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The Soda Bread Variations

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One nice thing about not being Irish but being a baker is that I can take liberties with soda bread.

Not that I don’t respect tradition; I do. In fact, if I had it my way, soda bread would be just as normal as artisanal baguettes in any restaurant bread basket. Crusty, rustic, hearty soda breads, with sweet butter and honey and huge pots of bright and strong Irish Breakfast tea, farm-fresh, frosty buttermilk or even a demitasse of espresso to wash it down would be a common, welcome sight anywhere you went.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 22, 2000 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 22, 2000 Home Edition Food Part H Page 2 Food Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
The oven temperature for the Classic Buttermilk Irish Soda Bread was omitted from last week’s Food section (“The Soda Bread Variations,” March 15). It is 375 degrees.

But because I am not Irish and have no kindly grandmother from Kilkenny or Kildare to oversee my efforts or protest my bold inventions, I can take the high road (for classic soda bread) or the alternate route (orange-scented sour cherry and chocolate soda bread) and feel somewhat unaccountable.

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What is soda bread precisely? It is a rounded, spare quick bread, neither too sweet nor too savory. Traditionally it sports a distinct cross mark, scored by a paring knife. It is fine fresh or toasted.

Although we make a big stew over it on St. Patrick’s Day, soda bread has been everyday fare in Ireland (and the British Isles in general) for more than 100 years.

Soda breads, like American biscuits and quick breads, are leavened by sodium bicarbonate, which produces carbon dioxide in the presence of an acid ingredient such as vinegar or buttermilk. This American practice had become common in Ireland by 1840, and the introduction of baking powder, which includes its own acid, cream of tartar, gave rise (pardon the pun) to a host of breads that could be made quickly, because their chemical leavening eliminated rising time.

Irish soda bread may be descended from a whole-wheat bread leavened with yeast. At any rate, this quicker version offers its own charms. The essentials are rather spare, and they can be varied according to family recipe or personal whim. The basic ingredients are whole wheat flour, buttermilk, leavening (baking soda and some acidifying ingredient, such as buttermilk or cream of tartar, or baking soda and baking powder), a touch of salt and raisins. Caraway seeds, sugar, oatmeal and myriad other ingredients may also show up.

What I like about soda bread are its earthy crumb and rustic taste. If you like scones, you’ll like soda bread. Simple things take well to added touches, and soda bread does well with more or less sugar or other sweetener and a multitude of additions and mix of grains.

There is no end to what you can do. I created a batch of unique soda breads here, starting with the classic and then leaping to all sorts of wonderful New Age soda breads. (I stopped short of sun-dried tomato and chevre soda bread, you may be happy to know.) Culinary creativity notwithstanding, the breads here are still quite identifiably soda breads, but they are definitely stretching the definition as wide as County Cork.

Beer Soda Bread

Active Work Time: 25 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Don’t use green beer in this. A robust stout, beer or ale will lend a hearty jolt. Serve with a piping hot plate of Irish stew.

2 cups whole-wheat flour

1 cup unbleached flour

6 tablespoons brown sugar, packed

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon caraway seeds

1 egg

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted

1 1/2 cups beer

3/4 cup raisins, plumped in water 5 minutes and drained

2 tablespoons natural bran or oatmeal, for garnish

* Stir together whole-wheat and unbleached flours, brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, baking soda, baking powder and caraway seeds. Make well in center and stir in egg and butter. Stir in beer. Stir by hand to make soft batter. Stir in raisins. Spoon into greased 9-inch round cake pan. Sprinkle with bran or oatmeal.

* Bake at 375 degrees until top is dry to touch, 40 to 45 minutes. Top will be slightly cracked. Remove from oven and cool before serving.

6 servings. Each servings: 416 calories; 668 mg sodium; 56 mg cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 73 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 1.30 grams fiber.

Lemon-Lime Blueberry Soda Bread

Active Work Time: 35 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Currants can replace the blueberries.

1/2 cup golden raisins

1/2 cup frozen blueberries

2 tablespoons melted butter

2 tablespoons oil

4 tablespoons honey

1/3 cup light brown sugar, packed

1 egg or 2 egg whites, lightly beaten

2 cups orange juice

1/2 teaspoon orange or lime oil, optional

2 teaspoons grated lime zest

2 teaspoons grated orange zest

3 1/2 cups unbleached flour

1/2 cup whole-wheat flour

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 to 2 tablespoons caraway seeds

Nonstick cooking spray

1 1/2 tablespoons oatmeal

* Cover raisins with hot water and let stand 5 minutes. Drain, then coarsely chop. Place in bowl with frozen blueberries.

* Whisk together melted butter, oil, honey, brown sugar, egg, orange juice, orange oil, and lime and orange zests in large bowl.

* Combine unbleached flour, whole-wheat flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, salt and caraway seeds in another mixing bowl. Fold flour mixture into egg mixture, stirring well. Gently fold in blueberries and raisins and mix thoroughly.

