Irish Brown Soda Bread.

Rye bread will do you good,
Barley bread will do you no harm,
Wheaten bread will sweeten your blood,
Oaten bread will strengthen your arm.

flag-mini-Ireland The festive indulgences -- and, one hopes, the ensuing hangovers -- of St. Patrick’s Day are long past as we approach April Fool’s Day. We like to celebrate the day of Ireland’s patron saint at home, away from noisy revelers drunk on too many green beers. Here at O’Smithigans, we enjoyed a simple meal of lamb stew, champ (potatoes mashed with cream, butter, green onions) and scrumptious homemade brown soda bread accompanied by bottles of Guinness and Smithwick’s while celtic tunes jigged their way out of the iHome. Oh, and Irish Coffee Meringues for dessert. Slainte!
Irish Coffee Meringue
Coffee flavored meringues with Irish whiskey-spiked whipped cream. (hiccup)

I used to bring Irish soda bread, Kerry Gold butter, and strawberry jam to work on St. Patrick’s day, in a vain effort to elevate the day above whatever green frosted cupcakes and cookies had also been brought in. My co-workers could not be enlightened and clearly preferred the green stuff. That’s about when I started wondering what St. Patrick’s day is really about. Why it never occurred to me that it’s a religious holiday (a saint’s day!) is possibly because in this country it seems to be largely about the color green: green food, beer, clothing, face paint, rivers, shamrocks and leprechauns.
Brown bread 1
St. Patrick was an actual guy, born around 387 in Roman Britain -- by some accounts present day Scotland, by others present-day Wales. At 16 he was captured by the Irish and sold into slavery. During his 6-year captivity, while he herded sheep for a Druid, he learned the local Celtic language, essentially converted himself to Christianity, escaped back to his homeland, and returned to Ireland as a bishop who was eventually sainted for Christianizing multitudes of pagan Irishfolk.
Brown bread 2
Paddy is credited with using the three leaves of a shamrock to demonstrate the Holy Trinity (that's the father, son, holy spirit for you heathens who escaped St. Patrick's campaign), and the snakes he banished from Ireland are likely a metaphor for the pagan religions he “drove out” as Christianity took root. Although, according to Franklin Habit, a popular knitter and blogger from Chicago, St. P was actually purging novelty yarns from the Emerald Isle.
Brown bread 3
Christian country though it might be, Ireland is not immune to excessive drink and merrymaking on St. Patrick’s Day, and it sounds like they tried -- and ultimately failed -- to close pubs on March 17. Now they’ve turned the day into an Irish cultural festival in an effort to “bring the piety and the fun together,” so you can have your Jamieson’s and drink it too! The Irish Americans I’ve informally polled over the years celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a family dinner, often the traditionally American meal of corned beef and cabbage.
Brown bread 4
St. Patrick’s Day shouldn’t pass without a few hearty slices of brown bread. We occasionally buy McNamees wheaten bread from the Celtic Knot Pub in Evanston. The loaves are tasty, but wee small and quite pricey. I have experimented with several recipes, trying to replicate the McNamees experience, and landed on a "Brown Soda Bread" recipe I’ve had since May 1996, from the special Romance of Ireland issue of Bon Appetit magazine. So that’s 15 years I’ve had the perfect brown bread recipe in my possession and never realized it!
Brown bread 5
It’s a quick bread with no fancy ingredients, and cooks up in 40 minutes flat. If you can stand to wait an extra 15 minutes for it to cool, you will be rewarded with a nutty, delicious bread that is not too dense or heavy. It's scrumptious with butter, or mustard, ham and cheese. No more McNamees for us, sorry Celtic Knot. But we’ll still dine there on Tuesday nights to catch your rousing live Celtic Music Seisiuns.
Brown bread 6My holy trinity ... brown bread, butter, and hot tea.

Bon Appetit doesn’t have this particular brown bread recipe online, so here is my adaptation of it. I reduced slightly the amount of whole wheat flour and increased the white flour because I dislike how wheat flour weighs things down. Although the bran and wheat germ say "toasted" I didn't actually toast either -- just scooped them directly out of their bags and jars. And do use real buttermilk -- 1 quart (the smallest I can find at local groceries) is enough for two loaves.

