Irish eyes smiling over buttermilk

Cuisine: It's been a key ingredient in soda bread and other food for years, and today, it's still valued for its tangy yet slightly sweet flavor.

March 14, 2001|By Margaret M. Johnson | Margaret M. Johnson,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw loved brown soda bread and once said of it: "Remember that brown bread is a good familiar creature and worth more than his weight in flesh."

Perhaps Ireland's greatest culinary legacy, soda bread is but one of many humble and familiar creatures that come to mind when the subject of Irish cooking comes up at this time of year.

Along with Irish stew, bacon and cabbage, smoked salmon and potato dishes, soda bread may be the most cherished of Irish fare, but it's buttermilk, one of its key ingredients, that Irish bakers have used for generations to produce not only hearty loaves of bread, but also light and tender cakes, fruit-filled crisps and crumbles, and, lately, even tangy soups and cheesy tarts.

Originally, buttermilk was a byproduct of butter churning on a farm - the liquid remaining after the butter had been removed from the milk. In medieval Ireland, buttermilk was not only valued as a refreshment, but also as an ingredient used in the production of cheese. It's mentioned in Ireland's legendary Brehon Laws - ancient rules of conduct - as a foodstuff and a food "rent" exchanged between clients and lords. From the 19th century on, buttermilk also became an indispensable ingredient in bread-making.

Because it's naturally high in acid, it reacts well with baking soda or baking powder - an alkali - to generate the carbon dioxide that causes batter to rise.

Today's buttermilk, however, is a pasteurized milk to which a lactic bacteria culture has been added. It, too, acts as a natural emulsifier in baking, dispersing the fat throughout the baked product while its proteins react to sugar and contribute to browning.

Best of all, buttermilk delivers a tangy yet slightly sweet flavor that complements ingredients from chocolate to cheese to cinnamon.

Although it wouldn't be St. Patrick's Day without at least one loaf of bread or a batch of scones, buttermilk has moved Irish cooking way beyond these old favorites, adding an unexpected tang to traditional leek-and-potato soup, a lovely smoothness to bacon-and-leek tart, and an unusual twist to a classic loin of lamb encased in pastry. In desserts, buttermilk makes an exceptionally light batter for an apple buckle or an upside-down apple tart.

An added bonus in buttermilk baking is the easy-to-use powdered form, Saco Cultured Buttermilk Blend, which stores up to several years if refrigerated after opening. It can be used in nearly any recipe calling for liquid buttermilk.

Lamb Wrapped in Buttermilk Crust

This succulent lamb dish, which makes a very impressive special-occasion meal, was created by Dublin chef Neil McFadden. The lamb is braised in stock with a good dash of Irish whiskey, wrapped in bacon slices, then encased in a buttermilk dough.

Makes 4 servings

LAMB:

2 tablespoons oil

1 boneless shoulder of lamb, rolled and tied

1 carrot, peeled and sliced

1 onion, sliced

1 celery stalk, sliced

1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups lamb stock or canned low-sodium chicken broth

2 tablespoons Irish whiskey

10 slices bacon, preferably Irish bacon

DOUGH:

2 cups sifted flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 package (1 teaspoon) active dried yeast

1 tablespoon oil

1/4 cup boiling water

1/2 cup buttermilk

egg wash (1 egg mixed with 1 1/2 tablespoons water)

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

salt, freshly ground pepper

To prepare lamb, heat oil in Dutch oven or flameproof casserole over medium heat. Add lamb and brown on all sides, about 10 minutes. Transfer to plate. Add carrot, onion and celery to pan to make a "bed" for the lamb. Return meat to casserole and add enough stock to come about two-thirds of way up the meat. Add whiskey. Reduce heat to simmer, cover and cook until meat is tender, about 2 hours. Transfer lamb to plate and let cool. Set aside.

Let cooking liquid stand 10 minutes, then skim off fat. Strain and set aside. When lamb has cooled, remove string and wrap meat in bacon. Lightly grease baking sheet large enough to hold meat.

To prepare dough, combine flour, salt and yeast in large bowl. Mix together oil, water and buttermilk. Add to dry ingredients and mix well. On lightly floured surface, knead until smooth, elastic dough is formed, about 5 minutes. (A little extra flour or liquid can be added, if necessary.) Roll dough out to a size big enough to wrap around meat. Place meat in center and roll dough around it.

Place wrapped meat on prepared baking sheet and set aside until dough has puffed up to twice its size, 10 to 15 minutes. Brush egg wash over dough and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Bake at 400 degrees 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 325 degrees and bake until dough is golden brown, about 30 minutes. Remove from oven.

Boil cooking liquid over medium-high heat until reduced by half. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

To serve, cut 1 thick slice per serving and spoon 1 tablespoon reduced cooking liquid over top. Pass rest in serving dish.

Leek-and-Potato Soup With Buttermilk Cream

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