Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Kathleen's Irish Soda Bread

I have a friend named Katheleen. We met in Beijing in February 2011. It was both of our first times in China, neither of us had done any teaching and, as it turned out, we had a lot in common. We both love 80's movies, Muppets, Jim Henson and Mystery Science Theater 3000. We're both big nerds, and have a deep, abiding love for David Bowie. We're both occasionally, psychopathically indecisive, and we're both extremely laid back. After the first year was over, my boyfriend and I moved away across the country to Chengdu, and Kathleen stayed in Beijing. It was sad. I hadn't expected to find someone so great in a random suburb at a random private school in China I'd randomly decided to work in.

We've kept in touch and I miss getting to dork out daily with her. During the Chinese New Year festival break, which is about a month long, I went back to Beijing to visit for a week. We drank tea non stop during the day and night, and ate food I've been deprived of in the suburbs of Chengdu. The first day there, we went to her Chinese friend's house and made dumplings/potstickers, called jiaozi. It's a tradition to eat jiaozi during the festival because it promises good luck and prosperity in the new year. The jiaozi look like little purses, symbolizing wealth and good fortune. Well, that day, Kathleen made Irish soda bread and brought it to share with our Chinese friends. It was a big hit. The Chinese don't love overly sweet things, and this bread was only just verging on sweet. A month later, my boyfriend and I befriended an elderly Chinese couple living in our apartment complex. They invited us over for dinner, and I made some of this bread and some orange curd and brought it over to share. They loved it.

I'd only tried rosemary soda bread, and had never had sweet soda bread until Kathleen made it for us in January. I love it. It's not too sweet, it's extremely fast to put together, it stays entirely edible and not rock hard for at least 5 days, and it is not fussy at all. I've tinkered with it a little bit, but to me, it's still Kathleen's recipe. She got it from her mother, and I have no idea where she got it. 

Thank you Kathleen and thank you Kathleen's mom! I've made this so often since you first made it for me, I'm sure it will be a classic in my recipe book for years to come. I will always think of you when I make it and the unlikely friendship we formed in Beijing!

Kathleen's Irish Soda Bread
makes 1 small loaf, enough for 2 people over a few days, or 4-6 people as a light dessert/snack

As with many baking recipes here, I replace the butter with oil. I would highly recommend bringing this to an afternoon hang out session or a casual lunch or dinner with friends, old or new. Or just make it for yourself and enjoy it first thing in the in the morning or very late at night.

The Cast of Characters (...minus eggs)
1 cup buttermilk OR sub. 1 cup milk + 1 tbsp white vinegar
2 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 stick of butter= 8 tbsp butter
 (OR sub. 6 tbsp neutral tasting vegetable oil)
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp sugar
1 egg
raisins and other add ins (not shown)

1.Preheat your oven to 350 F or about 175 C. Mix together dry ingredients. I always do this when I bake because it makes sure to evenly incorporate things into the finished product and will make sure there are no big lumps of salt or baking soda. It also makes sure you don't overwork more delicate doughs, since overworking can lead to underdeveloped rises in anything from quick breads to pancakes.

Mix together the wet ingredients first
2. Now add the wet ingredients. It helps to mix all of the wet things, like oil, the egg and buttermilk together beforehand. If using melted butter, start with this first before adding the other wet ingredients. Stir until just combined and all the dry is incorporated. This will be a wet, sticky, shaggy dough. Don't be afraid.

Add your wet to the dry.
3. Gently mix in your add-ins. I usually use some type of raisin and snipped, dried apricots. I've also used some orange zest and marzipan. This is all of the above with small chunks of lightly sweetened marzipan infusing the bread with a light almond flavor, setting off the fruity, bright notes of the raisins and apricots. I especially like when the apricots poke out of the top because the sugars caramelize into a deep, tart, citrus flavor.
Almond paste, dried apricots and golden raisins.
4. Now, roughly shape this into a ball. It won't really hold its shape, but don't worry too much about it. I score an X on the top as is traditional. Put your dough blob onto a greased baking sheet, or into a greased cake pan.
Don't worry about it being gloopy
5. Bake for about 45 minutes or until lightly golden on the center rack. You're welcome to check its doneness with a thin, sharp knife inserted into the middle. It will continue to cook just a little when you take it out, and unless you want a crumble fest, don't bake it longer or you'll dry it out. Take out, cool on a wire rack, then dust with powdered sugar.

Serve warm or cold. Because it's only lightly sweetened (very lightly) it is really scrumptious with lemon or blood orange curd, or with homemade blackberry jam. I strongly recommend it paired alongside a large cup of black tea with a splash of milk. 

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