Irish Brown Soda Bread.
Rye bread will do you good,
Barley bread will do you no harm,
Wheaten bread will sweeten your blood,
Oaten bread will strengthen your arm.
The festive indulgences -- and, one hopes, the ensuing hangovers -- of St. Patrick’s Day are long past as we approach April Fool’s Day. We like to celebrate the day of Ireland’s patron saint at home, away from noisy revelers drunk on too many green beers. Here at O’Smithigans, we enjoyed a simple meal of lamb stew, champ (potatoes mashed with cream, butter, green onions) and scrumptious homemade brown soda bread accompanied by bottles of Guinness and Smithwick’s while celtic tunes jigged their way out of the iHome. Oh, and Irish Coffee Meringues for dessert. Slainte!
Coffee flavored meringues with Irish whiskey-spiked whipped cream. (hiccup)
I used to bring Irish soda bread, Kerry Gold butter, and strawberry jam to work on St. Patrick’s day, in a vain effort to elevate the day above whatever green frosted cupcakes and cookies had also been brought in. My co-workers could not be enlightened and clearly preferred the green stuff. That’s about when I started wondering what St. Patrick’s day is really about. Why it never occurred to me that it’s a religious holiday (a saint’s day!) is possibly because in this country it seems to be largely about the color green: green food, beer, clothing, face paint, rivers, shamrocks and leprechauns.
St. Patrick was an actual guy, born around 387 in Roman Britain -- by some accounts present day Scotland, by others present-day Wales. At 16 he was captured by the Irish and sold into slavery. During his 6-year captivity, while he herded sheep for a Druid, he learned the local Celtic language, essentially converted himself to Christianity, escaped back to his homeland, and returned to Ireland as a bishop who was eventually sainted for Christianizing multitudes of pagan Irishfolk.
Paddy is credited with using the three leaves of a shamrock to demonstrate the Holy Trinity (that's the father, son, holy spirit for you heathens who escaped St. Patrick's campaign), and the snakes he banished from Ireland are likely a metaphor for the pagan religions he “drove out” as Christianity took root. Although, according to Franklin Habit, a popular knitter and blogger from Chicago, St. P was actually purging novelty yarns from the Emerald Isle.
Christian country though it might be, Ireland is not immune to excessive drink and merrymaking on St. Patrick’s Day, and it sounds like they tried -- and ultimately failed -- to close pubs on March 17. Now they’ve turned the day into an Irish cultural festival in an effort to “bring the piety and the fun together,” so you can have your Jamieson’s and drink it too! The Irish Americans I’ve informally polled over the years celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a family dinner, often the traditionally American meal of corned beef and cabbage.
St. Patrick’s Day shouldn’t pass without a few hearty slices of brown bread. We occasionally buy McNamees wheaten bread from the Celtic Knot Pub in Evanston. The loaves are tasty, but wee small and quite pricey. I have experimented with several recipes, trying to replicate the McNamees experience, and landed on a "Brown Soda Bread" recipe I’ve had since May 1996, from the special Romance of Ireland issue of Bon Appetit magazine. So that’s 15 years I’ve had the perfect brown bread recipe in my possession and never realized it!
It’s a quick bread with no fancy ingredients, and cooks up in 40 minutes flat. If you can stand to wait an extra 15 minutes for it to cool, you will be rewarded with a nutty, delicious bread that is not too dense or heavy. It's scrumptious with butter, or mustard, ham and cheese. No more McNamees for us, sorry Celtic Knot. But we’ll still dine there on Tuesday nights to catch your rousing live Celtic Music Seisiuns.
My holy trinity ... brown bread, butter, and hot tea.
Bon Appetit doesn’t have this particular brown bread recipe online, so here is my adaptation of it. I reduced slightly the amount of whole wheat flour and increased the white flour because I dislike how wheat flour weighs things down. Although the bran and wheat germ say "toasted" I didn't actually toast either -- just scooped them directly out of their bags and jars. And do use real buttermilk -- 1 quart (the smallest I can find at local groceries) is enough for two loaves.
Brown Soda Bread
Adapted from Bon Appetit, May 1996
Yield: 1 loaf
2 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 cups whole wheat flour
3 Tablespoons toasted wheat bran
3 Tablespoons toasted wheat germ
2 Tablespoons old-fashioned oats
2 Tablespoons (packed) dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons (1/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 cups (about) buttermilk
Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter 9x5x3-inch loaf pan. Combine first 8 ingredients in large bowl; mix well. Add butter; rub in with fingertips or pastry blender until mixture resembles fine meal. Stir in enough buttermilk to form a soft sticky dough. Transfer dough to prepared loaf pan. Bake until bread is deep golden brown and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Turn bread out onto rack. Turn right side up and cool on rack.
Once cooled, it slices easily and freezes well.
Enjoy! And as always, feel free to leave a comment.