It’s a little white lie to call this Irish soda bread. Any true Irishman or Irishwoman will tell you that a traditional Irish soda bread is strictly flour, buttermilk, baking soda, and salt. There is even a whole website dedicated to the preservation of traditional recipes. In Ireland, you will often see it simply referred to as “brown bread”. As the rest of the world strives to honor the Irish on the day chosen to celebrate St. Patrick, many of us have taken the traditional and gussied it up. We owe Ireland an apology. I tried to stick to the classic version, I really did. However, my tendency to complicate things took over; my desire to do justice to the lovely sample of local flour I had been given by Community Grains got the better of me. So here sits a whole wheat Irish soda bread done my way; with a touch of honey, a shaving of butter, currants soaked in Irish whiskey, and chewy apricots scattered throughout. To the Irish, I say I am sorry.
I touched on Community Grains in my post last week inspired by whole wheat. A local company started by Oliveto founder Bob Klein, Community Grains strives to bring high-quality, California-grown grain products to our local tables, thereby supporting and sustaining regional grain economies. I have spent plenty of time perusing their website, and I popped into Market Hall last week to grab a bag of their Hard Red Winter Wheat Flour. In my research I connected with Jaclyn Coleman, project manager for Community Grains, and she was kind enough to offer me a sample bag of a new product yet to be offered on the market, an organic high-protein Patwin white winter wheat flour produced by Fritz Durst, a 6th-generation farmer in Woodland, CA. My journey into understanding more about wheat has taught me the difference between hard red wheat and hard white wheat. Bob’s Red Mill has a quick read on their blog which is great. The colors “red” and “white” are in relation to the color of the wheat kernel. Red wheat tends to be a bit higher in protein, darker in color, and more robust in flavor. White wheat is typically recommended for softer baked products, it is slightly less bitter and often requires less sweetener to be added. The sample bag I was given is a variety of high-protein white wheat called Patwin, well-suited for the Sacramento Valley, which is where this was grown.
So last Friday, I opened my coveted bag of flour and took a stab at creating my own version of whole wheat Irish soda bread. I have listed the entire recipe at the bottom of the post, here are a few highlights and tips.
The whiskey infusion in my recipe comes from soaking 1/2 cup of currants in whiskey for as long as you have time for. We aren’t a household that typically has a bottle of whiskey in our cupboard so I grabbed a few of the small 50mL bottles of Irish Bushmills Whiskey at the liquor store. I say use whatever you have. Mine soaked for about 20-30 minutes, but 10 minutes would likely be fine. The longer they soak the softer the currants will get.
I also added a step to my baking regime which I have read about recently. It’s a good idea to presift your baking soda. Baking soda often has clumps in it which don’t break up if you simply whisk your dry ingredients together. I sifted mine on its own a few times before adding it into the flour and salt.
For the wet ingredients, I whisked together 2 cups of buttermilk, a teaspoon of orange zest, one egg, and 5 tablespoons of honey. I was lucky enough to have a jar of local honey that had just been dropped off on our porch that morning by our realtors/beekeepers. Lucky me! The honey is the only sweetener I added to the recipe, so the final product is just barely sweet, perfect for the additional honey you can drizzle on when enjoying a warm slice.
I followed a step from a recipe I reviewed online on the wonderful food blog, Adventures In Cooking. Her photos are amazing inspiration. In her recipe, she grates 1/4 cup of cold butter on the largest side of a box grater. You then drop it onto the flour mixture and toss it around to distribute throughout.
Final steps involve straining your whiskey infused currants, coarsely chopping 1/2 cup of dried apricots, mixing your wet ingredients into your dry ones (just barely, don’t over mix), and then stirring in your dried fruits.
There is a lot of debate about whether or not you knead Irish soda bread. Most traditionalists say you should not knead it, so I went this route. I lightly dusted my cutting board and dumped out my dough, just handling it enough to bring it into a round shape.