Brown Soda Bread
Adapted from Bon Appetit, May 1996

Yield: 1 loaf

2 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 cups whole wheat flour
3 Tablespoons toasted wheat bran
3 Tablespoons toasted wheat germ
2 Tablespoons old-fashioned oats
2 Tablespoons (packed) dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons (1/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 cups (about) buttermilk

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter 9x5x3-inch loaf pan. Combine first 8 ingredients in large bowl; mix well. Add butter; rub in with fingertips or pastry blender until mixture resembles fine meal. Stir in enough buttermilk to form a soft sticky dough. Transfer dough to prepared loaf pan. Bake until bread is deep golden brown and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Turn bread out onto rack. Turn right side up and cool on rack.

Once cooled, it slices easily and freezes well.

Enjoy! And as always, feel free to leave a comment.


An earthquake changes things.

Thursday, March 10, 2011.

While happily hooking my way through a crocheted wrap called the
Woodland Shawl, using lovely skeins of Manos del Uruguay yarn in a color called Wildflowers, I realized something that strikes madness in the hearts of fiber crafters everywhere: the first skein and the second one did not match at ALL.

See for yourself.
Wildflowers all wrong
My 12-year-old stepdaughter saw the obvious difference even before I pointed it out to her. The first is brighter (or in that photo darker) and more colorful than the second. (Sigh.) I knew the remaining skeins wouldn’t match either, such being the nature of this particular yarn. There are no dyelots, so there’s no guarantee one skein will match the next.

I was
seriously bummed about the whole thing, having made good progress into this shawl, and really struggled with what to do. Keep going and not care about the color changes? I care -- the difference is too obvious. Crochet decorative chains of flowers to mask the changes between balls? No. Crochet with two skeins, alternating them from row to row? Too fussy, and no way to gracefully mask that operation on a two-sided project. ARGH.

The more I thought about it the more annoyed I became. By bedtime I had resigned myself to ripping the whole project and using the yarn for something else. I still obsessed about it and worried I wouldn’t sleep because of it. I know I’m not the first and only crafter to lose sleep over something like that! But I managed to calm my mind and fell asleep.

Friday, March 11, 2011.

After a decent night’s slumber (and no troubling dreams about yarn and crochet hooks), I awoke to news of the
earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Grim reports flowed out of the radio, telling of the 8.9 magnitude quake, of massive damage caused by the ensuing tsunami, and of the tsunami’s trajectory through the Pacific ocean toward American shores. Words like casualties, battered, chaos, destruction, wreckage, obliteration, splintered, catastrophic, smashed, washed away, collapsed, adrift, and buried described the aftermath. A quick peek at some internet news sites showed frightful images of flooded towns, huge boats dragged inland, cars teetering over gaping cracks in the roads, houses floating out to sea, and frightened Japanese in varying states of bewilderment, shock, despair and homelessness.

Saddened and humbled, I dressed and headed downstairs for breakfast, grateful that my family was safe and our house still standing solidly on its foundation. I looked out the living room window and noted appreciatively the dry streets, my neighbors’ houses all still strong and upright, children playing on the corner waiting for their school bus, their mothers chatting amicably. No earthquake or flooding here, no disaster, no wreckage. Thank goodness.

Our critters were unaffected by the news.

I'm awfully glad we live in an area of the country that, thus far, doesn’t see too many natural disasters. Sure we live near a significant seismic zone, but word on the street is we don’t really have to worry about any serious plate shifts for several hundred years. Occasionally microbursts and tornadoes blow through, but our particular midwestern neighborhood doesn’t get hit with much. On rare occasions two feet of snow fall overnight, but the snow melts, we all survive and life goes on.
Piper blizzard 2011
That Friday, and every day since then, I was extra thankful to be out of harm's way. I occasionally imagined for a moment my house leveled by an earthquake and -- goddess willing we survived -- that we were homeless. Perish the thought. But it feels important to put myself in those poor Japanese -- and Haitian, Indonesian, American and all those who have suffered through earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, etc. -- souls’ shoes even for a few minutes. Does my sympathy, and lame attempts at empathy, help them in any way? No. I think about them, and care very much. Does that help? And is it okay to be relieved it's not happening to us?

