Strawberry Irish Soda Bread for #TwelveLoaves March

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.

Food Blog March 2014-3476This 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.

Food Blog March 2014-3359But 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.

Food Blog March 2014-3451Except 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.

Food Blog March 2014-3449 Food Blog March 2014-3454 Food Blog March 2014-3456Food Blog March 2014-3460So 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.

Food Blog March 2014-3464This 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.

Food Blog March 2014-3465When 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.

Food Blog March 2014-3467This 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.

Food Blog March 2014-3468In 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.

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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.

Plum Upside Down Irish Soda Bread Cake #TwelveLoaves

Food Blog July 2013-1940As you can perhaps intuit from the title of this post, this month’s Twelve Loaves challenge was just that for me: a challenge.  Called upon to incorporate stone fruit into a bread item, my mind went in a thousand directions at once and came up blank.  For me, stone fruits belong in pies and cakes.  The idea of combining cherries, or peaches, or apricots, or nectarines with the slow, yeasted rising of a bread was an odd one (although now that I’ve considered it, chocolate and cherry bread sounds fantastic.  Inspiration, if anyone still needs an idea for this month?).  So I struggled.  I wrote down ideas that sounded like madness:

Caramelized apricot yeasted mini loaves, baked in muffin tins  too weird.

Plum cobbler  not really a bread.

Peach upside down cake  not a bread at all!

Irish soda bread with… stone fruit… somehow…

And that was where I landed, nibbling at the edges of this idea.  It would be, I decided, a skillet bread: fruit caramelized in the bottom of a cast iron skillet, soda bread dough mounded atop it and then baked and flipped, like the weirdest version of a pineapple upside down cake bread you’ve ever heard of.

Food Blog July 2013-1919Once this weirdness was determined, I settled immediately on plums as my fruit choice.  I always forget how much I love plums as a cooked component.  None of the insistent fuzziness of peaches to deal with, but bursting with juice, brightly veined, and hiding just the right hit of tartness in that secret microscopically thin layer between skin and flesh.  I love that part.

Food Blog July 2013-1923Food Blog July 2013-1926Food Blog July 2013-1929I envisioned bubbling slices of that sweet tartness in a slick of butter and brown sugar, mounding on heaps of gussied up Irish soda bread dough and baking the whole thing into a puffed, flippable cake/bread to have for breakfast, afternoon “tea” (N. and I rarely drink hot tea in the 3pm hour, but love the idea of stopping for a bit of a snack), or maybe even wedges wrapped up in wax paper to take on the road as we head into vacation.

Food Blog July 2013-1931Food Blog July 2013-1932What I got was a stunner-in-progress.  I’m going to give you the recipe for exactly what I made, but I know this is not the final iteration of this dish for me.  The plums were perfect: juicy, melting into the caramel and the bottom of the bread, sticky and jammy and reminiscent of a triumphant batch of plum butter my mom made one summer with pounds and pound of plums delivered to our door in a brown paper bag straight from a neighbor’s tree.  The bread itself was good: solid Irish soda bread, a little richer and a little sweeter from the addition of brown sugar, extra butter, and an egg, perfect for the breakfasts and snacks I envisioned, and better the second day than the first.  But as I dug in, I found myself wanting the bread part to be more like cake: more egg, less flour, a hint of vanilla or nutmeg or maybe cardamom.  The plums were so good, so gloriously gooey and tooth-sticking-ly caramelized, that they deserve a proper dessert – something you can watch a scoop of ice cream melt over.

Food Blog July 2013-1938Make this.  It’s solid and scrumptious: the perfectly not-too-sweet energy boosting slice.  But consider yourself warned: this won’t be the last time you see upside down plum something here…

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Plum Upside Down Irish Soda Bread Cake
Serves 8-10
2-3 plums, thinly sliced
2 TB butter
¼ cup brown sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups cake flour (this adds some lightness – if you don’t have cake flour, you can use all AP flour instead with slightly denser results)
¼ cup brown sugar (again)
1 ½ tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
¼ cup melted butter
1 ½ cups buttermilk
1 egg

 

  • Preheat the oven to 400F.
  • In a cast iron skillet (or other oven-safe skillet), melt the 2 TB butter and toss in the first ¼ cup brown sugar.  Stir around until butter and sugar melt together into a sticky, bubbly mass.
  • Pull the skillet off the heat and add the plums in an even, single layer right on top of the caramel you’ve created.  You can place them in concentric rings if you want, for aesthetics, but so long as you have a complete single layer, you’re in good shape.  Set the skillet aside.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk the flours, the remaining ¼ cup brown sugar, the baking soda, and the salt until well blended.
  • In a small bowl or a 2-cup glass measuring cup (I like it easy), combine the melted butter, buttermilk, and egg.  Beat thoroughly with a fork.  Some of the melted butter will solidify again when the colder buttermilk hits it, but that’s okay.  It will all work out.
  • Pour the liquid mixture into your whisked dry ingredients.  You can make a well in the center first if you want, but the important thing is just to get them in there.  Combine with a fork, as you would with the liquid in biscuits, just until everything is incorporated into a rough, lumpy heap of dough.
  • Plop the dough onto the layer of plums and use a spatula or your hands to press it down a bit into an even layer that covers the fruit below.
  • Bake in a 400F oven for 30-40 minutes, until the bread is puffed, golden, and reaches an internal temperature of about 180F.
  • When the bread is done, let it cool for 5-10 minutes.  You can use this time to gather your courage, because the step that comes next is a little bit scary.
  • Place a large plate over the top of your cast iron skillet.  Being very careful, and using pot holders because that sucker is still smokin’ hot, invert the plate-skillet contraption so that the skillet is resting on the plate, bottom side up.  What we’re after is for the bread to give up its hold on the skillet and drop gently onto the plate with the plum layer on top.  This may take another 5-10 minutes.
  • Once the loaf has unstuck itself from the skillet and landed on the plate, remove the skillet and scrape out any remaining plum slices to add to the top of the cake itself.
  • Serve warm, room temperature, or cold, but I think this bread tastes better on day two, when the flavors have had time to meld and deepen a bit.

