I am delighted to welcome this site’s first guest Bunburyist. She is an exceptional actor, writer and editor.
I have been editing my dad’s blog for almost the entire time he has been posting recipes. I love to be in the kitchen with him when he cooks, but until recently I have done very little cooking of my own. When Mom and Dad cook so well, it seems silly to add a bumbling newcomer to the kitchen and until a few weeks ago I lived in a dorm with no kitchen and about the same amount of time. Cooking was completely out of the question.
But soon I will be moving into an apartment which means I need to start cooking for myself unless I plan on subsisting entirely on cereal and toast next year (always a possibility, but certainly not the most exciting option). So this summer, I have been stepping out from behind my pencil and dictionary and doing some stirring, simmering and baking for myself.
Right away, there was one thing I knew I wanted to make. In college, I was starved for really good, crusty bread. Our dining hall offered only pre-packaged, pre-sliced loaves with shelf lives only slightly shorter than Twinkies. After that, it wasn’t enough to come home and buy bread at the store—I wanted to make it myself.
However, jumping into the world of yeast when you’ve hardly ever baked a batch of cookies is hardly a wise move so I had little intention of acting on my urge to bake until I happened on a new cookbook my dad had bought while I was away at college.
The Country Cooking of Ireland  by Colman Andrews is my favorite type of cookbook. It is beautiful (I consider the pictures of cows and Irish countryside alone worth the cost of the book) and filled with information about the culture and history of Ireland and its cooking. It was while reading through this book that I came across a chapter that solved my bread dilemma: soda bread. Dense and crusty enough to make up for a year’s worth of industrial slices of foam, it’s also simple enough for a novice with more enthusiasm than skill and doesn’t require any finicky yeast wrangling.
So I determined to give it a try, still somewhat convinced that disaster would befall. But, amazingly, it turned out! The recipe was simple but immensely satisfying. (Anything that involves shaping your hand into a claw and running it through something sticky can’t help but satisfy your inner five-year-old.) and I got a rush of pride out of successfully baking a loaf of bread that was entirely out of proportion with the difficulty of the recipe.
Suddenly cooking wasn’t just a way to feed myself while away at school studying Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, but something pleasurable and satisfying enough to do simply for the fun of it. And I can’t wait to do more.
This bread was meant to be made by a college student armed only with a pint glass and some sort of bowl (the recipe suggests a wash basin or even the kitchen sink). As I don’t fit the mold of pint-glass wielding collegiates, I used the measurements accompanying the recipe. They worked quite well although they lacked the haphazard charm of the pint glass method.
- 1 pint glass [2 ½ cups/250 g] white flour, preferably Irish or pastry flour, plus more for dusting
- 1 pint glass [2 ½ cups/250 g] stone-ground whole wheat flour, preferably Irish or Irish-style
- Enough baking soda to coat the bottom of a pint glass [ ¾ tsp]
- Enough salt to coat the bottom of a pint glass [ ¾ tsp]
- Enough butter to coat the bottom of a pint glass [1 tbsp]
- ¾ pint glass [1 ¾ cups/420 ml] room-temperature buttermilk, plus more as needed
Preheat the oven to 375°F/190°C (Gas Mark 5).
Sift the white flour, whole wheat flour, baking soda, and salt together in a medium bowl and stir together with a fork until they’re well combined. Rub the butter in with your fingers until the mixture resembles bread course bread crumbs.
Form a well in the middle of the flour mixture and pour the buttermilk into the well. Form your hand into a rigid claw and stir the buttermilk into the flour slowly but steadily in a spiral motion, starting in the middle and working outward. The dough should be soft but not too wet or sticky. (Add more buttermilk if necessary.)
Turn the dough out onto a floured board. Flour your hands lightly, then shape the dough into a flat round about 2 in/5 cm high. Cut a deep cross in the top of the loaf with a wet or floured knife, then bake for 45 to 60 minutes, or until nicely browned and the bottom of the loaf sounds hollow when tapped.
Andrews gives an entire page of pointers to help ensure successful bread. Mainly though, you want to make sure not to over-mix the dough and not to undercook the bread.
Resist the urge to cut into the bread until it is entirely cool (I couldn’t the first time); it results in a better texture and the bread is best at room temperature anyway. This bread tastes amazing with honey, good cheese, jam or dipped in soup such as the Potato and Leek posted on this blog.