Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The simple joys of Irish soda bread

My first lover, Andrew, liked to say that poverty’s a state of mind. We were young then, with a lot of growing up to do. His arrogance was unintentional. It should not detract from what he meant, that getting by with very little doesn’t have to mean you’re poor. Once the basics have been covered—food, shelter, clothing, company—failure of imagination is a poverty far worse than lack of funds.

Living poor imposes disciplines: budgeting your every penny, legwork in the search for bargains, making things the lazy buy, learning how to get the most from everything. (Just like hip-hop fashion, the eco-mantra of the monied urbanite, Reduce, Re-use, Recycle, was ransacked from the poor.) But the discipline that matters most is learning to extract the maximum of pleasure from the simplest of things.

Take bread. Not for nothing is it called the staff of life. It fills the belly amply and is packed with nutrients, assuming that we’re talking about real bread, not Wonderbread, of which a friend of mine is fond of saying that the wonder is they call it bread.

The problem is, with good bread, that it’s costly. If you have the money for it, sure, there’s bound to be a baker somewhere in your neighbourhood who’ll charge you seven dollars for a multi-grain delight. He might even have a sign outside his shop that says Artisanal, implying that his wares are lovingly handcrafted in the good old peasant manner. Funny how, as our society grows fat, the artefacts of peasantry cost more and more.

But if you haven’t got the money, what are you to do? Stealing’s out—not everyone is suited for the life of Jean Valjean—so the answer is: you make it.

Many people are intimidated by the thought of making bread. And, without a doubt, yeast breads are a challenge. But why think only yeast? The Irish in the 19th century came up with something simpler that’s a joy to bake and awesome in its humble purity: Irish soda bread.

There are recipes out there that call themselves authentic but require things like butter, sugar, currants, citrus peel and spices. Don’t be fooled. Irish soda bread has only four ingredients: flour, soda, salt and soured milk. Through some miracle or magic they produce a loaf that’s ready for the cover of Bon Appetit, smells wheat-y and delicious, has a moist and chewy crumb, and makes fantastic toast. Every time I bake it I'm astounded. The pleasure never dies. My taste buds don’t get jaded and my nose is always eager for communion with the smell of wheat, a hallmark of good soda bread.

The discipline of living poor. Learning how to take delight in what you have, in what you make, in what you can afford. Get that right, and every day, if only for a moment, you are richer than Bill Gates.

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The canonical recipe for Irish soda bread is four cups of soft, white flour, one teaspoon of baking soda, one teaspoon of salt, and fourteen fluid ounces of soured milk (originally buttermilk, but like so many staples, buttermilk’s now priced as if it’s Devon Cream). I like whole wheat breads, so the recipe below has some adjustments.

Whole Wheat Soda Bread

2 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1-3/4 cups milk, soured with 1-2 tbsp vinegar
1 tsp salt
1-1/2 tsp baking soda

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter and flour the bottom of a round 8- or 9-inch cake pan. Sift the dry ingredients into a large bowl and make a well in the middle. Add the soured milk and mix.

Turn the sticky dough onto a floured surface and knead gently for a minute or so. Form into a ball, smooth, and cut a deep cross into the top.

Place the bread-to-be in the prepared cake pan, invert another pan of the same size overtop, and bake for forty minutes. Remove from pan and cover with a damp cloth while it cools.

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