* Spoon batter into 2 (7x3-inch) loaf pans, 2 (7- or 8-inch) cast-iron skillets or 1 (9-inch) springform pan coated with nonstick cooking spray. Sprinkle with oatmeal. Bake at 375 degrees until toothpick inserted in center of bread comes out clean, 35 to 45 minutes, 50 to 60 minutes if using loaf pans. Cool in pans 15 minutes, then turn onto cake rack to finish cooling.

ASSEMBLY

1/2 cup powdered sugar

2 tablespoons orange juice

1/2 tablespoon grated orange zest, plus strips of zest for garnish

1/2 tablespoon grated lime zest, plus strips of zest for garnish

* Stir together powdered sugar, orange juice and zests to make soft glaze. Drizzle over cooled cakes. Apply decorative shreds of zest. (Can be frozen.)

12 to 16 servings. Each of 16 servings: 220 calories; 275 mg sodium; 17 mg cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 43 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.38 gram fiber.

American-Style Soda Bread Cake

Active Work Time: 25 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 15 minutes

Imagine the great countrified, simple taste of a traditional soda bread--in a cake. It’s wonderful fresh and keeps well but still takes nicely to being toasted. A blue ribbon winner that was born in my test kitchen and is a personal favorite.

1/2 cup oil

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted and cooled

3/4 cup granulated sugar

5 tablespoons brown sugar, packed

2 eggs

1 cup buttermilk

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for preparing pan

Scant 1/2 cup whole-wheat flour

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 tablespoon baking powder

2 tablespoons caraway seeds

1 cup raisins, frozen blueberries or chopped frozen cranberries

Nonstick cooking spray

* Mix oil, butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and eggs in bowl. Stir in buttermilk, then all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder. Gently fold in caraway seeds and raisins or berries. Dust in a bit of flour. Or simply dust top with flour.

* Spoon dough into 9-inch cast iron pot or 9-inch springform pan lined with parchment paper. Make a cross by using fingertips to indent. Place on 2 baking sheets stacked together. Bake at 375 degrees until cake is set and springs back when touched with fingertips, 40 to 45 minutes. Remove from oven. Cool in pan.

10 to 12 servings. Each of 12 servings: 381 calories; 417 mg sodium; 57 mg cholesterol; 19 grams fat; 51 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 0.49 gram fiber.

Classic Buttermilk Irish Soda Bread

Active Work Time: 40 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

Most authentic Irish soda breads are whole wheat, but combinations of half white and half whole wheat or white whole wheat still make for a good loaf. As with anything else, a larger proportion of white flour will give an airier and higher loaf. All whole wheat will give you a more rustic, nutty loaf. Both eggs and caraway seeds are optional here (for real traditionalists). I alternate including the caraway seeds but often omit the eggs. You will use more of the buttermilk if you omit the eggs. I like this with a wedge of sharp Cheddar or imported Cheshire or Lancastershire cheese and a couple of pickled onions for a makeshift plowman’s platter.

3 cups unbleached flour, plus more for kneading

1 cup whole-wheat flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

6 tablespoons brown sugar, packed

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon caraway seeds, optional

6 tablespoons butter

2 eggs, beaten, optional

1 1/4 to 2 cups buttermilk

1 cup raisins or mixed raisins and currants, plumped in hot water 5 minutes

* Combine unbleached flour, whole-wheat flour, baking powder, baking soda, brown sugar, granulated sugar, salt, cinnamon and caraway seeds. Cut butter into dry ingredients by hand or using paddle or hook attachment on mixer at slow speed.

* Add eggs and buttermilk to form a soft dough. Stir in raisins. Turn out onto floured work surface and gently knead 8 times or so to firm up dough. Let rest 10 minutes.

* Shape into an 8- or 9-inch round. Score top with a knife to make cross. Dust with white flour or sprinkle with bran or oatmeal. Place in 9-inch cast-iron pan and bake until top is brown and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 40 to 50 minutes. Remove and cool in pan on rack.

10 to 12 servings. Each of 12 servings: 267 calories; 491 mg sodium; 16 mg cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 48 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 0.47 gram fiber.

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Soda Elements

FLOUR

Use unbleached all-purpose flour for the white flour and, if you can find it, white whole-wheat flour. Hodgson Mills and King Arthur offer white whole-wheat, a nutty, sweet, nutritious whole-wheat flour with none of the drying qualities or slightly bitter aftertaste of regular whole wheat. It can be ordered on their Web sites (https://www.hodgsonmill.com and https://www.kingarthurflour.com, respectively). King Arthur Flour also sells a specialty flour for making soda bread.

CAST-IRON PANS

These are ideal for soda breads as they conduct heat well and ensure lovely crisp, brown crusts. The handles on the skillets make them easy to maneuver. Unless you have an heirloom pan, yard sales and flea markets are your best shopping bets, or check out the Lodge and Wagnerware, the last two cast-iron cookware foundries left. Serve your soda breads in the cast-iron pan, but use a table trivet to protect your table. (And don’t forget oven mitts.)


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