Thursday, March 16, 2006

Cooking School: Irish Soda Bread

Irish soda bread is dead easy to make. It can have as few as four ingredients and uses no yeast, relying instead on the reaction between baking soda and buttermilk for leavening. This produces a reliable rise every time, no matter how inexperienced you are are baking. The four base ingredients are flour, buttermilk, baking soda and salt.
Irish soda breads are slightly denser than most breads because they have no yeast. They do no have the means to develop any of the nice, open holes that can be seen in, for example, french baguettes. The loaves are very quick to make, however, and the slight denseness makes them tasty and unique. Ths hearty bread pairs well with soups and meat dishes. The crust that develops as it bakes means that it makes outstanding toast, too.
Another good thing about soda bread is that it is versatile, especially in terns of flavors. While the base can be very plain, you can add carraway, which is fairly traditional, or currants for a sweeter bread. I like adding a mixed variety of raisins to mine and a pinch of sugar, which helps with browning. Some people use all whole wheat flour in their soda breads and others like to keep them lighter by using only all-purpose flour. While any combination of all purpose and whole wheat flours will work, the best variation, in my opinion, uses 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup whole wheat flour and 1/4 cup oat flour. The whole wheat flour gives it a distinctive taste and the oat flour keeps the bread a little bit moist.
Whip this up when you walk in the door after work and let it cool while you prepare dinner. The bread should be cooled completely or almost completely before slicing.

Irish Soda Bread
2 cups flour (all purpose or half whole wheat*)
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp brown sugar
2 tsp caraway seeds (optional)
1/2 cup raisins
7/8 cup buttermilk (plus 1 tbsp, if necessary)

Preheat oven to 400F.
Stir together flour, baking soda, salt, sugar and caraway seeds. Stir raisins into the flour mixture. Pour in buttermilk, adding an additional tablespoon, if necessary, and mix into shaggy ball.
Place dough on a lightly floured surface and knead four about 2-3 minutes until the ball is fairly smooth. Form into a 6-inch, rounded ball and place on a parchment lined baking sheet. Cut a deep cross in the top with a sharp knife.
Bake 32-35 minutes, until the top is well browned. A toothpick will come out clean when inserted into the center.
Cool almost completely on a wire rack before slicing.
Makes 1 loaf, serves 6-8.

*Nic's favorite flour combination, pictured above: 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup whole wheat flour and 1/4 cup oat flour