Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Irish soda bread

Ah, it's March 17th.  A day when it's more than acceptable expected for a person to scramble to find any possible connection with Ireland.  Half Irish?  Even a quarter?  Maybe no family history but a friend of your old neighbor vacationed there a few years ago?  Close enough!  Being in Pittsburgh, a city that certainly revels in its Saint Patrick's Day (or the weekend before) celebrations, one might just think it's an excuse to consume an excess of alcoholic beverages.  Well, yes, but it's so much more.

Actually, this day that honors one of the patron saints of Ireland was formerly a Christian holiday that eventually became an official feast day in the early 1600s.  In the year 432, Patrick, now a bishop, claims that he was called back to his homeland of Ireland to convert both the rich and poor -- his mission was successful.

A few other random facts:
--That little green symbol we all associate with March 17th?  Irish folklore tells that one of Patrick's teaching methods included his use of the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to the pre-Christian Irish people.
--Blue was the first color associated with Saint Patrick.  However, with the increase in popularity of the shamrock as an image of the holiday, the color green was adopted as early as the 17th century.
--Pittsburgh hosted its first Saint Patrick's Day parade in 1869.  The first recorded parade, at least in the States, was held in Boston in the year 1737.  No surprises there.

Okay, okay, on with the food!  [triumphant march]  First and foremost, this bread shouldn't be hidden away 364 days a year, only to be unveiled on March 17th and never to be seen again until the next year.  It's a fantastic breakfast bread.  Or, as my friends from Friday night Hillel dinners would say, a perfect "pick apart and hollow out with your fingers" bread.  You can take the more mature route of cutting clean pieces, but something about diving into a loaf of rustic, warm bread with friends around a table just sets a perfect scene of comfort and good cheer.  The Irish wouldn't have it any other way, would they?

Don't hesitate to microwave a piece of bread for a few seconds to warm and slather with butter or your favorite preserves... or, heck, Nutella.  Mm, that reminds me.  I need to pick up some Nutella from the store this weekend.

Happy Saint Patrick's Day, one and all!  A wonderful coworker brought in Eat 'n Park shamrock smiley cookies.  Helloooooo, morning snack:

How are you going to celebrate today?

Irish Soda Bread
(adapted from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook)
-makes one 8-inch loaf

Notes: The original recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of caraway seeds.  The first time I made this I followed every last detail, but I've made very detailed notes to cut back on the caraway seeds -- they have a very strong flavor.  But if you're a fan of anise flavor (think the predominant taste in rye bread), by all means, use the full amount.

4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold, cut into small pieces
2 cups raisins (I used regular, but any kind will do)
1 large whole egg, plus 1 large egg yolk
scant (just less than) 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon milk

Preheat oven to 350F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.  In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, caraway seeds, baking powder and salt.  Using a pastry blender or fork, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs with a few scattered large clumps remaining.  Stir in raisins.

In a medium bowl, whisk together whole egg, buttermilk, and baking soda until combined.  Pour egg mixture into the flour mixture and, using a rubber spatula, fold in, working in all directions until all crumbs at the bottom of the bowl are moist and dough comes together.  Dump dough onto center of lined baking sheet and, with lightly floured hands, form dough into a round domed loaf, about 8 inches in diameter.

In a small bowl, lightly beat together the egg yolk and milk, and brush over the entire loaf.  With a sharp knife, cut a cross, about 3/4 inch deep, in the center of the top of the loaf.  Bake, rotating sheet halfway through, until deep golden brown and a cake tested inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean, about 1 hour and 10 minutes.  Transfer the bread to a wire rack to cool completely.  (Optional: For some extra indulgence, I brushed melted butter over the top of the bread when it first came out of the oven.  Not necessary, but when did butter ever ruin anything?)

This bread, like all breads in my opinion, is best eaten warm the day it was baked.  However, it will keep at room temperature, wrapped well in plastic, for up to 5 days. 

1 comment:

  1. I've also heard that ancient Irish folklore says that St. Patrick used to walk around Ireland telling people to "kiss his Blarney Stone."