Irish Soda Bread

Week Four: Savory Quick Breads

After the sugar rush of this weekend (poppy seed bread and cinnamon rolls!), I need something savory.  And, if I’m honest, my schedule this week really doesn’t permit me to spend the time needed for a good yeast bread.  I need something fast, that I can just throw together without even thinking about it.  I need a savory quick bread.

A quick google for “savory quick bread” turns up… a whole lot of nothing but random recipes from untested, untrusted sources.  A glance at Food Network’s website and Epicurious.com reveals a few savory bread puddings, but not a whole lot else.  But surely, in all of human history, there must have been some hurried cook with no sugar, who just had to throw together some sort of non-sweet bread, and fast.  Not to mention that just from my own experience, I know there’s some recipes out there.  Thanks for nothing, internets; it’s up to me to fill in the gap.  Thinking for a moment on the subject, I quickly recall not only a few types of bread, but several favorite recipes, given places of honor in my culinary repertoire.  Cornbread is a classic example of a savory quick bread, despite the Northern tendency to add a bit of sugar to the batter.  (Full disclosure: I actually prefer Northern-style cornbread, fluffy and just sweet enough to bring out the flavor of the cornmeal, over the flatter, much more savory Southern cornbread.)  Another favorite is a popover, more air than bread, really, but incomparably delicious.  But noticing the chill outside, the perfect bread for today is Irish Soda Bread.

Apparently, many Americans have an idea of soda bread that includes an ultra-rich dough with sugar and eggs, caraway seeds, raisins, and nuts.  But I’ve truthfully never run across such a thing; or, if I have, it was called something else.  And if you really want to nit-pick, that is not Irish Soda Bread.  If it’s got raisins, it’s called Spotted Dick, or Spotted Dog.  If it’s got sugar, etc., then it’s a cake.  True Irish Soda Bread, the kind I’m more accustomed to, is made of nothing but flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk.  (This recipe takes some liberty with that restrictive list, but the result is just wonderful.)

Soda bread first originated in Ireland with the introduction of (wait for it…) baking soda.  Amazing, I know.  But the timing of its arrival is what cemented its, um, popularity: it showed up around 1840.  What else happened in the early 1840s?  Yes, the Great Potato Famine.  Their main source of food gone, the Irish made do with what they could: flour, baking soda, salt, and soured milk, all cheap foods, all somewhat available.  So the bread didn’t exactly become popular because of its own virtues, but those virtues have certainly helped it stand the test of time.  Thick-crusted, but not impossibly so, crunchy and soft at the same time, crumbly yet slice-able, the mild flavor just enough to accompany any food, yet not overwhelm.

I usually like to make whole-wheat soda bread, which is called Brown or Wheaten Bread in various parts of Ireland.  I think the rustic shape of the loaf is perfectly complemented by the grainy texture of whole-wheat flour, and it tends to stand on its own a little better, whereas white soda bread is best eaten with something.  And thinking about it, I don’t remember ever having made white soda bread before, so I thought I’d give it a go.  I think my dough was a little wet, because it was very sticky to work with, and ended up just a bit too dense for my taste.  But the flavor was spot on, with that lovely slight tanginess from the buttermilk, and the crust was crunchy and thick.  I think I still prefer a brown soda bread; but toast a few wedges of this and serve it with a hearty soup, and it just doesn’t get much better on these frigid winter nights.  Though it takes a while to bake and cool, his bread comes together so quickly (the quicker, the better, actually) that you can throw it in the oven, make your main dish, and they’ll be ready to eat at about the same time.  A classic pairing would be Beef and Guinness stew, but why not put it with your favorite chili recipe?  Lentil soup would be a natural, as would a simple (but so good!) Potato and Leek soup.  As for leftovers, I can easily see cubes of this bread crisped in an oven and served as croutons in a salad.  Or if, like me, you’re already brainstorming for next Thanksgiving (what?), crumble half a stale loaf into your favorite cornbread dressing, and have everyone guessing at what you added that made it so good!  It’s super versatile, super savory, and super delicious – you can’t go wrong.

 

Classic Irish Soda Bread
From Cook’s Illustrated The Best Recipe
3 cups low-protein all-purpose flour, such as Pillsbury, plus more for work surface
1 cup cake flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, plus 1 tablespoon melted butter for brushing on crust
1 1/2 cups buttermilk

1.  Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees.  Whisk flours, sugar, baking soda, cream of tartar, and salt together in large bowl.  Work softened butter into dry ingredients with fork or fingertips until texture resembles coarse crumbs.

2.  Add buttermilk and stir with a fork just until dough begins to come together.  Turn out onto flour-coated work surface; knead until dough just becomes cohesive and bumpy, 12 to 14 turns.  Do not knead until dough is smooth, or bread will be tough.

3.  Pat dough into a round about 6 inches in diameter and 2 inches high; place on greased or parchment-lined baking sheet.  Score dough by cutting cross shape on  top of loaf.

4.  Bake until golden brown and a skewer inserted into center of loaf comes out clean or internal temperature reaches 180 degrees, 40 to 45 minutes.  Remove from oven and brush with melted butter; cool to room temperature, 30 to 40 minutes.

 

Notes:
1.  As with all quick breads, speed is the key.  The more quickly you can get it in the oven, the better.  Also, the less you stir or otherwise handle the bread, the less tough it will be.
2.  Feel free to add herbs to this as you like.  Rosemary or sage would be wonderful.

This entry was posted in Quick Breads, Savory. Bookmark the permalink.