Whole Wheat Irish Soda Bread

Who invented soda bread?  Like most people, I used to think that it was the Irish.  After all, they made soda bread for St. Patrick, right?  Wrong on both counts.  

The correct answer to the first question is American Indians, not the Irish.  Early settlers in the New World recorded how native Americans leavened their bread with pearl ash, a form of baking soda, several hundred years before the Irish started baking soda bread.  The first Irish Soda Bread was almost certainly baked around 1840 when sodium bicarbonate was introduced to Great Britain.

The answer to the second question is obvious, once you realize that St. Patrick died at least 1200 years before sodium bicarbonate appeared on the Emerald Isle.  The answer to a third question helps us understand why we associate soda bread with the Irish and St. Patrick.  When the great Irish immigration occurred in the nineteenth century, almost all of the immigrants were peasants.  They brought with them a reverence for their patron saint, St. Patrick, and a love of the soda bread their mothers baked in iron pots in the fireplace.  

Why did Irish housewives bake soda bread? The answer is simpler than you might guess.  Irish housewives were peasants.  The peasants farmed the land for the wealthy English landlords.  Those peasants could not afford the yeast bread preferred by the English.  Soda bread was cheap and nourishing.  It was a bread for peasants, though once the landlords discovered how good it tasted, they probably began baking it too.

This is another bread I first encountered in James Beard’s Beard on Bread.  It is chock full of fiber and flavor and is absolutely delicious with soups or corned beef and cabbage.  If you toast it lightly, it is a great breakfast bread.  I have changed the recipe to suit our taste, and friends we share it with like it too.

INGREDIENTS:

3 cups whole wheat flour

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 T sugar

1 T salt

1 tsp. baking soda

3/4 tsp. baking powder

1 large egg

1 1/2 to 2 cups buttermilk

PROCEDURE:

Put one and one-half cups of buttermilk into a microwavable bowl or measuring cup and heat the milk to warm room temperature.  Take a large egg from the refrigerator and allow it to begin to come to room temperature as you measure the dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl.

Preheat the oven to 375º and sift the dry ingredients into the mixing bowl.  Make sure that the sugar, salt, soda and baking powder are blended thoroughly with the flours.  Beat the egg into the warmed buttermilk.

Wash your hands thoroughly as you will be kneading the dough.  Butter an eight or nine-inch pie plate or cake pan.

Use a wooden spoon to stir the milk and egg mixture into the dry ingredients.  Add small amounts of extra buttermilk until everything has been moistened.  Flour a flat surface and turn the dough out of the bowl.  Use a spatula to roll the dough in the flour. 

Knead the dough for a minute or so until it is smooth and elastic.  Do not knead it too long, since the baking soda begins leavening the dough as soon as you add the buttermilk. Form the dough into a ball and put it into the buttered plate or pan.  Use a sharp knife to slash a cross on top of the ball.  

Put the bread on a center shelf in the oven and bake forty to fifty minutes until the loaf sounds hollow when rapped on the top and bottom.  Set a timer for forty minutes.  When it sounds rotate the loaf to make sure that it browns evenly and set the timer for another five minutes.  If the bread now looks done, rap the bottom of the loaf.  If it sounds hollow, the bread is done.  However, if you have any doubt about the hollow sound, give the bread another five minutes before you take it out of the oven.  It is better to overbake the loaf a little than to have a gooey center.

Let the loaf cool on a rack.  Slice thinly and serve with butter, marmalade or cheese or as a tasty bread to go with a bowl of soup.

NOTES:  I especially like soda bread fresh from the oven and slightly warm, but it is also excellent cold or toasted.  It does not keep well, so plan on eating it within a couple of days.

Soda bread is the traditional accompaniment of corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day.  Guinness Stout goes especially well with this St. Pat’s Day dinner.

Apple Bierocks

Jerri and I were introduced to bierocks by Jerri’s Aunt Hilda many years ago, when she was living in a retirement community in North Newton, Kansas. When I suggested that we go for a drive, Aunt Hilda said that she would like to stop at Gillispie Meats.

Following Aunt Hilda’s directions, Jerri, her aunt and I were soon at a small meat market on a tree-lined street in Newton, Kansas. Having lived most of my life in Wisconsin, I was familiar with small butcher shops and grocery stores with expert meat crafters who produced fine sausages, hams and bacon, but this was the first one I had encountered in Kansas.

“I want to buy some bierocks for supper,” Hilda said, “and Gillispie’s makes the best ones in Newton. Maybe in Kansas.”

I had never heard of them, and neither had Jerri. “What are bierocks?” I asked.

