Joe Clarke’s Irish Soda Bread

I brought a batch of this into the office last week and it was quite a hit. A few people asked for the recipe. Well, since my recipe is adapted from the one my Dad taught me, and today just happens to be Dad’s 74th birthday, it seems appropriate to throw this thing out there for the day that’s in it.

If you’ve ever visited Ireland and stayed in a B&B, or had a plate of smoked salmon in a pub somewhere over there, chances are you’ve sampled proper Irish brown bread. Home made Irish bread, served warm from the oven with the butter melting into its crumbly surface, is truly one of the wonders of the world.

The real thing is properly made with buttermilk – but that seems to be getting harder to find these days, so Dad adapted the old recipe to use yogourt instead. You can still use buttermilk, if you can get it, or regular 2% milk, or even a mixture of milk and sour cream. Go nuts.

There are countless recipes for this and lots of room to experiment and chuck in other stuff that you like. At home, I’ll often add a cup of milled flax seed, or maybe some cranberries, or toasted almonds and chopped apricots, or even a big handful of grated parmesan and a bunch of chopped basil (nom!).

A quick note on flour: try to find the best, freshest organic flour you can. Yes, I said “freshest” – flour goes bad after a while, especially whole grain flour. We want a bit of sourness to our dough, but not the kind of sourness you’re going to get from rancid flour; that’s just nasty.

Instructions below will give you one loaf, but I’ll usually prep at least a double-batch of the dough. That way you can do two loaves, adding all kinds of dried fruit or sundry other yumminess to the second one.

Ingredients:

3 cups good whole-wheat flour
2 cups plain white flour
1 to 2 rounded tbsp. of baking soda
1 rounded tsp. salt
A big tub (750g) of low fat natural yogourt OR the same volume of buttermilk
Warm water

Method:

Preheat your oven to 385°F (180°C). Also, grease up your loaf tin now (one of those aerosol cooking sprays is fine for this) and leave it upside down over the sink so the excess fat can drip out.

Mix the dry ingredients well in a big bowl. In a separate bowl or jug, mix the liquids in a ratio of about three parts yogourt (or buttermilk or whatever) to one part warm water.

Pour most of the liquid into the dry ingredients and start to mix well. I use a fork at first, then get stuck in with my hands. I suppose you could do this in a fancyass KitchenAid thingy with one of those dough hooks, but where’s the fun in that?

Mix it thoroughly, adding more of the liquid if necessary, until the dough leaves the sides of the bowl and becomes too thick to mix (tip: it’s better a bit too wet than too dry. If need be, add some more warm water or yog).

Transfer the dough into your pre-greased loaf tin and cover with a sheet of lightly-oiled foil. This prevents the crust from becoming too hard.

Bake for almost an hour without touching the oven, then check the bread for doneness. Try sliding a small sharp knife into the centre of the loaf, count to ten, and then check it: if there’s any gooeyness on the knife, your bread needs a little longer.

I’ll confess, this is the tricky bit: there are so many permutations of quality of flour, initial temperature of the ingredients, and the idiosyncracies of individual ovens that you just need to experiment. You need to get to know your oven, and baking a batch of bread for a few weekends in a row isn’t a bad way to get started.

Once it’s done to your satisfaction, pull the bread out and wrap it in a clean, slightly damp tea towel. Leave it to cool for about half an hour before you try to pop it out of the tin.

Slice thickly, spread the warm bread with butter, put it in front of hungry kids, and watch an entire loaf disappear in one go.

It’s dense, it’s filling, and it’s bloody delicious.

And that’s it. Happy birthday Dad!

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