When I looked upon my project again, I felt nothing--no annoyance at the mismatched skeins, no struggling with how to remedy it, no uncertainty about ripping out the work I had done. The whole dilemma ... well, that’s just it--it wasn’t even a dilemma anymore. The magnitude of the tragedy in Japan had reduced the whole shawl thing to a speck of cosmic dust in an infinite universe, to a drop of blue in a sea of green, to almost nothingness. Like it never existed. Fffffft! gone. I calmly pulled at the yarn, decrocheting it row by row, wound it into balls, tucked the balls into my project bag. I’d figure out what to do with those skeins eventually.

I have nothing deep and philosophical to offer here, just that we all have our troubles, both very large and very small. All I’m saying is sometimes the sh*t that happens out there helps put things strongly into perspective.

The ripped shawl, by the way, is coming back as a sweater.
Pansy sweater

Spiced French Coffee Bread.

Coffee bread butteredLast weekend’s weather was miserably perfect (cold, rainy, snowy, gloomy) for bread baking. And with a French theme going -- we watched “Amelie” while dining on rustic Tomato Tart (this time with cheddar cheese instead of creme fraiche) -- I pulled Spiced French Coffee Bread from my favorite Old World Breads cookbook.
Coffee bread ingredients
“This comes from Southern France, specifically the Armagnac District,” quoth Old World Breads. Hmmmm ... Armagnac? as in the brandy? Well, yes, there IS brandy in this bread. “Many of the region’s breads are flavored with it,” continueth the book. At which point I pondered the merits of moving to Armagnac. (‘alo, beautiful!) The amount of brandy is small--just a tablespoon poured over the raisins, and the whole lot is thrown into the dough after 15 minutes. I warmed the brandy/raisin mixture for about 15 seconds in the microwave, to fully soften the raisins.
Coffee bread wet doughUnlike “coffee cake” which is meant to be enjoyed with a cup of hot coffee or tea, coffee bread actually has strong coffee in it -- decaf, of course. (I’m sure the French would scoff heartily at this.) Also grated lemon rind, the brandy-soaked raisins, and pinches of cinnamon, allspice, ground cloves. The recipe calls for a half cup of chopped nuts, which I contemplated adding. But nuts in bread is a tricky thing -- not everyone’s cuppa. So, no nuts.Coffee bread unrisenThis bread is, in some ways, similar to the scrumptious (if I say so myself) Yorkshire Breakfast Bread I baked a while back. The difference is the coffee, which adds lovely color and subtle depth of flavor. Even with spices, lemon, coffee, raisins and brandy, the flavor is not overly strong or perfumey--the ingredients blend together quietly, although toasting (and smothering in butter) raises the volume deliciously.
Coffee bread punchedOld World Breads does a great job explaining the basics of breadmaking, although my other favorite bread book -- Bread by Eric Treuille and Ursula Ferrigno -- does it just as well and with pretty photos. If you haven’t tried making bread, both of these books can walk you through it comfortably.
Coffee bread in ovenThere is nothing like the fragrance of baking bread wafting through your home ... except maybe tucking into a warm slice of that freshly baked bread (don't forget that butter).
Coffee bread bakedTo keep your heavenly loaves from drying out, cool thoroughly, slice, wrap well (I use ziplock freezer bags), and freeze. Then thaw or toast on demand, which I guarantee will be often. Bon apetit!
As always, please feel free to leave a comment.

Victoria Sponge: Treacle and Spice and everything nice.

flag-mini-british Sounds like the name of an eccentric English detective, yes? Well, no. It's cake from the motherland.

