Though I am reasonably certain I have some Irish blood somewhere in my Northern European mongrel veins, the luck of the Irish has never been particularly strong for me. I didn’t end up at the schools I’d crossed my fingers for, my job, while great, wasn’t my initial choice, and my thumbs are, at the best of times, a sickly pea soup color, not truly green. The bare, arid stalks of mandevilla I need to dig out of that pot on my porch speak wonders. I’m not destitute, and I’m far from unfortunate. Yes, things work out, but they mostly work out through just that: work.
This week was no exception. Bound and determined to make something spectacular, I embarked on this month’s Twelve Loaves challenge with plans to produce a tray of flaky, delicate biscuits, tangy with goat cheese and loaded with strawberries, folded and rolled and folded and rolled in the Ruhlman method to produce at least a dozen fluffy, puffy layers. I was going to call them “puff biscuits.” I’d already started writing a post.
But demanding that a full pint of strawberries get jammed into a biscuit dough containing a mere 9 ounces of flour (a scant two cups, if you’re counting) is apparently a recipe for disaster. The berries, juicy and tart, immediately dampened the dough. Every time I chilled, then folded, then rolled the dough, more juice, more moisture, more sticky sodden mess. And when I baked them, even after correcting my mistake of setting the oven temperature too low, they just didn’t rise. I mean, they rose a little, pushing up a half inch or so, but it wasn’t the sky-high triumph I was looking for. No puff. Maybe “button biscuits” would be more appropriate. An investment of over three hours produced a bowl full of terrifically flavored, flat-as-a-pancake discs I deemed, with dough packed under my fingernails and flour streaked in my hair (it was an emotional moment), a complete waste of time.
Except that they were delicious. It took me the rest of the evening, and part of this morning, to decide what had happened, and whether to post about it. In the long run, as I’ve noted, though I want this blog to be about delicious and beautiful food, I also want it to be about learning. In sampling piece after piece (of biscuit after biscuit – honesty is important, people), I was reminded of several puff pastry tarts I’ve made that didn’t cooperate either, and my conclusion is that this is a weight problem. Strawberries, even cut into small pieces, are heavy. Leaking juice and packing the dough, they prevented any kind of substantial rise from taking place, even though, as their flaky surroundings indicated, the baking powder and chunks of butter were doing their work. Additionally, the excessive smears of goat cheese I layered in probably didn’t help matters, overwhelming the dry ingredients with more fat than they could handle. Button-busting biscuits, perhaps.
So today, I’m trying my luck in another application that embraces both the strawberry theme and the cultural occasion: Irish soda bread, studded with strawberries, perked up with the added interest of lemon zest and fresh thyme leaves. It’s lousy with springtime.
This soda bread cooks in a pot, rather than on a cookie sheet, a technique I learned a year ago and haven’t gone back on since. Baking in a lidded pot retains the kind of moisture bread likes – the kind that commercial ovens pump in that home cooks have trouble emulating. The final few minutes of baking with the lid off sets a crisp crust, but the dribble of melted butter you brush over the loaf when it emerges from the oven ensures that this crust is tender and flavorful.
When baked like this, strawberries become at once sweeter and tarter (really? tarter? I’d prefer “more tart” but my grammar checker admonished me). Their tartness is enhanced by the lemon zest perfuming this loaf, and the herby note of the thyme makes sure it is not too sweet.
This in-betweennness is, I think, what I like so much about Irish soda bread. It feels eggy and rich, but in fact it has no eggs and only a few tablespoons of butter to it. It feels like a breakfast bread you could spread with jam or honey, but it could just as easily sit beside a thick beef stew (well, maybe minus the strawberries). And you could probably administer a few globs of chocolate hazelnut spread to its tender and willing embrace with no complaints.
In any case, the important thing is that it worked, and it was zingy and springy and delicious. Depending on the juiciness of your strawberries, this loaf may look slightly underdone when you pull it out of the oven. Give it an extra ten minutes, if you must, but once it is between 180-200F it should be fully cooked. The berries may create some doughy-looking pockets here and there, but this is nothing that a quick slick of butter and a toast under a broiler or toaster oven won’t fix.
Strawberry Irish Soda Bread
Makes one 8-9 inch loaf
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cake flour
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
Zest from 1 lemon (about 1 tablespoon)
5 tablespoons butter, divided
1 ½ cups buttermilk
1 pint strawberries, roughly chopped
1-2 teaspoons raw sugar, optional
- Position a rack in the top third of your oven and preheat to 400F.
- In a large bowl, whisk the dry ingredients, including the sugar, lemon zest, and thyme leaves.
- Using a pastry blender, a fork, or your fingers, cut in or rub in 2 tablespoons of the butter until it is evenly dispersed in pebbly little bits through the flours.
- Add the buttermilk and bring the dough together with a fork. It should be damp but a bit crumbly. When there is almost no dry flour remaining, add the strawberries and combine gently.
- Dump out your dough onto a floured board and knead gently, pressing the dough together into a ball with the heels of your hands. We are looking just to bring this together into a rough, sticky ball, not to knead it firmly. Think of scones, not of yeasted bread dough.
- Once you are able to form the dough into a ball of about 6 inches in diameter, score the top with a very sharp knife – an x shape is most traditional.
- Using 2 of the remaining tablespoons of butter, grease the inside of a dutch oven or similar large, oven-safe, lidded pot.
- Carefully place the loaf in the pot, clamp on the lid, and bake in your preheated 400F oven for 30 minutes.
- Remove the lid and bake an additional 10 minutes, until the loaf is golden and lightly crisp, and an oven thermometer registers between 180-200F. If it still looks doughy when you peer at the score marks, give it an additional 5-10 minutes in the oven with the lid off. Meanwhile, melt the remaining tablespoon of butter.
- Immediately upon removing from the oven, brush with the melted butter and, if you wish, sprinkle with the 1-2 teaspoons of raw sugar for a sweet crunch.
- Let cool in the pot for at least thirty minutes before removing to a wire rack or straight to a bread board for slicing.