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 Cinnamon Bread

When I was a kid, there weren’t many apple trees around Hayward, Wisconsin, and most of the few I knew of were crabapple trees. My father said that our winters were too cold for most apple trees, but that crabapples could survive cold temperatures better, which may explain the big crabapple tree in my Grandma Hopp’s yard.

There were a few apple trees, of course. Some were planted by farmers who lucked into a variety that would grow in a place where thirty-five-degrees-below-zero winter days were common. Others were “wild” trees seeded by birds or people that chanced to have the hardiness demanded by northern Wisconsin.

We picked good apples from an old tree on the “Munger place,” one of the many deserted farms a few miles from our home. The only traces of the farm were the stone foundations and small piles of lumber discarded when someone tore down the buildings, a lilac bush, a small field and the apple tree that bore sweet red apples in years when the blossoms didn’t freeze.

Many years later while hunting for brook trout along the Marengo River I came across another deserted farmstead with an apple tree. Located high above and a quarter mile distant from the river, the site had clearly been chosen because there was a spring in a dale on the hillside. The spring filled a small tank formed by logs sunk in the ground. A few yards away was a dilapidated tree with big apples on the few branches which had not been broken off by bears harvesting the fruit. For a dozen years I made a point of stopping in late summer for an apple on my way through the forest to the river. They were juicy and sweet.

“Wild” apple trees are fairly common today in northern Wisconsin. There is one along Highway 63 just a few miles from our cabin, but the apples don’t have much flavor. You will find quite a few apple trees growing in the ditches along town roads near Mason, Wisconsin, and some of those apples are pretty tasty. I speak from experience.

When I was in college, some friends and I found a deserted orchard near Mole Lake, Wisconsin, that supplied us with apples for some very satisfactory pies that I wrote about several years ago. You will find a good recipe for Double Crust Apple Pie in that essay.

The apple tree in our yard produces a fair crop every other year. We don’t spray, so we have to cut away the worm holes, but the apples make good pies, cakes and breads.

Jerri found this recipe for a wonderful apple bread in Lynda Kochevar’s food column, “In the Kitchen,” in the Pioneer Press. In answer to a reader’s question, Lynda suggested that the reader try this recipe with cinnamon and chopped apples. She said that the recipe was from The Church Supper Cookbook edited by David Joachim.

It’s really good.

INGREDIENTS:

4 cups flour
2 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. salt
2 cups sugar
4 eggs, beaten
1 cup cooking oil
1/4 cup sour cream
2 tsp. vanilla
2 cups chopped apples
1 cup chopped nuts

PROCEDURE:

Peel and core enough apples to produce two cups of apples chopped into about a half-inch dice. Chop a cup of raw walnuts or pecans into about a quarter-inch dice. Set the chopped apples and nuts aside in a small bowl.

Preheat the oven to 350º and grease and flour two loaf pans.

Sift the flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt into a medium-sized bowl and set it aside. Beat the eggs in a large mixing bowl until they are lemon yellow, add the sugar, oil, sour cream and vanilla and continue beating until you have a smooth liquid.

Stir in the flour mixture by thirds to make a thick batter. Fold in the apples and nuts, and spoon the batter into the prepared pans.

Bake one hour and test for doneness with a toothpick inserted near the center of each loaf. If the toothpick comes out clean, the bread is done. If it does not, bake another four or five minutes and test again.
 
NOTES: You can use either 8 1/2 by 4 1/2-inch or 5 by 9-inch pans. I have only one of the smaller size so I make two different sized loaves in each batch. They both turn out fine.