I think I’m addicted to baking soda – not in a drug dependency way, but rather in a positive sensitivity to the subtle feel of the sodium effect of baking soda that only appears after all other tastes of whatever you’re eating has been swallowed. I don’t think it’s a taste thing, although it could be – like I said, it’s subtle.
I don’t even know if it’s entirely personal with me – you know, like am I the only one in the world with this sensitivity? – but the likelihood of that is remote, I’d think. Well, whatever it is, the recent St. Pats activities that I was a part of seem to have resurrected the potential effects of this ailment -if that’s what it is- and I find myself thinking about all kinds of Irish soda breads each time I begin thinking it’s time to bake some bread again.
On St. Pats day, we joined a few friends to have a late lunch at a local coffee shop/bakery (The Grounds), which is interestingly buried deep within a local bookstore – while these operations are usually just ‘feel good’ supports for the bookstore, in this case, the food and baked goods have eclipsed the draw of the bookstore itself – and we had heard that the new owner was a transplant from Ireland, where he had graduated from a culinary school, and spent significant time as a chef – we also heard that he intended to have several ‘special’ offerings available in celebration of the special day. So, off we went to check it out.
Since we were a bit late for the lunch crowd, we were able to meet Frank, the new owner/chef (if a coffee shop/bakery can have a chef!) and had some time to get to know him – like any self respecting Irishman, he was a good story-teller, and we happily listened. I especially enjoyed his recounting of his having worked in a large resort which employed some 26 chefs, where only the premier members of the crew were allowed to drink Guinness as they worked, and his own personal joy of the day when he too became a member of the elite Guinness group.
We all decided on Frank’s offering of ‘Guinness and Steak Pie’, which may well be the more authentic national Irish celebratory dish than is Corned Beef and Cabbage, which seems at best to have been an American invention and legend that refuses to die – at least on this side of the pond. But Frank also choose to include a few slices of Whole Wheat Soda Bread along with his Guinness and Steak Pie, which was enough to re-awaken my baking soda jones – and I left that day with a strong incentive to satisfy my sodium fix in my own kitchen.
One could actually make a strong case for the national dish of Ireland being soda bread itself – not that the Irish invented baking soda, or that the Irish had a long tradition of eating soda bread – but in the mid 1800s, soda bread replaced the ubiquitous potato as Ireland’s most commonly eaten staple. The reasons why almost all boil down to pure economics, and in a time of economic crisis, you eat what is cheap, available, and easy – and soda bread was all of these, and perfectly matched to the Irish character.
The most available and cheapest flour in Ireland during the mid 1800s was soft flour, which was more efficiently paired with baking soda than yeast as a leavening – but baking soda bread required an acidic component to trigger a rise, which the Irish found in soured milk – and in a nation where refrigeration was at best a luxury, soured milk was not a rare thing. Even the Irish dairies needed something to do with the by-product buttermilk from making butter, and which normally was fed to the pigs. Add to these, the fact that it was far easier, and cheaper, to use baking soda as a bread leavening than to use yeast, and it’s not hard to see why soda bread became so popular in Ireland.
And bake soda bread I did. Besides a very basic white loaf of flour, water, salt and soda , I’ve done some quite un-traditional ‘soda muffins’, which we found simply delicious.
Frankly, I’m a prolific muffin maker, most being either bran or corn – after tasting these, I found myself questioning why these were not among those more common breakfast offerings – surely they should be. But I also made a very interesting ‘wheaten’ version of a more traditional soda bread, which probably would be viewed as ‘authentically Irish’ only here in America (because it contains Guinness) – I think perhaps the only true authentic part of it is that it is a 100% whole wheat, which in Ireland would be called, ‘Wheaten’.
But another non-traditional element of this loaf is that it is baked in a loaf pan, while the traditional Irish soda bread is simply baked as a round free form on a sheet pan. While this of course has absolutely nothing to do with the taste, it does -I think- increase the practical ways this loaf can be used, i.e. for sandwiches, etc. However, it does decrease the amount of crust area on the loaf, which for some -including me- would not be a positive. If you agree, feel free to ignore the call for a pan, and bake it up free form, in a small, round bottom, cast iron skillet.
If you can, try to use both the coarse and the fine grinds of whole wheat for this bread – I think it aids the final texture of the loaf. Look for one of the newer whole wheat ‘untragrain’ or white whole wheat for one that has a finer grind – as opposed to a normal stone ground hard winter red ww, which is a coarser grind. I think the addition of the Guinness and the malt bring out the full nutty flavor of the whole wheats, and add a complexity to this bread that is often missing from a simple white flour soda bread. Whatever you do, hold off mixing the dry and wet ingredients until the very last second, as the soda will begin its work immediately! After all, it is a quickbread, and an especially delicious one.
Guinness and Malt Wheaten Bread
(adapted from http://www.karott.com/guinness_recipes/breads.htm)
- 2 cups coarse whole wheat flour *
- 2 cups fine whole wheat flour
- 1/2 cup superfine sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 8 Tablespoons butter
- 1 teaspoon malt extract
- 1 1/4 cups buttermilk
- 1 1/4 cups Guinness
* in lieu of a coarse whole wheat flour, use 1 cup each oatmeal and 1 cup raw bran – process together in a food processor until a coarse texture is achieved.
Preheat oven to 425 deg F.
Grease a 9-inch loaf pan and dust with whole meal flour.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the flours, sugar, soda, and salt.
Cut in the butter.
Stir in the malt, buttermilk, and Guinness and mix well.
Immediately pour into prepared pan and sprinkle with 1 to 2 tablespoons coarse whole wheat flour and place into oven.
Bake for 30 minutes, then reduce heat to 400 deg F and bake 15 to 30 minutes longer.
Bread is done when a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean.
Turn off the oven and cool with the door open for 30 minutes.
Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
My Notes: In the interest of being less confusing, I’d like to add a thought or two about coarse and fine whole wheat flours – Here in the U.S., we’ve only had one kind of whole wheat for a long time, and that was made with the winter red hard wheat, which grew well here – because it’s outer coat is red, it adds a darker tone to the flour when it’s ground, and it has always had a slightly bitter taste, which some dislike. But in the last 10 years or so, a new type of wheat grain has been developed that will grow well in our environment – it is known as ‘Ultragrain’ or White Whole Wheat, and since its outer coat is a much lighter color, after being ground, the flour appears almost white, but has all the nutrition of old fashioned whole wheat, and a sweeter taste. It also has a softer, finer texture when ground. But actually, all I know is that when I feel a regular stone ground whole wheat, or my own home ground stuff, they are less fine that the white whole wheat flour. Here is the U.S., I don’t think we’ve had the variety of whole wheats that they have in Europe and the U.K – at least I’m not aware of them.
There – I bet that’s more than you wanted to know about whole wheat!