Honesty and Irish Soda Bread

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It seems like admission and honesty are the motifs of the moment in many of the blogs I read.  A few weeks ago Joy the Baker created a beautiful list of things to remember while blogging – things like despairing over the cuteness of other people’s pages isn’t worth it.  Things like not stressing over ratings, and remembering that the internet is always changing, which means it’s okay to not be involved in every single new trend.  She has just ended a week on that most humble and most basic of vehicles for deliciousness: toast.  Simple.  Honest.  Real.  (Also, can you tell I’m kind of crushing on Joy the Baker right now?  This is about honesty, after all…).  Shauna on Gluten-free Girl and the Chef has been writing for herself lately, not for ratings or comments or trends.  In fact, she has closed comments on her blog; she’s writing in the undisturbed beauty of what is important to her, not what is important to others making demands on her.  Just Monday, Irvin at Eat the Love published a beautiful, real, excruciatingly honest piece he’d been sitting on for over a year about jealousy and perfection and measuring up in the blogging world.  (Lately I’m crushing on Irvin too; he just seems so nice!  And sometimes he responds to my tweets!  Squee…).
Food Blog March 2013-0854These are courageous posts.  It’s hard to be real here in this virtual world.  It’s hard to admit to imperfection or doubt or dissatisfaction or envy.  These are ugly ideas.  Yet we have them, and our impulse is to hide them behind the veneer of beautifully crafted pages, or photos with the white balance adjusted, and cropped just right to edit out the dish soap we forgot to move, or fluffy, romantic sentences with words like “mouth-feel” or “buttery crumb” or “silky texture.”
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And I do it too.  Despite my assertion that you are going to see imperfect products or read about unsuccessful attempts, of course I want every item I post about here to be beautiful and balanced and insurmountably delicious.  Of course I don’t want to admit to the doubts and worries and sneaky hate spirals that sometimes result from something as simple as turning away from grading papers to bake a loaf of bread and then half an hour later I’m trembling before a monster of despair that maybe by cooking instead of researching I’m throwing away all that work I did on my PhD because my dissertation might never become a book.  That by insisting on making dinner every night and posting every week, I’m sabotaging my own search for a better job and therefore I’m never going to “make it” in the adult world.  That I’m wasting my time as a blogger because I don’t have – and will likely never have – the same kind of following as Deb or Ree.  That there are a billion food blogs out there and I’m just adding to the clamor without bringing anything original or special or any of the things I hoped to be when I started writing.

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But I don’t want to tell you all that.  Despite my doubts, I, too, want to be a “good blogger,” a “popular blogger” with a following and cooing comments over the little messes I arrange just right so they look like masterpieces on screen, so I try to do the things that will make this happen.  I want to be an authority.  I want to spring to people’s minds when they think of food sites they like.  I want to talk about food and I want to be real, but I still want to find that magical, imaginary combination of words and photos and style and design that pulls people here in droves.  Those days where my little stats bar doesn’t even tick from zero to one are too real.  I never tell you that.
Food Blog March 2013-0862But I think this desperate, ugly, gasping kind of honesty can be a good thing, even if it only emerges now and then.  It’s a sign of strength and a sign of independence.  It forces you – it forces me – to reassess, to remember that I am doing what makes me happy for the reasons it makes me happy.  And maybe that is part of what Spring is about: cleaning out your assumptions.  Stripping down the need for perfection and presenting a more naked, more truthful, more real version of yourself to your audience.  Even if that version is a little ugly.
Let’s call it mental Spring cleaning.

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This week I made Irish Soda Bread.  Simple, rustic, honest.  Lumpy.  Rough.  Uneven.  No yeast, no eggs, no herbs or dried fruit or fancy techniques or browned butter or sifting.  I didn’t even wipe down the counters first to make you think my kitchen is always spotless.  I shuffled through a few recipes and found suggested combinations like golden raisin and rosemary, or candied orange peel and bittersweet chocolate.  Those didn’t feel truthful.  They were too dressed up – too showy.  So I turned to the most basic, most honest cookbook I have: Baking Illustrated.  BI is willing not only to present you with a recipe, but to explain why they made the choices they made, and what happened when they tried things in other ways.  They talk about the cakes that came out gummy or runny.  They talk about overly eggy batters and dry loaves and dense biscuits.  They show you what a less-than-perfect product looks like.  And then they tell you how to fix it.  This was the kind of Springtime honesty I needed.

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I changed very little from the original recipe, only using brown sugar in place of white granulated sugar for a deeper flavor, and taking up the suggestion to bake the loaf in a deep covered pot to enhance the texture of the crust.  Since I’ve been doing that with success in my yeast experiments, it seemed worth trying out here too, and I have to recommend it highly.  Our loaf was surprisingly tender – almost like a giant scone – and the crust was springy and buttery – it felt like it must be loaded with eggs even though there are none in the recipe.  I like the flavor the baking soda provides, which is a different kind of tangy breadiness than yeast.  After weeks of churning out loaves that require hours and hours and multiple rise times, it was nice to have a quick-bread that rose just enough on baking time alone, and left behind concerns like proofing and kneading and windowpanes and tucking and shaping.  Honestly.
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Irish Soda Bread
adapted from Baking Illustrated
3 cups all-purpose flour (BI recommends one with a relatively low protein content, like Gold Medal or Pillsbury) plus a scattering for your work surface
1 cup cake flour (even lower protein, which makes for a more tender end product)
2 TB brown sugar
1½ tsp baking soda
1½ tsp cream of tartar
1 tsp salt
2 TB softened butter
1½ cups buttermilk
3 additional TB butter, divided
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Here’s the final product, when I edit and trim.

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But since we’re being honest here, this is the set-up; I just push all that other stuff aside and crop it out…

Preheat your oven to 400F.  BI says to position a rack in the upper middle portion of your oven, but I left mine near the bottom and things turned out fine.
Whisk the dry ingredients together in a large bowl.
Cut in the softened butter with a fork, your fingers, or a pastry blender until it is distributed in small crumbly bits.  The mixture, BI says, should resemble coarse crumbs.
Add the buttermilk and combine with a fork just until the mixture begins to come together – the coarse crumbs should clump into slightly wet crags.
Turn out onto a floured board and knead slightly – 12 to 14 turns – just till the dough becomes “cohesive and bumpy” (43).  You don’t want to overknead this bread because it will become tough.  The intent here is not to stimulate gluten production, as it would be in a yeast dough.  We just want a homogenous mass that stays together.
Pat the dough into a 6 inch round (about 2 inches high) and score an X in the center with a sharp knife; use 2 TB of the additional butter to grease the bottom and sides of a dutch oven or similar covered pot.  Place the loaf carefully inside, cover, and bake with the lid on for 30 minutes.  Then remove the lid and continue baking for an additional 10 minutes, or until the internal temperature is 180F.
Melt the final TB of butter.  As soon as you remove the loaf from the oven, brush the top with the melted butter to keep the crust soft and tender.
Wait about half an hour before you attack it – this bread is delicate and it needs the extra structural support gained by cooling.  Earlier slicing will result in squashing and crumbling, and as honest as that is, we’d rather have nice slices or, as N. and I prefer, thick wedges for dunking.

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