Friday, March 10, 2017

Irish Soda Bread with Raisins and Caraway

In the event I ever travel to Ireland (a place high on my bucket list), I fully expect to be detained, deported, or deterred from entering the country for posting this recipe for Irish Soda Bread with Raisins and Caraway. And, if by some chance, the authorities do not prevent me from leaving the airport, I anticipate a contingent from The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread will be there to greet me. Not to welcome me, but rather for the purpose of very politely informing me a true Irish Soda Bread is made with only four ingredients: flour, buttermilk, salt and baking soda. Calling my "Americanized" version "Irish" was a bit of stretch. And, of course, they would be right. In this paranoid fantasy moment I imagine I would have at least two options: graciously ask for their forgiveness or ever so kindly attempt to explain myself by sharing a bit of soda bread's history. Because leaving without having explored the lush landscapes, cliffs along the seashores, charming towns, and a couple of authentic Irish pubs, would not be an option.

While it's true the earliest reference to Irish Soda Bread appeared in the November 1836 edition of Farmer's Magazine (referencing a newspaper article for the bread in County Down) the origin of Soda Bread technically was not Ireland (the American Indians actually made the earliest version of soda bread using pearl ash to leaven the bread). The Irish Soda Bread tradition actually began shortly after baking soda was invented in the mid-1800's. It was quickly adopted by Irish women, as it allowed Irish flour to rise setting off the creation of closely guarded family Irish Soda Bread recipes. History aside, the wisest option would be to ask for forgiveness for taking liberties with a revered, traditional Irish Soda Bread recipe. All the while keeping my fingers crossed the old saying 'it's always best to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission' would actually work. My only default to earn their good graces would be to pray the fairies were with me.

One of the concerns about Irish Soda Bread is dryness and crumbly-ness. This one is neither. There are literally hundreds of Irish Soda Bread recipes to choose from. In addition to the four ingredient traditional Irish Soda Bread, variations include the use of both all-purpose and whole wheat/whole wheat pastry flour; raisins or currants soaked in Irish Whiskey; eggs or no eggs; melted instead of cold butter; and ,orange or lemon peel. Narrowing down my choices to three, I went back and forth between them before deciding on the recipe originally shared in Bon Appetit. Even after making a decision, I wasn't sure about the use of both caraway seeds and raisins. In the end, I decided not to eliminate either of them. It turned out to be a really good decision.

If there is one way to make this "Americanized" version of Irish Soda Bread with Raisins and Caraway a little more Irish, it would be to serve it with some softened Irish butter.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt. I used a fine sea salt instead of my usual Kosher salt. In lieu of using only all-purpose flour, you can use a combination of all-purpose flour and whole wheat pastry flour. See note below.

Instead of cutting the butter into small cubes, grating the butter makes it much easier to incorporate into the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt mixture.

Using your hands, blend the butter into dry ingredients until it looks like a coarse meal. Stir in the raisins and caraway seeds with a wooden spoons. You might think two and a half cups of dark raisins is too much. Trust me, it's not. The proportions in this Irish Soda Bread are pretty close to perfect.

Whisk together the buttermilk and egg. Pour into the dry ingredients. Begin to bring the dough together with a wooden spoon. Once the flour has been fully incorporated, knead very gently. Note: The dough will be very sticky. Flouring your hands before kneading makes it slightly less messy.

Transfer the dough to your prepared baking pan and shape into a mounded round loaf.

"You have to cut a cross in the dough to let the fairies out." There are actually two schools of thought on the cross cut into the dough. Some say it's to let the fairies escape, others say it brings blessings from above. You can choose to believe one or the other, or both, but I dare not upset the fairies. Altering the ingredients in an Irish Soda Bread recipe is one thing, not respecting the fairies is another. When making the cross on the top of the dough, cut deep into (apparently I did not cut deep enough as my finished bread had a barely discernible cross).

This recipe makes either one really large loaf or two perfectly size loaves. One of the benefits of dividing the dough into two loaves is that you will have one to give away.

If you have a cast iron pan, use it. If you won't use cake pans (particularly if you are making two loaves. Whichever pan you use, generously butter the pan and line the bottom withe parchment paper. Many Irish Soda Breads are baked at a high heat (i.e., 400 degrees (F) or higher. This Soda Bread is baked in 350 degree (F) oven, which may contribute to a moister bread. The single loaf will bake in approximately 70-80 minutes while the smaller loaves will bake in 50-53 minutes.

To test for doneness, insert a tester into the center or side of bread. If the tester comes out clean, the bread is done. A less technical way of testing for doneness is to tap on the top of the bread. If it sounds hard but hollow, the bread is done. The baked bread remains in the baking pan for 10 minutes before it is removed and placed on a wire rack to cool. Cut into slices, serve with some room temperature (Irish) butter, then sit back and savor.

Although I was initially reluctant to use both raisins and caraway seeds, but I can't imagine making this soda bread using only or the other or omitting them completely. The sweetness of the moist bread with its' crunchy exterior combined with the sweet/savory contrast of the raisins and caraway seeds makes this Irish Soda Bread mouth-watering delicious. While it may not be a technically traditional Irish Soda Bread, it is one definitely worthy of being made well after St. Patrick's Day.
Irish Soda Bread with Raisins and Caraway (slight adaptation to the Irish Soda Bread with Raisins and Caraway as shared by Bon Appetit, October 2002)

5 cups (625 grams) of all-purpose flour
1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1 slightly rounded teaspoon (8 grams) baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
8 Tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, grated
2 1/2 cups dark raisins
3 Tablespoons caraway seeds
2 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 large egg
Best quality Irish butter for serving 

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (F). Generously butter one large 12 inch cast iron pan or two 9"/10" cast iron or cake pans. Line bottom of pan with parchment paper and lightly butter.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and sea salt.
3. Add grated butter. Using your fingertips, rub in butter until coarse crumbs form.
4. Stir in raisins and caraway seeds.
5. Whisk together buttermilk and egg in a medium bowl to blend. Add to dough. Using a wooden spoon, stir until well incorporated (dough will be sticky). Flour your hands and lightly knead the dough in the bowl.
6. Transfer dough to prepared pans. Smooth top, mounding slightly in the center. Using a sharp knife dipped in flour, cut a 1 inch deep cross into top center of the dough.
7. Bake until bread is cooked through and tester comes out clean when inserted into the center of the bread. For a single loaf, baking time will be approximately 70-80 minutes, for two loaves baking time will be 50-53 minutes.
8. Allow bread to cool in pan for 10 minutes before turning out onto a rack to col completely.
9. Cut into slices and serve with (Irish) butter.
10. Wrap bread tightly with plastic wrap. Store at room temperature. The bread is best on the day it is baked and for one additional day. 

Notes: (1) I measured the dry ingredients on a digital scale. If you decide to use both all-purpose flour and whole wheat pastry flour, measuring on a scale is critical as the wheat flour has a greater density, weighing less (120 grams per cup) than all-purpose flour. (2) Make sure to make a deep cross into your dough before putting in the oven. Not only will be this ensure the fairies are let out, your finished loaf will have a beautiful, rustic look to it. (3) I used Kerrygold Irish butter for the dough and for serving.

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