When I was a kid my Mother wouldn’t let me eat Lucky Charms breakfast cereal. She said they were too sugary, and while I suspect she was correct, I still yearn for those hard little marshmallows. There was something so wrong about them that they were oh so right. I only mention all of this because I am trying to highlight how un-Irish I am. Yes, my name is Michael, a name not uncommon to the Irish, but even if you dressed me in a green suit, stuck a pot of gold in my hand, stood me at the end of a rainbow, and made me shower with Irish Spring for a month, I still wouldn’t be Irish. Not unless my forefathers traveled here from Minsk by way of Dublin.
Hey, what are you gonna do?
I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do: I’m gonna bake Irish Soda Bread. And I’m gonna bake the most authentic Irish Soda Bread you ever tasted, even if it takes hours of research and travel.
Conveniently, Bon Appétit magazine just published an article about actor / writer Andrew McCarthy’s drive through Ireland looking for what he thought of as the perfect, true Irish Soda bread, saving me countless hours, and thousands of dollars in travel expenses.
(You may remember McCarthy as one of the “Brat Pack” stars of ‘80’s films like St. Elmo’s Fire and Pretty In Pink.)
Irish Soda Bread is really a lesson in the chemistry of leavening. As its name implies, it relies on baking soda for its rise as opposed to the yeast that is used in other breads. Baking soda requires an acid to work, so a generous dose of buttermilk (a heavy duty source of lactic acid), along with a bit of butter are the sources of moisture in most soda bread recipes. The buttermilk plus a generous ration of sugar give it the familiar gluey sweetness everyone expects.
The recipe printed in Bon Appétit magazine, Mrs. O’Callaghan’s Soda Bread, appealed to me because it uses a mix of regular flour and whole wheat flour, promising a truly rustic brown bread. I was hoping for the sweetness and richness you expect from soda bread, along with the ascetic, rough hewn character that whole wheat flour brings to the mix. (Reminds me of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, but in bread instead of in The Quiet Man.)
I hasten to add that I do not have a great deal of experience baking Irish Soda Bread. It was not something I saw with much frequency as a kid. As an adult I have noticed that much of the Irish Soda Bread that hits the shelves in anticipation of St. Patty’s Day tastes more like a big buttermilk scone studded with raisins and, sometimes, caraway seeds. What I liked about Mrs. O’Callaghan’s recipe was that none of that silly stuff is invited to the party. I also liked the fact that the Mrs. O’Callaghan quoted in the article (she bakes the bread for the Ballinalacken Castle Country House and Restaurant in Doolin) recommends a slice of her bread with a bit of butter and a slice of salmon.
I am making the dangerous assumption that she meant smoked salmon. True to any food-porn magazine’s mission, I could practically taste the smoked salmon as I read her recommendation. If I am going to be truthful here, I need to admit that pairing the sweet, wheaten bread with some oily, smoked salmon was my real motivation for trying the recipe.
On a lark I decided to also check out the recipe as posted at Bon Appétit’s website – and it’s a good thing I did. It seems that folks had some trouble with the recipe as printed in the magazine, so the editors went back to the drawing board, or in this case, the Test Kitchen, to make a few changes. For my money I think the 425˚F baking temperature is still a bit high. I may recommend dropping this to 400˚F, or even 375˚F and letting the loaf have a longer, slower bake. I was seriously worried that mine was going to burn. In any case, use the recipe on their website (linked below), not the one in the magazine, and keep your eye on the loaf towards the end of the baking time.
(By the way, I totally sympathize with the folks at the magazine. While baking is an exacting scientific endeavor, it can also be curiously inexact, captive to the vagaries of how my oven differs from yours, and whether you measured your flour by the dip and level method or by the scoop, fill, and level method.)
In spite of whatever problems there may have been translating the recipe from Mrs. O’Callaghan’s “little bit of this, little bit of that” measurements, the basic method for making soda bread can only be classified as easy. Very easy. Especially using a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer.
The bread itself was exactly as I had hoped. In the bargain, I have discovered a brown bread that is very easy to bake and that pairs well with smoked salmon. This will prove useful in my repertoire. A smear of butter, a slice of smoked salmon, a restrained rain shower of lemon, and I was a happy man. Granted, the bread was baked by me in New York, the butter was from Vermont, and the smoked salmon was Scottish. If not authentically Irish, then authentic in spirit, yes?
And on St. Patrick’s Day aren’t we all Irish?
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