter (or lard). If you don’t know what it means to “rub in” the butter, you just want to use your finger tips to pinch the flour and butter together until you get the mixture to the consistency of coarse crumbs. The key is to use very cold butter (you might even consider putting it in the freezer for a few minutes) because you do not want the butter to melt. So you’ll have to work quickly and use only your finger tips because the heat from your hands will cause the butter to soften and melt even faster.
Then the instructions tell you to add just enough of the buttermilk to form a loose dough. The instructions also warn you that if you overwork the dough your bread will get tough, you’ll be dubbed a horrible baker, men will shun you, you’ll never get married, and you’ll die alone in a house with 18 cats which will then eat your face. So, with great trepidation I added about 3/4 of the buttermilk in my measuring cup and prayed as I started stirring.
But it didn’t seem wet enough…so I added the rest and I stirred but I did so very anxiously because I didn’t want to overwork the dough. And as soon as I got it to where I thought it might hold together, I dumped it onto the floured board and lo and behold, things just fell apart from there.
I could not get the dough to stay together. I really needed to add more buttermilk but at this point that would mean more stirring. So I had an internal debate about which is worse: dense bread that is hard as a hockey puck from working it too much or bread that’s a little dry. As my life with 18 cats flashed before my eyes, I decided to go for dry non-hockey-puck-ish. I shaped it into a round as best I could, put it onto a greased sheet pan, and I prayed as I cut the traditional X in the top and slid it into a 375 degree oven.
And then…the downward spiral started. I began to fret that I’d chosen poorly, that I should have added more buttermilk or tried to spritz the dough with water to coax it into cooperation. I had to resist the urge to call my mother bawling and apologizing that I’d never be able to give her grandchildren now and that I hoped she could learn to love my 18 cats even if they did eat off my face. But I feared a phone call of that nature would upset her needlessly. So I did what any good Irish girl would do – I grabbed the whiskey, fixed a drink, and started cleaning the dishes – since somehow it seemed that I’d dirtied every single solitary dish in the kitchen already and I still had that other type of Irish Soda Bread to make.
And as I cleaned and drank a miraculous thing happened – delicious bready smells started to fill up my kitchen. And I had a shimmering moment of hope that all might be saved and that my bread might be edible. And when the timer finally counted off the last seconds, those hopes were dashed when this scary looking loaf came out of the oven (I didn’t even rotate the picture because it’s still just as ugly right-side-up):
But I held off final judgement for the taste test. And who better to force feed a baked item to that I don’t want to eat than my roommate? I fixed her a little plate with warm bread, some butter and jelly and got all the way to the top of the stairs before I realized she was taking a nap. So I had to resort to an alternate taste tester:
I did taste the traditional Irish Soda Bread and my original hypothesis that it could suck was right on. It sucked. Don’t get me wrong, it was totally edible with enough butter and jelly on it but it just tasted flour-y and dry and even though I’m sure the majority of the reason for this was my error in judgement regarding how much liquid to use in the dough, I don’t think a moist version of this would have been any tastier.
I cut my losses, decided to feed this loaf to the birds, and moved on to the non-traditional cake-style Irish Soda Bread. After all, I figured it couldn’t be worse than this one. Was I right? You’ll have to wait and see.
To be continued….