Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Simple soda bread's flavor takes the cake
Lightly crumbly, with the pleasant tang of good buttermilk, raisin-studded soda bread is an easygoing delight. In Irish homes, of course, it's a staple on the tea table, and everyone knows cooks who can make a good sweet loaf in minutes -- without measuring.
In fact, soda bread is more dessert than bread. It was once referred to as "cake of bread," writes the late English author Elizabeth David in her seminal work, "English Bread and Yeast Cookery." The "cake" part was used to distinguish the bread from a sandwich loaf.
Freshly baked, crusty-edged slices of soda bread are splendid with salted butter and preserves, or with cheese. Once you've decided to head to the kitchen to bake, it's just as easy to make two as it is to make one. The extra is a thoughtful, neighborly gift.
Nearly childlike in its simplicity, soda bread dough is moist, lightly spiced with freshly grated nutmeg, and sweetened. Both baking powder and baking soda go into this version, though the original breads were soda only. Enrich the dough with several tablespoons of butter and egg yolks.
In fact, the butter, yolks, sugar, and vanilla extract distinguish the bread, making it a reconfigured and enhanced version of the classic. More precisely, you've made what David calls a soda "cake," as the traditional model of soda bread is based on four ingredients: whole - wheat flour, buttermilk, baking soda (this reacts with thick, fresh buttermilk to make the bread rise), and salt. While the basic formula uses all-purpose flour, you can replace 1 cup of it with whole-wheat flour. The robust flour creates a noticeably denser, but no less appealing, bread.
The method for mixing the dough resembles biscuit or scone-making. First you take the cold butter and reduce it to pea-size dabs in the bowl of dry ingredients. After whisking the buttermilk, yolks, and vanilla together, pour the wet ingredients into the dry, scatter the mixture with golden raisins, and form a moist dough with a wooden spoon. Knead it gently by patting and turning it in the bowl, before easing in onto a floured counter and dividing it into two plump balls.
Once you settle the rounds on the baking sheet, then slash and sugar the tops, it is only a matter of waiting 40 minutes before the sweetly aromatic breads can be pulled from the oven.
Country-style loaves are hard to resist, but let them rest for half an hour before savoring something beautifully fresh, handmade, and familiar.
Raisin soda breads
The baking sheet that holds these soda breads must be heavy or the bottoms may brown before the interiors are baked through.
4 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
6 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
6 Tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1 1/2 cups thick buttermilk
2 egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups golden raisins
extra flour (for sprinkling)
2 Tablespoons crystallized or granulated sugar (for sprinkling)
1. Set the oven at 375 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, 6 tablespoons of sugar, and nutmeg. Scatter the chunks of butter over the flour and, using a pastry blender or two blunt knives, cut the fat into the flour until it reduces to pea-size bits.
3. In another bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, egg yolks, and vanilla. Pour the liquids over the flour mixture and scatter the raisins on top. Use a wooden spoon to stir the mixture to form a moist dough. Knead the dough lightly in the bowl for 15 seconds.
4. On a lightly floured counter, divide the dough in half. Form each half into a well-domed ball measuring 5 to 5 1/2 inches in diameter. Place each ball on the baking sheet, spacing them about 5 inches apart. With a small, sharp knife, slash the top in the shape of a cross ( 1/4- to 1/2-inch deep). Sprinkle the top of each dough ball with 1 tablespoon granulated or crystallized sugar.
5. Bake the breads for 40 minutes or until they are set and golden. Transfer to wire racks and cool for 30 minutes.
Makes 2 loaves
— Lisa Yockelson
Oatmeal-walnut soda bread
2 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 3/4 cups buttermilk
1 cup walnuts
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cake flour
1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
extra all-purpose flour (for shaping)
1 Tablespoon melted butter (for brushing)
1. In a medium bowl, combine 2 cups of the oats with the buttermilk. Set aside for 1 hour.
2. Set the oven at 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
3. Spread the walnuts on a rimmed baking sheet. Toast them in the oven for 5 to 10 minutes or until fragrant. Cool and chop coarsely.
4. In a bowl, whisk the remaining 1/2 cup oats, all-purpose flour, cake flour, whole-wheat flour, brown sugar, baking soda, cream of tartar, and salt. Work in the soft butter with your fingertips until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
5. Add the buttermilk mixture and walnuts to the flour mixture. Stir with a fork just until the dough comes together.
6. Turn the mixture out onto a lightly floured board. Knead lightly until the dough becomes cohesive and bumpy, not smooth or the dough will be tough.
7. Pat the dough into a 6-inch round that is 2 inches high. Transfer the bread to the baking sheet. With a paring knife, mark a 3/4-inch-deep cross on top of the dough. Set the baking sheet in the oven and bake the bread for 45 to 55 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean.
8. Remove the loaf from the oven and brush the surface with melted butter. Cool to room temperature.
Makes 1 loaf
— Adapted from "Baking Illustrated"
Irish freckle bread
butter (for the pan)
1 cup hot strong plain tea
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup currants
1 cup pitted prunes, snipped into small pieces
1 cup pitted dates, snipped into small pieces
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white whole-wheat flour
1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
1. Set the oven at 325 degrees. Butter an 8-inch round cake pan.
2. In a medium bowl, combine the tea, raisins, currants, prunes, and dates. Stir as the mixture cools.
3. In a large bowl, combine the brown sugar, both flours, baking powder, and salt. Add the cool fruit mixture and stir with a wooden spoon. Stir in the egg and mix well.
4. Spread the batter in the pan and sprinkle the top with the granulated sugar. Bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the bread comes out clean.
Makes 1 loaf
— Adapted from
"The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion"
Brown soda bread
While sweet soda breads, studded with raisins, are popular in many Irish-American households, so are brown soda breads, made with whole - wheat and all-purpose flours.
2 cups whole-wheat flour
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
6 Tablespoons butter, cut up
1/4 cup sugar
2 cups buttermilk
extra all-purpose flour (for sprinkling)
1. Set the oven at 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. In a bowl, combine the whole-wheat and all-purpose flours, salt, and baking soda. Whisk just to sift them.
3. With a pastry blender, work in the butter until the mixture resembles crumbs. Use a wooden spoon to stir in the sugar, then the buttermilk. Stir gently until the mixture comes together to form a dough.
4. Sprinkle the counter lightly with extra flour. Turn the dough out onto the counter and knead it gently until smooth. Form it into a smooth round, then shape it into a 2-inch-thick cake.
5. Transfer the bread to the baking sheet. With a paring knife, mark a 3/4-inch-deep cross on top of the dough. Set the baking sheet in the oven and bake the bread for 55 minutes or until it is puffed and browned and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.
6. Cool on a wire rack. Cut into thick slices for serving.
Makes 1 large loaf
— Sheryl Julian & Julie Riven