“They’re buns filled with meat and cabbage,” she told us. “Mennonite women brought the recipe to Kansas along with Turkey Red Wheat when Grant was President. Our family didn’t make them, so that’s why you don’t know what they are,” she told Jerri.

Aunt Hilda was a great cook and loved good food, so we took her advice and bought a half dozen bierocks. They were wonderful. I learned later that Catholic, Lutheran and Baptist women from southeast Russia also brought bierock recipes to Kansas when the great Mennonite migration occurred, so it might be more accurate to say that bierocks are a German/Russian delicacy enjoyed by Mennonites, Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists and anyone else who likes good food.

Traditional bierocks are yeast rolls stuffed with a savory mixture of meat and cabbage or sauerkraut. They are smaller than pasties, but you can always eat two. This got me thinking about how to use up some apples left over from the harvest from a friend’s tree.

What if I used a sweet dough and made bierocks filled with apples? The answer? A delicious variation on a wonderful recipe.

Here is how you can make your very own apple bierocks. They are easier to make than you might think.

FILLING INGREDIENTS:

4 cups chopped apples
1 tsp. lemon juice
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup light brown sugar
3 T cornstarch
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. allspice
1/4 tsp. salt
1 3/4 cups water
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 T butter

PROCEDURE:

Peel and core four or five apples and cut them into quarters. Slice each quarter into half-inch slices and chop them into quarter-inch pieces. You should have about four cups of chopped apples in a mixing bowl. Stir a teaspoon of lemon juice into the apples.

Blend the sugars, cornstarch, spices and salt together in a small bowl.

Bring the water to a boil over moderate heat in a two-quart saucepan. Whisk the sugar mixture into the water and whisk until you have a smooth sauce. Stir in the apples, bring the mixture back to a boil, then reduce the heat and cook the apples for seven to eight minutes, stirring every minute or so. Test a piece of apple for tenderness. Done right, it will have a slight crunchiness.

Remove the pan from the heat, let it cool a minute and stir in the butter and vanilla.

Cover the pan and set the filling aside to cool. You can make it a day ahead of time and store it in the refrigerator until you are ready to make the bierocks.

DOUGH INGREDIENTS:

1 cup water
4 tsp. yeast
1 cup milk
1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup granulated sugar plus 1/4 tsp. divided
1 1/2 tsp. salt
2 large eggs
About 7 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. lemon juice
1/4 tsp nutmeg
2 T butter

PROCEDURE:

Bring a cup of water to lukewarm and stir in a quarter teaspoon of sugar and the yeast. Set the mixture aside while the yeast proofs. Put the shortening, the half cup of sugar and the salt into a large mixing bowl.

Heat the milk until it is steaming and pour it over the shortening, sugar and salt. When the milk has cooled to lukewarm, beat the eggs in with a fork. Using a wooden spoon, stir in two cups of flour, a cup at a time, then add the yeast and beat well to make a smooth batter. Stir in the lemon juice and nutmeg, then continue stirring in flour a cup at a time until you have a soft dough. Stir in more flour a quarter cup at a time until you have a workable dough that pulls away from the sides of the bowl.

Turn the dough onto a floured work surface and knead it for three to five minutes until you have a satiny smooth dough. Be careful not to knead too long, or you will incorporate too much flour into the dough. Form the dough into a ball.

Grease the mixing bowl with shortening or non-stick spray and turn the ball of dough in the bowl until it is lightly covered with grease. Cover the bowl with a damp towel, set it in a warm place and allow the dough to rise until it has doubled in size.

Deflate the risen dough and turn it out on a floured surface. Knead it gently for a few seconds, then divide it in half. Return half to the bowl and cover it with the towel. Shape the other half into a log about two inches in diameter and cut it into nine equal pieces.

Roll the pieces into balls and let them rest while you preheat the oven to 350º and line a baking sheet with parchment paper dusted lightly with flour. Melt the butter in a small dish. Blend a half teaspoon of cinnamon into a couple tablespoons of granulated sugar to garnish the bierocks before you put them into the oven.

Form the bierocks by flattening the balls on the floured surface and pressing the dough into a circle. Use a rolling pin to roll the dough into circles seven inches in diameter. Put about a quarter cup of filling in the center of the circle. Bring two sides of the circle high over the filling. Pinch them together, then do the same with the other two sides. Pat the seams together and put the bierock seam side down on the baking sheet.

Brush the tops of the bierocks with melted butter and sprinkle them with cinnamon sugar. Bake them on a center shelf in the preheated oven for twenty-two to twenty-four minutes until they are golden brown. Let them cool at least ten minutes before serving, as the filling is very hot when the bierocks come from the oven. Follow the same steps for the rest of the dough.