One recent morning in Catonsville, Ned Atwater was wielding his bench knife, cutting lumps of dough and shaping them into the two types of bread, Irish brown and Irish soda, that he will offer to Baltimore-area bread eaters on St. Patrick's Day.
Like many things Irish, there is a lively debate about what goes in their breads. For example, one traditional version of an Irish brown bread calls for oatmeal. For some, this bread offers a hearty taste of the old country. For others, like Atwater, the loaf can be leaden.
So Atwater's Irish brown bread recipe is lighter on the palate. It uses three different kinds of flours - bread, whole-wheat and rye - plus a chocolate malt "tea" he brews using malt secured from a store that sells beer-making supplies. He uses a whole-wheat starter, because, he says "it offers a balance between the yeast and sour flavors." The malt, he says, gives the bread "a nice bitterness in the finish like you get in a good Irish stout."
Atwater, whose shaved head and sharp features make him resemble a floury version of political pundit James Carville, passed out slices of the Irish brown bread to customers wandering into his combination bakery-storefront on Frederick Road. Rob Brennan, an architect whose office is nearby, tasted the brown bread. "It is excellent," Brennan said. "And it is seasonal, just in time for St. Patrick's Day."
Later, Atwater made his version of Irish soda bread. His recipe calls for caraway seeds - which some soda bread recipes avoid. It uses pastry flour and is dotted with a mixture of raisins, currants and a bit of orange zest. The result is sweeter and fruitier than the traditional, plain soda breads once baked in the fireplaces of Ireland. This glorified version won a 2005 tasting of Baltimore-area soda breads.
Historically, Irish soda breads were served with a meal, said Sue Gray, product development manager for King Arthur Flour, the Norwich, Vt., company that provides products and encouragement to the nation's home bakers. Years ago, she said, many Irish breads were dark because the wheat used to make the flour was minimally refined. There was, she said, a class division marked by the bread's color. The less-well off ate dark. The rich, who could afford pricier, refined flour, ate white.
Nowadays as bakers use more whole-grain flours, some breads are reverting to their historical hues, she said.
Still, bakers being bakers, they can't resist tweaking recipes. Even Gray, whose Irish soda bread recipe is a dark bread in a skillet, couldn't resist adding a few tablespoons of sugar to liven up the recipe.
Moreover, Gray had her own theory about when to add the baking soda to the buttermilk. Most soda bread bakers add the baking soda to the buttermilk and then pour the liquid ingredients into dry. But Gray keeps her baking soda dry. She mixes it with flour and other dry ingredients, and then combines it with the liquid mixture of an egg, melted butter and buttermilk.
Her method, she believes, traps more of the carbon dioxide gas in the flour. This gas is formed when the baking soda reacts with the buttermilk. A dough with more gas has more lift, she said.
One of the pleasures of making bread, Atwater said, is the rhythm of its labor. As you go through the routine of working and scaling the dough, your mind can float, he said. During the course of a recent bread-making session, Atwater, 52, told his life story.
He was born and raised in Catonsville, one of six children. His father, Ed, was a sports reporter for The Sun and often worked nights. As a result, he said, there were many school-year afternoons when his mother, Josephine, barred him and his sibling from entering the house until supper time because their dad was sleeping.
A Catonsville High School graduate, Atwater got his undergraduate degree from the University of Baltimore and then signed on as a $110-a-week apprentice under Michel Beaupin, a chef of the County Fare consortium of restaurants. "It was very traditional training, very French," Atwater said. Eventually, he "got over getting screamed at," and in the course of seven years, acquired what he called the "perfect foundation" for restaurant work. Along the way, he courted his wife, Priscilla, giving her gifts of warm loaves of bread. The couple now have three daughters ranging in age from 19 to 23.
They moved to Minnesota, where after running a successful restaurant, Forepaughs, in St. Paul, they had bad luck with a restaurant, Edwards, in Minneapolis. Returning to Baltimore, Atwater worked for Roland Jeannier at his French restaurant in the Broadview Apartments in North Baltimore before opening a wholesale baking operation in Linthicum.