A slice of Ireland Fresh-baked soda bread brings a tate of the Emerald Isle to St. Patrick's Day

March 12, 1997|By Lucy Barajikian | Lucy Barajikian,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

The cool, moist climate of Ireland that turns valleys and hills a lush emerald green calls for sturdy fare. Hence the popularity of such national delights as steaming bowls of nourishing Irish beef stew; baked, fried or roasted potatoes; and glasses brimming with stout -- all good examples of proper "filler" fare.

Woven into the fabric of the meal are the baked products of the country, and in Ireland, that means fresh-baked, compact and craggy, full-flavored Irish soda bread -- a perfect addition for your own St. Patrick's Day celebration this coming Monday.

Years ago in Ireland, when people lived long distances from the bakeries in towns, this bread was baked every day in households over an open hearth. The dough was bundled into a covered skillet or pot that swung over the fire on a small crane. The flames from the fire beneath helped the loaf bake and brown on the bottom, while burning coals shoveled on the lid took care of the top of the bread. Because of a shortage of wood, the fuel used was often peat or turf, which imparted its own distinctive accent to the baking process. The robust bread was often made with oats, and sometimes enhanced with aromatic herbs.

Irish soda bread is still simple to make and even simpler to bake, and, unlike yeast bread, it goes together in one uninterrupted process. In other words, there is no half-a-day's relationship with a batch of temperamental, unrelated ingredients that have to be mixed, raised, whacked, shaped, raised again, and then baked into what one hopes is perfection. In the process, the cook alternates between terror and exhilaration, because bread making with yeast does not always prove successful, as one cookbook author once noted in a chapter titled, "How to Slice a Brick."

Although packaged yeast, baking soda and baking powder are the common leavening agents used these days to make bread, in the early history of bread making there were few inducements for bread to rise. Hard and gritty wheat mixed with water and baked over hot stones formed a type of early flatbread. This was followed by the discovery that if the water and wheat were set aside, fermentation would occur, the dough would swell, and when baked yield quite a delicious raised bread.

Gradually, chemical leavening agents began appearing in kitchens. By the end of the 18th century, baking soda was used not only as a raising agent in delicious cakes, but also inspired the beginnings of a quick method for making bread.

Why the Irish, in particular, are associated with this bread made with baking soda is lost in the mists of time. Perhaps when yeast was introduced in Irish households, it proved difficult to activate, bubble and foam in a country with houses that are notably damp, cold and without central heating. Or it could just be that the speed of preparing soda bread proved to be an exceptional way to prepare freshly baked bread for the household every day.

It's difficult to regard making soda bread as a sacred art when measuring and mixing take only 10 to 15 minutes, and kneading just a few minutes longer. Indeed, the method for making soda bread is easily mastered. The process is quick, and results are almost foolproof for this rustic, biscuitlike treat.

In the beginning, Irish soda breads were simplicity itself, made with only a few ingredients: flour, salt, baking soda and buttermilk. No caraway seeds. In fact, this ingredient seems to have ruptured whole families over the issue of whether to incorporate the seeds. (There's even a rumor that using caraway seeds is very Catholic and not using them is very Protestant.)

Over the years, a variety of other items were added to the original ingredients to enhance flavor and provide variety: ground ginger, cinnamon or cardamom, sultana or dark seedless raisins, currants or handfuls of chopped nuts, dates or crystallized ginger. The recipes I've included below include still other choices.

When you're planning to make soda bread, keep these guidelines in mind to achieve the best-textured loaf:

Use good stone-ground, unbleached pastry, or whole-wheat flour and/or a combination. In Ireland, the flour used is so coarse it resembles shredded cardboard and would never go through a sifter. It yields a marvelous heavy-grained loaf. Some cooks in this country add oat or wheat bran to approximate the milled Irish flour.

Measure accurately, but remember that flour is a tricky ingredient that varies according to how it is processed, how much moisture it will absorb on a humid day, and other factors. So the flour you add might need to be decreased or increased to get the proper consistency of sticky dough that is required to attain a tender loaf.

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