March 14, 2012

Did You know Irish Soda Bread is not actually Irish...?

While now adopted by the Irish, just as bagpipes weren't invented by the Scots, the chemical reaction that makes Soda Bread what it is, wasn't invented by the Irish. Long before Europeans settled the Americas, the Indigenous peoples of the Americas used soda or pearl ash, more commonly known as potash (pot ash) or potassium carbonate, (the forerunner to baking soda) as a leavening agent in quick breads. Although the Irish didn't invent Soda Bread it is most often identified with them. The "soft wheat" is the only suitable flour that can grow in Ireland's climate and when mixed like a traditional dough it doesn't form any gluten like a traditional yeast bread, but it does work well with a soda bread recipe.

The ingredients of traditional soda bread are flour, bread soda, salt, and buttermilk; which contains lactic acid. The acid in the buttermilk reacts with the baking soda to form tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide. through the years various recipes have called for the adding of raisins, egg or various nuts. While people have sometimes added fruit to the basic dough as a treat, or for a change of pace, in Ireland, this is not usually referred to as soda bread, but as tea bread, fruit soda, tea cake.

In Ireland, "plain" soda bread is mostly eaten as an accompaniment to a main meal (to soak up the gravy) or it sometimes appears at breakfast. It comes in two main colors, brown and white, and two main types: cake and farl. People in the south of Ireland tend to make cake: people in Northern Ireland seem to like farl better, though both kinds appear in both North and South, sometimes under wildly differing names. 

Cake is soda bread kneaded and shaped into a flattish round, cut deeply with a cross on the top (to let the bread stretch and expand as it rises in the oven). This style of soda bread is normally baked in an oven. 

Farl is a soda bread dough is rolled out into a rough circle and cut all the way through, crosswise, into four pieces or farls ("farl" is a generic term for any triangular piece of baking) and usually baked on top of the range or stove in a heavy frying pan or on a griddle, rather than in the oven.

The cross on the soda bread has several explanations, but legend has it that folks did it to "let the devil out" while it's baking for good luck. Others say that it made it easy to divide into 4 pieces. It was also a symbol for a cross during Christian holidays. Now that you know the history, the next thing you need to realize is that it's quick and easy to make. The most common mistake with baking soda bread is the tendency to do too much to the dough, especially if you are making it for the first time. Below is a easy and healthy recipe:

Healthy Gourmet Irish Soda Bread 

1 cup oats, (they need to be quick cooking)
1 ½ cups of stone ground whole wheat flour
1/4 cup Turbinado (natural cane sugar)
1 T baking powder
1 ½ tsp salt
2 cups, plus, unbleached all purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 stick butter (or margarine)
2 tsp caraway seeds (add an extra one if you like seeds)
1 1/4 cups buttermilk (low-fat)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place parchment paper on a cookie sheet. (If you don’t have parchment paper you can grease your cookie sheet.) Combine whole wheat flour, oats, Turbinado, baking powder, salt, baking soda and unbleached flour in a large bowl. Cut the butter into the dry mixture until it is crumbly. Add the caraway seeds. Gradually stir in the buttermilk until the mixture is moistened and be aware it will be sticky.

On a well floured surface, with well floured hands, turn out the dough. Knead until it is mixed thoroughly (you may have to add additional unbleached flour) and form a ball. (If you want to make individual loaves, divide the dough into 6 balls. Cut a cross in the top of each loaf at least a 1/4 inch to a 1/2 inch deep. Bake until a toothpick inserted comes out clean, 50-60 minutes. Let cool on wire rack.

*Note: To make this loaf even more gourmet you can add raisins and or nuts, But be sure that these additional ingredients do not exceed 1 1/2 cups for this recipe. Serve warm with butter or one of Ireland’s creamy, rich cheeses and enjoy!

Bon Appetit & Happy St. Patrick's Day!


Souces: Top photo courtesy of BBC.Co.UK

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