Fruited Irish Soda Bread

Traditional Irish soda bread was probably first baked around 1840, a few years after baking soda was introduced to the island.  It was made with whole wheat flour, little or no sugar, a teaspoon of baking soda, some salt and sour milk.  It was a bread to dip into your tea or soup, something that also went well with boiled potatoes or cabbage and, if you were lucky, a slab of cheese or a piece of bacon or fish.

Today, many recipes for Irish soda bread include raisins or other dried fruits.  In the nineteenth century dried fruits would have been an expensive addition to the bread.  They were probably reserved for holidays or other occasions when housewives wanted to make a special treat for their families.  Besides adding flavor, the fruit also helps keep the bread moist for a longer period.

However, this bread tastes so good that it seldom lasts more than a day or two.  I think it tastes better slightly warm, so we like to pop it into the toaster or microwave for a few seconds before slathering on the butter. 

INGREDIENTS:

1 cup raisins

1/3 cup dried cherries or cranberries

1/2 tsp. brandy

1/2 tsp. port wine

1/2 tsp. water

4 cups all-purpose flour plus a little more to sprinkle on the loaf

2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/4 tsp. salt

1/4 cup butter 

2 large eggs

1 cup buttermilk

PROCEDURE:

Start by washing your hands and plumping the fruit.  Put the raisins and dried cherries or cranberries into a microwavable bowl or measuring cup.  Add about a half teaspoon each of brandy, port wine and water.  Cover and microwave on high for twenty seconds, then stir the fruit and microwave another twenty seconds.  Repeat one more time and let the fruit cool.  If you see liquid on the bottom of the container, stir the fruit until the liquid has been absorbed.

Melt the butter and set it aside to cool to a warm room temperature.  Preheat the oven to 350º and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Sift the flour, baking powder, soda, sugar and salt into a large mixing bowl.  Stir the fruit into the dry ingredients, making sure that they are evenly distributed.

Beat the eggs in a small bowl until they are lemon colored.  Set aside a tablespoon of the beaten egg in a small bowl.  Beat a cup of buttermilk into the eggs, then beat in the butter.

Stir the liquid ingredients into the dry mixture.  This will take a minute or two until all the flour mixture has been moistened.  Using your hands, gently work the dough for a few seconds and shape it into a ball. 

Put the ball on the parchment paper and paint the surface with the beaten egg reserved in the cup.   Sprinkle a little flour over the surface and use a sharp knife to cut a half-inch-deep cross on top of the loaf.

Bake on the center shelf of the oven for forty-five to fifty-five minutes until the loaf is a golden brown.  The bread will be done when an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the loaf registers 190º.

NOTES:  Do not knead the dough.  Just form it into a ball as if you were making a big meatball.  Some people like this soda bread with jam or jelly, but I really prefer only good butter.

Jim’s Raw Apple Bread

Kahil Gibran’s masterpiece, The Prophet, is a book that draws me back every few weeks. It is a poetic work of philosophy, much like another of my favorites, Ecclesiastes, in the Old Testament. The book is structured as a series of requests asked of the prophet by the people of the city when they learn that he is leaving to return to his homeland.

Almustafa, the prophet, has been waiting twelve years for a ship to come for him, and the people have come to respect his wisdom. Knowing that he is about to leave them, they ask for guidance about birth, death and everything in between. One old man, an innkeeper, asks about eating and drinking. After saying that he wishes that one did not need to live off other creatures, the prophet explains that one should eat and drink reverently. Here is part of his answer:

‘….And when you crush an apple with your teeth, say to it in your heart,
“Your seeds shall live in my body,
And the buds of your tomorrow shall blossom in my heart,
And your fragrance shall be my breath,
And together we shall rejoice through all the seasons.”’

I was in college when I first encountered Gibran, but his reference to the fragrance of apples took me back to my childhood. I can still remember how wonderful our basement smelled after we stored the apples from our annual trip to Bayfield every fall.

There were a few farmsteads with an apple tree or two near Hayward, and my grandmother Hopp had a big crabapple tree that usually bore a good crop of “pickling crabs,” but the climate in northern Wisconsin then was not very hospitable to apple trees. That didn’t stop my mother from planting apple trees she ordered from various catalogs and magazine ads. Long after I had left home, she found a couple of varieties that gave her enough apples for a few pies and various other apple desserts.

I’m sure that she made apple bread, but this recipe is from James Beard’s Beard on Bread. I call it Jim’s Raw Apple Bread for two reasons. First, James Beard was Jim to his close friends. I cannot claim any right to such familiarity, but, second, I do know other men named Jim, and one of them supplied the apples for our apple bread this year.

I enjoy walking in New Richmond. Walking is good exercise, and it also provides one with a leisurely opportunity to see things that are not always apparent while hurrying through the city in a car or even on a bicycle. Some of my more interesting encounters have involved an eagle, deer (several does and one time a magnificent ten point buck) and a black bear.

On a walk a few years ago I noticed some beautiful apples on a tree overhanging an alley not far from our house. This year I gathered the courage to knock on the front door of house with the apples which looked prime for picking. When the householder answered the door I introduced myself and asked if he would mind if I picked a few of his apples. He told me to pick all I needed and said that he picked them mostly to take to his mother-in-law. “I fill a pie plate with apples and take it to her. In a few hours the plate comes back filled with a delicious apple pie.” He also told me his name was Jim.

So here is the recipe for Jim’s Raw Apple Bread. It is particularly easy to make, since you don’t even peel the apples, and it’s not as sweet as some other apple breads. If you use nice red apples like the ones from Jim’s apple tree, you will end up with a particularly lovely bread to share with family and friends.

INGREDIENTS:

1/2 cup butter
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
2 T buttermilk
1 cup coarsely chopped unpeeled apples
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1 tsp. vanilla

PROCEDURE:

An hour or so before you begin making this cake, bring a stick of butter to room temperature. While the butter is softening, you can wash and chop a cup of apples. Remove the seeds and cores, but leave the peels. You can also mix the salt, soda and baking powder with the flour while the butter softens.

Preheat the oven to 350º and grease a nine by five-inch loaf pan.

Cream the softened butter. Slowly cream in the sugar and then beat in the eggs. Sift about a third of the dry ingredients into the sugar mixture and beat well. Beat in a tablespoon of buttermilk, then another third of the flour, then the second tablespoon of buttermilk. Beat in the remainder of the flour followed by the vanilla. Fold in the apples and nuts.

Put the batter into the pan and bake on a center shelf for fifty to sixty minutes. Test for doneness at fifty minutes. A toothpick inserted near the center of the loaf will come out clean when the bread is done.

Let the bread cool in the pan for five or six minutes, then loosen it and carefully transfer the bread to a rack. Let it cool completely before slicing.

NOTES: If you don’t have any buttermilk in your refrigerator, you can substitute sour milk. To make it, put two scant tablespoons of milk in a cup and stir in a half teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice. Let the mixture sit for a few minutes, then use it like the buttermilk.

James Beard says you can use either walnuts or pecans. We prefer walnuts for this bread.