I chose to bake mine in a cast iron skillet, just because. A lot of traditional recipes talk about cooking Irish soda bread in a covered pot to simulate the bastible pot that would have been used over an open fire. I tried that on a prior version with my Le Creuset pot and it worked fine, but I don’t feel it yielded a different result than this one. I did preheat my cast iron skillet in the oven for about 10 minutes. I pulled it out, added a small pat of butter, and dropped in the dough. I then cut the traditional “X” on top, about 1 inch deep.
I baked mine for 45 minutes at 375 degrees. The loaf pictured below was not covered at all during baking. I felt it got just a bit too brown. On my second loaf I put a piece of foil over it at the 30 minute mark. I couldn’t resist slicing into mine after it was out for just a few minutes, quickly slathering on a bit of butter and honey. Delicious.
I cut my final loaves in half and wrapped them up in wax paper, finishing them with a bow tied from a strip of fabric and piece of old lace to deliver to a few family and friends.
Final thoughts – I was quite pleased with how it turned out. For an unleavened bread that is so quick and easy, I felt the results were wonderful. I think Irish soda bread inevitably falls into the category of breads best eaten warm and with butter. I just toasted our final slice three days after it was made and it was still delicious. I love the robust, nutty flavor the whole wheat flour added.
A bit more about Community Grains and the future of their brand. This special high-protein flour will be used in a new line of pastas, hearth breads and more which will be released later this year as their “Identity Preserved” line. The new line will follow a farm-to-table standard that will allow them to work closely with a handful of local, organic farmers so they can remain transparent; able to tell you where each grain was farmed, in what method, by whom, and what qualities and benefits it possesses. This strict standard will ensure that the identity of the product, and the farmer who grew it, is brought to the forefront. I have also been told that goals for 2017 include a local grain infrastructure that will include a cleaning & storage facility for the Identity Preserved line.
I hope you use this as inspiration to learn a bit more about Community Grains, to sample their products, and to try your hand at baking this “gussied up” version of Irish soda bread.
Here is the complete recipe:
WHOLE WHEAT IRISH SODA BREAD
(adapted from the version done by Adventures in Cooking)
4 cups of white whole wheat flour
1 1/2 teaspoons of baking soda, sifted
1 teaspoon of kosher salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter, cold
2 cups of buttermilk
1 teaspoon orange zest
5 tablespoons of honey
1/2 cup currants
1/2 cup of high quality dried apricots
1/2 cup of Irish whiskey (this is 2 50ml bottles, you could probably get away with one)
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees (you can preheat a cast iron skillet if desired)
- soak currants in whiskey for at least 10 minutes
- while currants are soaking, whisk together flour, salt and presifted baking soda
- in a separate bowl, whisk together buttermilk, egg, honey, and orange zest
- grate butter on the largest side of a box grater
- drop the butter on top of the flour mixture and lightly toss around with your hands
- strain currants, chop up apricots coarsely
- pour wet ingredients into dry, mix lightly with a wooden spoon
- gently stir in the currants and apricots
- turn dough onto a lightly floured surface and mold into a round shape
- if using a cast iron skillet, pull out of oven, drop a pat of butter in, and then add dough (alternate option: use a parchment paper lined sheet pan, do not preheat)
- once dough is in place, cut an “X” on top with a sharp knife
- place in preheated oven, bake for approximately 45 min.
- check bread at 30 minute mark, if browning a bit too much, cover with foil
- let cool for 5 minutes in skillet, then transfer to wire cooling rack to cool completely
- slice, slather, and enjoy!
A COUPLE OF NOTES:
It is a bit tricky to tell if the bread is done, you can gently push on the top a bit to see if it seems set, but this is hardly a foolproof method. Most recipes for Irish soda bread mention that you can tell its done if you thump on the bottom and it sounds hollow. However, I am not sure how you would do this while in process. So my recommendation, use your best judgment.
If you chose to substitute all-purpose flour, I would recommend cutting back the buttermilk, as all-purpose flour might not need as much liquid. I would start with 1 1/2 cups and then add as needed while you are mixing.
For more information on Community Grains, please visit www.communitygrains.com.
Community Grain products are currently available at Market Hall in the Rockridge District and online through their e-commerce site. Keep your eyes open for the brand in the coming months on local natural grocer shelves and at Whole Foods Market.
All photos by Adrienne Schell