Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Irish Brown Bread - Breakfast of Champions

So now I’ve started a blog. I will confess that I don’t really know what I’m doing. Do I start by gradually explaining my food philosophy in sequential entries? Do I start by talking about my food heroes? Do I start by talking about what I’m cooking right now? I’m sure it doesn’t matter, but for some reason it feels like my first substantive entry should be about something profoundly important.

So here it is… My favorite food: Irish Brown Bread. Specifically, my mother-in-law’s Irish Brown Bread. I swear that this bread is so delicious and feels so wholesome and filling in my belly, that if humans had to pick a single food item on which to survive, I’d definitely recommend this one.

The first time I had it was a few months after I started dating my (now) husband. We went to Ireland for a few days for a wedding. We stopped at his parent’s house where his mother had laid out a quick breakfast of this strange lumpy looking bread, juice and tea. From the first bite, I was blown away. It was crusty and heavy, but moist and delicately flavored. The grains of wheat tasted nutty and complex without being dense or earthy as whole grain breads often are. I couldn’t stop eating it.

I asked him what was this amazing bread, had his mother slaved over it for hours? He said, “What that stuff, you like it?” He’d grown up with it at every meal, day in, day out, for his entire childhood. Then he had a slice and said, “Yea, I guess that is pretty good.”

Now, anyone who’s been to Ireland knows that the bread there is pretty good. Every pub, whether it has a good or terrible menu or no menu at all, serves delicious soup and brown bread. But it just doesn’t match up to hers.

I had to learn how to make this bread. My first strategy was to ask her for the recipe. That didn’t get me very far. She doesn’t follow a recipe. She makes it by feel, and every day, it’s a little bit different. How could I possibly “mix some wholemeal flour with buttermilk until it seems about like this?” And to make matters more complicated, she has unsuccessfully tried making the bread in the US, even bringing her own flour with her. Something in the climate changes the taste and texture. Hmmm…

Second, what on earth is wholemeal flour? It looks just like American whole wheat flour, but there is something different about the taste and texture. Check out this link out to see an example of the confusion over how to find wholemeal flour in the US. King Arthur’s defines it as “a coarsely ground, soft red whole wheat flour” and even sells it.

So my next strategy was to look for a recipe using American ingredients that tasted close. I read through every recipe I could find online or in books, looking for something that sounded close to the taste I remember. After a few attempts, I found an epicurious recipe that is as close as I think I’m ever going to get. It’s not quite as good, but it’ll do. On a recent visit, the master herself proclaimed, in true Irish fashion, that it was better than hers, which is simply not true, but must mean it’s not bad!

So how do you make it? It’s incredibly easy.

It consists primarily of wholemeal flour (as discussed above), leavened by baking soda and quite a bit of buttermilk. The contrast of the buttermilk and the wheat is what gives it the amazing texture and taste. The wheat tastes nutty and crunchy, while the buttermilk tastes moist, velvety and creamy.

I usually use regular whole wheat flour, but once I did use fresh ground whole wheat flour bought at the local farmer’s market. I can’t honestly say that I could taste a difference, but I let it sit around a while before using it, which probably had an effect.

I follow the epicurious recipe pretty closely, but here are a few extra notes.

Sprinkle a pizza paddle or baking sheet generously with cornmeal before starting. Your hands are going to get really messy, so you won’t be able to do this later.

Don’t buy toasted bran and germ, just toast them in a pan for a few minutes until golden and nutty smelling.

Mix all the dry ingredients and the butter together in the bowl as instructed. Then slowly add the buttermilk. This dough should be handled just enough to get the ingredients holding together or it will become tough. I use a large spatula and a folding motion to mix in the liquid and stop well before it’s mixed in. The amount of liquid needed varies. The dough should seem moist and sticky but not oozing, and it will be quite irregular. In the bowl, I use my hands to form the dough into a ball and then transfer it to the paddle, patting it down into a mound. Use a sharp knife to cut a deep X into it. Either bake it on the cookie sheet or better yet, slide it off the paddle onto a baking stone.

This is hard to do, but be sure to let it cool completely before cutting it, or steam will escape causing it to dry out. To serve, cut it into quarters along the X and slice each quarter like a mini loaf.

Finally – what’s the best way to eat it? Smeared in butter and orange marmalade is the traditional way, although open faced sandwiches with cheese and ham make a delicious light lunch. The only real rule is that you have to eat it quickly, as it dries out after a day or so. This hasn’t ever been a problem in our house.

3 Responses:

Anonymous said...

As another son of the master bread-maker, not to be confused with the authors husband, I can vouch for the quality of the brown bread we were raised on.
I think it has made us into the people we are today - crusty, crumbly and nice with jam.


Emmy Lou said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jenny said...

I can't wait to try this! Just got back from Ireland a day ago and finding this recipe was high on my list!!!! Thanks for doing all the legwork, and mostly for sharing!