Posts Tagged ‘bread’

You wouldn’t know it from my name, but ethnically speaking I’m more Irish than anything.

The year that I was twenty-two, I went to Ireland with my Mom and my sister to connect with our Irish roots.

We travelled through Ireland like Canadians; which is to say, we drove ridiculously long distances that no sane Irish person would. As Northern Ontarians we’re accustomed to driving at least eight hours just to get to someplace interesting, but we hadn’t accounted for the narrowness, curviness, and overall treachery of the roads. Sure, it may be only 250 km or so from Dublin to Donegal.  That only takes a few hours on our nice, wide, Canadian roads. But in Ireland, the lanes were so narrow that I was always worried about sideswiping the lorry next to us. (And at one point we did lose our hubcap in downtown Belfast after hitting a curb. Never mind.) On the rural roads, signage was spotty and the National Roads Authority didn’t always see fit to put up protective barriers between driving lanes and cliffsides. What I’m getting at is, the distance may have been manageable, but the drive itself felt so perilous we really should have taken it slower.

So a lot of my memories of Ireland involve driving and the green, rocky, rolling landscape. But me being me, a few meals shine out too. At a pub in Galway I ate a creamy coconut vegetable curry n top of boxty, which is basically a potato pancake. I had Ploughman’s lunch for the first time. In the small town of Doolin (which was special because my mother’s maiden name is Dooling) I had a  seafood chowder that I am still trying to recreate.

And everywhere we ate, it seems, there was always a basket of dark brown bread on the table. Hearty, crusty, staff-of-life bread that I couldn’t get enough of. After I came home I tried to recreate it, but could never get it right.

The problem was that I always assumed it was a yeast bread, but I recently learned that it’s not. Basically, it’s soda bread. But not what North Americans think of as soda bread; there’s no currants and it’s whole wheat, not white.  Apparently in Ireland everyone has their own way of making it, but the main components are straightforward: whole wheat flour, baking soda, salt and buttermilk.

This recipe includes a few other ingredients, like additional bran and an egg to help bind it, but it’s a pretty simple bread to bake. It is dense and crusty and filling enough to make a meal along with a bowl of soup. It’s still not quite what I ate in Ireland, but I’m happy enough to keep making wheaten breads like this in hope of finding the elusive perfect batch.

 This week, let this be your nod to Irishness. It’s way better than green beer.

Notes: You can bake this freeform on a baking sheet, but I like using a springform cake pan to help the bread rise higher.

Irish wheaten bread
(adapted from Epicurious)

1 3/4 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour, plus extra for shaping
3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 3/4 teaspoons salt 
1 tablespoon brown sugar
3/4 cup of either: wheat bran, wheat germ or oat bran (or a combination of all three)
2 tablespoons ground flaxseed
1 large egg
About 1 3/4 cups buttermilk

1. Preheat the oven to 425 Fahrenheit, and lightly grease and flour a 10″ springform cake pan. (Alternatively, line a baking sheet with parchment paper.)

2. In a large bowl, combine the whole wheat and all-purpose flours. Using a box grater, grate the cold butter into the flour mixture and mix to combine evenly. Stir in the remaining dry ingredients.

3. Break the egg into a two-cup glass measuring cup and beat lightly with a fork. Add enough buttermilk to make two cups’ worth of liquid, and combine. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and add the buttermilk mixture. Stir with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon until the dough comes together into a wet, shaggy mass.

4. Scrape the dough onto a floured work surface and dust with some additional flour. Shape the dough into a round roughly 7 to 8 inches across. Don’t worry about shaping it too perfectly; the beauty of this bread is that it’s crusty and nubbly. With a sharp knife, score a cross on the top of the bread. Brush the top of the dough with water, or the watered-down end of the buttermilk-egg mixture.

5. Bake the bread for 35 to 40 minutes, until it is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped. The centre should register at 195 or 200 with an instant-read thermometer. Let cool and serve warm or at room temperature.

The bread keeps well for two or three days if wrapped, and freezes well.


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Low-maintenance whole wheat bread

In early 2009, after the market tanked and lots of people started to lose jobs, frugality became the new  big thing. Or maybe it didn’t, but at the time that’s what all the newspapers were writing about. Thrifty was the new black.

