Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Irish Brown Bread

For the past few years when St. Patrick’s Day comes around, I have tried my hand at cooking the traditional Irish-American meal. Corned beef and cabbage, Colcannon, plenty of Guinness, and of course, Irish Soda Bread. But soda bread and I have had a cantankerous relationship, and I’m beginning to think that it’s not all my fault. I have tried over a dozen different recipes (including four this year), and the same problem always seems to occur. The bread is delicious if eaten soon after it’s cooked, but left to sit for any amount of time and it becomes dense and dry.

Part of the problem is in the name of the bread itself. Soda bread gets its name from the fact that it uses baking soda as a leavener instead of yeast. This makes the bread very simple to prepare, no waiting or kneading is necessary, but if overmixed it can become thick and heavy. Without the yeast there is not as much lift and lightness to the crumb.

After throwing away yet another batch of soda bread, I decided that this year, I needed to go in a slightly different direction. So I went looking for Irish Brown Bread recipes instead. The first brown bread recipe I tried was pretty decent, but after a half day it was already becoming too dry for my liking. Then I stumbled on a recipe that used yogurt instead of the traditional buttermilk as the liquid in the recipe. I knew that this recipe was probably anything but traditional Irish (even though it was in the title of the recipe), but I was desperate to find a bread that I could actually enjoy.
And enjoy I did. The yogurt helped keep this bread nice and moist, yet it is still a thick and hearty bread. And it appears to be passing the day-old test, which means it won’t be seeing garbage can action any time soon.

The recipe starts by mixing all-purpose flour, baking soda, baking powder, sugar, and salt in a bowl.
The next step is to mix in some cold butter.You can use a pastry cutter to do this, or two knives, or your fingers, which is what I did. You’ll want the butter to be about pea-sized, and distributed evenly throughout the flour mixture.
Next the whole-wheat flour, and some oats get mixed in. I really liked the addition of the oats, it added a nice kind of hearty texture to the bread.Add in the yogurt and stir gently until it just starts to come together. If the dough is not coming together in to one big ball, add milk, a tablespoon at a time, until its moist enough to do so. You don't want the bread to be sticky and wet at this point, but you do want it to be moist enough to all come together. I ended up using about 2 tablespoons of milk total.
Plop it on to a floured surface, and just knead together a few times until it comes together in to a round ball. This bread is not meant to be perfectly smooth, it is a rustic sort of loaf. Place the bread on a greased cookie sheet and slit an "x" in the top of it. The "x" will help the loaf get cooked all the way through in the middle.
Bake for about 40-45 minutes until it is nicely browned all around.

Irish or not, this bread was definitely a winner, and I think would make a nice addition to any St. Patrick's Day celebration. Especially when served warm with a nice big pat of butter.

Irish Brown Bread
From Sunset, March 1997

1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 tablespoons cold butter or margarine
2 cups whole-wheat flour
1/4 cup regular or quick-cooking rolled oats
1 1/2 cups plain nonfat yogurt

Preheat oven to 375°

In a bowl, mix all-purpose flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. With a pastry blender or 2 knives, cut in butter until mixture forms fine crumbs. Stir in whole-wheat flour and oats.

Add yogurt; stir gently. If mixture is too dry to hold together, stir in milk, 1 teaspoon at a time, just until dough holds together; it should not be sticky.

Turn dough onto a lightly floured board and knead gently 5 times to make a ball. Set on a lightly greased baking sheet. Pat into a 7-inch circle. With a floured knife, cut a large X on top of loaf.

Bake until well browned, about 40 minutes. Cool on a rack. Serve warm or cool.

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