Honesty and Irish Soda Bread

Food Blog March 2013-0878
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.
 Food Blog March 2013-0868
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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Breaking Bread

Last week I tallied up what remained on my Bittman Sides project and discovered, through careful calculations that included pointing to my calendar and counting on my fingers, that if I make two selections from the list every week, I will be finished with the whole thing at the end of the year.  And I mean the end.  The very last week.  Ambitious, yes?  I decided I could do it.

Guess how many I made this week?

Yeah.

One.

So I’m not starting out well with this, but I’m going to try anyway.  I’m years overdue from my original goal anyway.  And in my own kind of backwards reverse engineering, I try to make up for this how?  By posting twice in one week.  So it goes, I suppose…

87. Combine 2 cups whole wheat flour with 2 cups white flour and 1 teaspoon each baking powder, baking soda and salt in a food processor. Pour in 1½ cups buttermilk or thin yogurt, and pulse until a ball is formed. Knead for a minute (fold in ½ cup raisins or currants if you like), shape into a round loaf, slash the top in a few places and bake on a greased sheet for about 45 minutes, or until the bottom sounds hollow when you thump it.

I’ve tried bread in the food processor before and it didn’t go very well (what does “when the dough is shaggy” mean anyway?), but I was willing to give this a shot.  It looked like a basic Irish soda bread recipe, and though I’ve never put that in the food processor, I have made it with success on multiple occasions.  So, I pulled down my food processor, opened my pantry, and collected

2 cups wheat flour

2 cups white flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ cup Greek yogurt whisked with 1 cup whole milk (I had neither buttermilk nor thin yogurt – this seemed like a happy medium)

½ cup craisins

I followed Bittman’s directions to near disaster.  Either my food processor is too small, or this method isn’t all that reliable, because the dough never formed a ball.  Half of it just clumped into a solid mass in one side of the processor bowl and refused to budge.  I said some words in the quiet of my own brain and then held my breath while I tumbled the half-mixed contents out onto a floured board.

This is certainly not a ball.  But I sprinkled on half a cup of craisins and started kneading anyway, trying to ignore the hateful feel of dry dough on my hands.  After a minute or two I determined that things were just not coming together.

Flour-streaked hands reached into the refrigerator and pulled out the milk, dribbled a few tablespoons into a hollow in the dough, and tried again.  This time, things started to stick, to smooth, to pull into a ball.  I patched, I patted, I pushed and knuckled, and finally plopped one of the homeliest loaves ever made onto a greased baking sheet.  Slashed, scored, and enclosed in a warm oven, and I’d done all I could.

Bittman didn’t specify a temperature, but I estimated 375F and returned to grading papers for the better part of an hour.  The timer’s buzz 45 minutes later called me back to a crusty, mottled, flour-speckled loaf that sounded empty when I thumped the bottom, and smelled like humble sour sweetness.

I waited a few hours to try some.  When I cut into it, my knife scraping through the crust and scattering crumbly bits across the board, the interior was dense and moist and still just warm.

It tasted good.  A bit heavy, from the whole wheat flour, and not suitable for eating in large chunks like the one I’d carved off for myself.  But the craisins added a welcome punch, and I think if I’d used all buttermilk instead of my odd mixture of milk and yogurt, the tang would have come through and broken some of the one-note density of the texture.  This would be good, I suspect, toasted and buttered, or maybe – if you’re the daring type – transformed into French toast.  It might also be good made with 3 cups of white and 1 cup of wheat flour, rather than equal parts.

Both N. and I have some Irish blood, and although it doesn’t show too often (unless you count his beard and my very occasional temper), by strange coincidence we ended up eating this bread as part of an accidentally, avant-garde-ly “Irish” dinner: pan fried gnocchi and sauteed cabbage.  Potatoes, cabbage, and Irish soda bread.  If only we’d had corned beef, I told N., and a horseradish sauce to moisten it.

But here’s the good news: smeared with cream cheese, the bread was tasty and chewy and wholesome, with bright pops of cranberry sweetness here and there.  Shallow fried in a mixture of butter and olive oil, the gnocchi were amazing.  Tongue searingly hot, their exteriors crisped and browned like the perfect roasted potato.  Their interiors remained soft and creamy and rich, but the contrast of crusty brown outside to creamy chewy perfection inside was unbelievable.  I could eat these every day.  I could eat them for every meal.  Fried and rolled, still blisteringly hot, in cinnamon sugar, I would scarf these for breakfast alongside a glass of milk like tiny churros.  Tossed with pesto or roasted red pepper sauce, I would gulp them for lunch.  Folded into a mornay sauce with too much extra cheese, I would sub these for pasta in a beautiful perversion of oven-baked macaroni and cheese.  And well salted and perhaps tossed in garlic powder or red pepper flakes, I would happily substitute these for popcorn during a movie.  I might be obsessed.

So with one Bittman down for the week and an intense regimen in store for the rest of the year, it turns out I’m more interested in fried potatoes.  And I’m tempted to ask: who wouldn’t be?  But then I wonder… is that just the Irish in me talking?