Sometimes I think I was born on the wrong side of pond, so enamored am I of all things British. Well,
many things British. I was always fascinated by English accents, the royal family (didn't I dream of marrying one of the princes as a wee girl?), BBC shows on public television -- think Upstairs, Downstairs, double decker buses and London taxis, tea and finger sandwiches, Paddington Bear books. Over the years my fascination branched out from England to Scotland, Wales and Ireland--all of which hold the bones of my ancestors. I feel a kinship with the United Kingdom, and I’m on a quest to strengthen that kinship through--well, a trip there would be nice but until then--food.

Ever since I discovered
British Country Living magazine I’ve drooled over lots of interesting recipes from the U.K. And my favorite Miss Read books, about country life in the Cotswolds, have introduced me to a teatime treat called “Victoria sponge.”
Sea sponge cake
No no no, not that kind of sponge! This:
Treacle sponge on plate
It's Treacle and Spice Victoria Sponge -- darker than the usual Victoria sponges, which look more like this -- yellow cake layers with fruit or jam in between. A slice with a pot of tea, please!
Sponge cakes were, apparently, a favorite of
Queen Victoria, who not only invented the entire Victorian era but is also famed for her afternoon tea parties. For elevating the ritual of afternoon tea, credit is often given to the Duchess of Bedford, one of Queen V’s “Ladies of the Bedchamber." Apparently The Duchess got a bit peckish at 5ish, hours after the lunch dishes had been cleared and hours to go until dinner time (at 9:00 p.m.). The story goes that she convinced the household help to sneak pots of tea and snacks into her room, to quell the "sinking feeling" of low blood sugar in between meals. She started inviting friends for this daily repast, and when Queen Vic found out she adopted the ritual herself, enjoying slices of sponge cake with her tea every afternoon.

Back to Victoria sponge (named for guess who?), in which butter and sugar are beaten together until light and fluffy, then mixed with the remaining ingredients. The resulting cake is light, but not so light as angel food cake, which relies on whipped egg whites and cream of tartar to create marshmallow fluffiness and height. Typical Victoria sponge recipes call for equal portions -- usually 225g each (this is a British cake, remember) -- of butter,
caster sugar (ground to a fineness between granulated and powdered sugar--here we call it "superfine sugar"), eggs and self-raising flour (flour mixed with baking powder and salt, although my bag also lists baking soda). In fact, one Sponge recipe I found calls for weighing three eggs first, then adding the same weight in butter, sugar and flour. Clever! Like a pound cake.
Treacle sponge butter
With all those lovely grams to calculate, this cake calls for your trusty Escali Digital Scale. You say you don’t have one? Go here to buy! You won’t regret it.

This cake is a departure from regular Victoria sponge -- it is flavored with
dark muscovado sugar (like molasses flavored dark brown sugar), cinnamon and allspice, only one deep layer, no fruit in the middle, and a sweet orange glaze on top. I couldn’t find muscovado sugar anywhere, so I mixed about a tablespoon or more of molasses with dark brown sugar. Someday I’ll find that muscovado sugar to see how mine measured up. I also made my own self-raising/rising flour: 1.5 tsp. baking powder and 1/4 tsp. salt per cup of flour. Not being familiar with treacle, I'm assuming the muscovado sugar stands in for it in this recipe.
Treacle sponge all ingredients
The recipe calls for putting all ingredients into a bowl mixed together, rather than beating the eggs and sugar separately. Oh isn't it nice using just one bowl.
Treacle sponge batter in pan
I plopped the batter into a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper on the bottom.
Treacle sponge baked
It puffed up nicely with the most interesting bubblynubbly thing happening on top. What beautiful color!
Treaclel sponge on rack
I really worked the orange glaze so it dripped down the sides just as prettily as the picture from the recipe.
Treacle sponge on platter
The glaze cracked a bit when I transferred the cake from pan to platter, but thankfully this did
not affect the flavor. It's moist, not too dense or sweet, and tastes like gingerbread. The glaze is exactly right for it -- just a thin layer of sweetness instead of heavy frosting. When I make this again, I might flavor the glaze with fresh squeezed lemon juice instead of orange, to make it more zingly.

Next time, though, I'm making a
chocolate version. I just can't go too long without chocolate.