Whenever I get back from Greece, there are two things that I miss the most: bread and feta cheese. It’s not that we don’t have these things in the states, it’s simply that they have a less central role at the dinner table here. In Greece, the acquisition of bread is so important to meal time that one of us generally makes a trip down to the bakery first thing in the morning and picks up a loaf before they sell out, which is usually around 9am. Of course, the bakery also sells sweets, so they are open for the remainder of the day….you just won’t be able to find any bread. While that sounds a bit odd, purchasing anything other than bread baked that same day is unheard of. In contrast, I think of the packaged loaves that we buy here in the states and maybe it’s not so hard to understand why bread isn’t a staple in my house. It just isn’t worth the calories.
This year, I decided that instead of just daydreaming about fresh baked bread, I’m going to learn how to bake it myself…not in a bread machine, but the old fashioned way. I mean, if my ancestors have been baking bread for centuries without even the aid of a stand mixer, then certainly I can figure it out as well, right? So, I’m officially a bread-baker in training. At least the birds will profit from my “failures.”
Since I’m new to this, I decided to start with the absolute simplest recipe I could find. It just so happens that last week, my friend Katie turned me onto this site called The Gracious Pantry and on that site, they had a recipe for Irish Soda Bread. I researched a lot of other Irish Soda Bread recipes and they included things like sugar, raisins, eggs, etc… This one was basic, rustic and pure. Here’s what you’ll need:
3 cups flour (white, whole wheat or a combination)
1.5 teaspoons of baking soda
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1 cup buttermilk
Now, I never have buttermilk on hand, so I just add a tablespoon of white vinegar to regular milk and let it sit for 10 minutes. Once that’s done, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Pulling the bread together is very simple. Just mix the dry ingredients together, create a well in the center and add in the buttermilk.
I usually add all but 2 tablespoons of the milk because it’s easy for the bread batter to get too wet. Just knead it with your hands and if it’s too sticky, add a touch more flour. You don’t even want to know the shenanigans that went on the first time I was trying to get the consistency right. It was a sticky mess! However, you’ll know it’s ready once it easily forms a ball (if it’s too dry and falls apart, add more buttermilk) Then, just put it on an ungreased pan (I use my pizza stone) and score an X into the top of the bread to allow steam to escape and put it in the preheated oven. That’s it. You don’t need to wait for it to rise or punch it down twice or do the hokey pokey with it. Just bake it for 15 minutes at 450 degrees and at 325 for another 10-15 minutes.
Let it cool enough to handle and serve. Now, I will tell you that this is traditional soda bread, so it isn’t sweet at all. It does have a wonderfully rustic flavor and the texture is lovely – crunchy on the outside and soft and dense on the inside. The Irishman said that it was exactly as he remembers it from his trip to Ireland. I can’t wait to bake and serve this alongside some Shepherd’s Pie. In the meantime, I’ve been eating it with a schmear of butter and a dollop of honey. Very tasty.
Next up on the bread baker-in-training schedule is a whole grain bread loaf. I can’t wait until I no longer need to buy bread from the market.