So while I had the good fortune of having a stable job and good income, I started to think about tightening my own belt in ways that wouldn’t be too painful. What conveniences could I cut out of my spending and replace with making it myself? Not like doing my own dry cleaning, but something that would bring pleasure into my life. My grocery bill seemed an ideal place to start. 

Being someone who likes to eat good crusty whole-grain bread, I spend at least $5 a loaf, which usually adds up to $25 a month at my house. Not a huge cash savings, but nothing to sneeze at. I also had a new stand mixer,  recently received as a wedding gift (thanks, Mom!) and needed something to do with it that wouldn’t result in my house always being full of cake or cookies. So I decided, baking bread every week would be a good thing to try. I found a recipe for whole wheat bread from the Ace Bakery cookbook, and away I went.

Like most new habits, it went well for a while. I learned some new things about bread baking, chiefly that tasty, chewy, crusty bread comes from a dough that uses little (if any) sugar, not much yeast, and a long, slow rise. The catch with this particular recipe, although it yielded three loaves of tasty, chewy, crusty bread, is that it also came with a schedule. First, I had to mix a sponge and let it rise for half a day. Then I had to mix the bran part of the dough, mix the two together, and let it rise for another few hours. Then shape the loaves and let them rise, then bake, blah blah blah. A procedure that required that I map out the times for when mixing, kneading, shaping and baking would happen. Now, I’m a homebody, but I do like to get out the house on weekends. So the bread-making frugal ethos gradually died out.

And then a few months ago, I found this recipe for a no-knead bread in a Martha Stewart  magazine. A basic dough that requires a minimum of kneading and a long slow rise on the countertop for between 12 and 18 hours. This means very little working time. You can mix it up at dinnertime on a Friday or Saturday night, sleep in, and bake the bread the next afternoon. Or, mix the dough when you first get up in the morning and bake it before you go to bed that night.

In short, it’s a bread recipe that gives you a bit more freedom. It’s an easy way to save a bit of cash on storebought bread. Also, with very little work you can impress your friends when they come over for lunch.

One thing you must have for this recipe is an ovenproof pot with a lid – this helps keep the steam in and makes a good crispy crust. I sometimes use my heavy Le Creuset Dutch oven, but have found that a heavy-bottomed stainless steel saucepan works just as well.

Low-maintenance whole wheat bread
adapted from Martha Stewart Living, April 2010 issue

yields one round loaf

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. active dry yeast (not quick-rise)
1 1/3 cups water, room temperature

Mix the dough: In a large mixing bowl, stir the dry ingredients together. Add the water, mixing well until all the dry ingredients are incorporated and you have a wet sticky dough. This may require a bit of kneading, but that’s about all the kneading you’ll do for this bread.

First rise: Cover the dough with plastic wrap (not touching) and let stand at room temperature until it doubles in volume and has bubbles breaking the surface, about 12 to 18 hours.

Shaping and second rise:  Scrape the dough out of the bowl onto a floured surface. With lightly floured hands, fold the dough by lifting the edges into the centre and shaping it into a loose round. Generously dust a clean kitchen towel with flour and put the dough on it, seam side down. Dust the top with more flour and cover it with another clean dry kitchen towel. Let it rise in a warm place for 1 to 2 hours, until doubled in volume.

To test if your dough has risen enough, gently press your finger into the centre. If it’s risen enough, it won’t spring back when you take your finger away. 

Bake: When your dough is about 15-20 minutes away from being ready, preheat the oven to 475 degrees and have your rack in the lower third of the oven. Heat the pot until the dough is ready.

When the dough is ready, carefully remove the hot pot from the oven. Working quickly, unfold the towel and flip the dough into the pot, seam side down. Close the lid and bake for 25 minutes. Remove the lid and bake uncovered for about 20 minutes, until the top is a dark golden-brown.

Cool: Remove the bread from the pot right away. I usually do this by placing a wire rack over the pot, flipping it over, and right-siding the bread with my oven mitt.

I know this part is hard, but you really should wait until the bread is completely cool before you cut into it. If it’s still warm when you slice it, it will a) be harder to slice, and b) won’t be quite as crusty. But if you can live with that, hey, I can’t blame you.

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