IRISH BROWN BREADS
A few years ago I had the chance to visit Ireland and teach at an absolutely wonderful cooking school in County Cork called Ballymaloe. It is run by a world famous cooking teacher, Darina Allen, and her husband Timmy. They offer classes both for the interested amateur as well as the aspiring professional. The school is a treasure with a fantastic organic garden and beautiful cottages which date back to the 1700’s. This is the part of Ireland that all the postcards picture: Green verdant hills, rocky coastlines and wonderful farms that produce all manner of produce, meats, cheeses and other goodies.
Some people still have the idea that Irish cuisine is pretty spartan (somehow an idea leftover from the potato famine). I’m here to tell you that Ireland has some of the best food I’ve had in a long time! In part this is the result of recent prosperity, which has brought lots of business, especially high tech firms, to Ireland to take advantage of favorable taxes and living conditions. Even with this business development, the populace is maintaining a strong connection to their farmers and producers.
Throughout Ireland you find wonderful peasant style breads. I have made “Irish” soda bread many times over the years and was not terribly impressed with the results. The bread often tended to be dry and a little tasteless. The soda and yeast brown breads in Ireland were a whole different experience: moist, rich and delicious! The difference (as with most recipes) was the quality of the ingredients, especially the flours. The best breads were made from freshly milled flours and the very best of those come from old mills where they still use stone grinding wheels. The wheat is usually ground at a higher moisture content than we do in America. The result is that when the stonewheel crushes the wheat, the bran jacket surrounding the kernel slips off rather than being pulverized as it is in our America mills. The resulting flour has more texture, flavor and moisture. Until recently these kinds of flours would have been impossible to find in America. However, with the increasing popularity of artisian breadmakers around the country, we’re beginning to see more of these special flours. Some health and natural food stores are now providing freshly ground flours and it definitely is worth the effort to find them.
For information on Ballymaloe: www.ballymaloe-cookery-school.ie or call Ireland 353 21 646785.
TIMMY’S BROWN SODA BREAD
Makes one large loaf
8 ounces (1 1/2 cups) unbleached white flour
8 ounces (1 1/2 cups) whole wheat flour
2 ounces (6 tablespoons) kibbled wheat (use American cracked wheat)
2 ounces (6 tablespoons) granary flour (use American wheat bran)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon soda
2 tablespoons butter, cut into fine dice
12 fl. ounces (1 1/2 cups) buttermilk
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Mix all the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. With your fingers, mix and turn it for 2-3 minutes to lighten mixture and trap air into it. With your fingers or with a mixer, quickly rub the butter so that no large lumps appear. Whisk the egg and buttermilk together, make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour the buttermilk mixture in. With your fingers, quickly mix in a circle to form a loose dough. This shouldn’t take more than a minute or two. You want to be careful not to overmix.
Dust the top of the loaf with a little whole wheat flour, turn out the dough on a clean surface and (as Timmy notes) tidy gently around the edges. Dough will be soft. Flip the loaf over onto a baking sheet and flatten slightly with your fingers. Loaf should be 2 inches or so thick. With a sharp knife cut a cross on top of the loaf about 1/2 inch deep and poke a hole in each quarter of the cross (this is to let the fairies out!). Place in preheated oven and bake for 15 minutes. Reduce temperature to 400 degrees and bake for another 18-20 minutes. To check if the bread is done, tap the bottom and it should sound hollow. Cool on a rack.
IRISH BROWN YEAST BREAD
Makes four 5 x 8 inch loaves
The amazing thing about this bread is even though it’s a yeast bread it can be quickly made and requires little kneading. The quality of the flour will of course determine the quality of the bread. Try substituting a little wheat bran, oat bran or cracked wheat for some of the flour for interesting variation. The recipe uses a lot of fresh yeast which you get from a bakery supply store or your friendly local bake shop.
3 1/2 pounds (11 1/4 cups) whole grain flour
1/2 pound (1 1/2 cups) white unbleached bread flour
1 3/4-2 quarts lukewarm water
1-2 tablespoons black treacle or unsulphured molasses
3/4 cup fresh yeast
Vegetable oil for pans
2 tablespoons sesame or poppyseeds (optional)
In a large bowl, mix flours and salt together. In a separate small bowl, mix 2 cups of the water, the molasses and yeast together and let them sit until active and very frothy. Combine yeast and remaining water with flour and quickly, in as few turns as possible, mix ingredients together. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead a few times to bring mixture together.
Divide dough into quarters and form into a loaf shape and place into oiled loaf pans. Sprinkle optional seeds over top and place in a warm spot covered with a tea towel. In about 20 minutes loaves will have doubled in size. Remove towel and bake in a preheated 450 degree oven for 40-45 minutes or until nicely browned and hollow sounding when tapped. For a crisp crust all around, remove the bread from the pans after about 35 minutes and put them back in oven on middle shelf for 10 minutes.
John Ash © 1998