Soda Bread

My fridge is full of takeaway leftovers and the veg draw has been untouched this week – a sorry state of affairs indeed for someone who calls herself a cooking enthusiast. I have, in my defence, had a manic weekend (I know I’m always saying this but my life is just a whole lotta busy at the moment!) that consisted of twelve hours of dance rehearsals over two days, plus a night out in the middle of those days. My university’s performing arts society are putting on West Side Story this semester – its going to be amazing, but to ensure that we have to put in a lot of rehearsal time, obviously. So this weekend particularly the show has kind of taken over my life (my iPod has even been choosing WSS tracks to play first in its shuffle queue – spooky), leaving little time for recreation in the way of baking and cooking.

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An antidote to all this, however, comes in the form of my recipe for soda bread, made a few days back before the dance-rehearsal-Pop Tarts-social-muscle-murdering-marathon that this weekend brought. A resolutely wholesome and thoroughly rustic loaf, my homemade soda bread is a sort of mish-mash of various versions of the  traditional Irish bread that I settled on after a couple of attempts (the first was so salty you could have shriveled a slug with it).

It is SO simple, easy and quick to bake – no proving necessary!! – and can be knocked up in under an hour. Great with soups and stews; my favourite way to eat it so far is toasted and spread with butter. Unless you are toasting it, the bread is absolutely best eaten the day, even the hour that its made. Soda bread doesn’t keep too well, but this loaf is pretty small – with a bowl of soup one person could easily have a quarter of it for a meal.

Ingredients

  • 150g wholemeal bread flour
  • 100g white bread flour
  • 10g bicarbonate of soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 35g butter
  • 180-200ml buttermilk

Step 1. Sift both types of flour and the bicarb and salt into your mixing bowl. Rub in the butter with your fingers until there are no big lumps of butter left.

Step 2. Be prepared to do this QUICK. The reaction between the bicarb and the buttermilk is what creates the rise in the loaf, so if you muck around with this stage for too long you’ll have a denser, smaller loaf. Pour in the buttermilk and use a round bladed knife to mix the ingredients well, then use your hands to roughly bring the dough together. It should be quite wet and sticky to touch – a dryer dough will make a denser loaf, as will a dough that has been handled too much; keep it short and sweet with the mixing and shaping.

Before baking. Not the most attractive loaf in the world, but what it lacks in finesse it makes up for in flavour.

Before baking. Not the most attractive loaf in the world, but what it lacks in finesse it makes up for in flavour.

Step 3. Cut a cross into the top of the ball of dough and pop it on a baking tray, either non-stick or lined with baking paper. Bake at 200C/Gas Mark 6 for 30-35 minutes. The loaf should sound hollow when you tap it on the base and the top nicely browned. Leave to cool under a clean tea towel so the crust doesn’t harden up too much, then store in an airtight bag when cool, or devour when still warm, depending on your resolve!

**Notes**

As I mentioned earlier, the first loaf I made was far too salty for my taste. I know soda bread is a salty bread, but I cut down the amount considerably because I couldn’t eat more than a morsel or two without dehydrating! If you can’t get buttermilk (I found it in a wholefoods shop near me – its Beanies if you’re a fellow Sheffielder) then milk with a tablespoon of lemon juice will do fine, or if you need to use up sour milk that also works. Other recipes added oats, honey or treacle to the bread; its such a simple bake that experimenting with ingredients should be easy 🙂

Wheaty grainy goodness, still warm and crumbly from the oven. Yumma yumma yumma.

Wheaty grainy goodness, still warm and crumbly from the oven. Yumma yumma yumma.

Embrace the wholesomeness, that’s the best bit! And you can assuage any takeaway-related guilt by making and eating this bread, just like me in this post. I might not be back here til Tuesday as I’ll be away from home tomorrow, so you’ve got plenty of time to make soda bread and report back before then!

       

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Basic White Bread Loaf

I had not baked my own bread before yesterday since… I can’t even remember when! My bread flour had succumbed irreversibly to mould at the back of my cupboard and I had one lonely packet of yeast, similarly neglected, though happily just within its sell-by date (I’ve only ever used the fast-action stuff). Yesterday’s bake was a very welcome and happy reminder of the joys of home bread making – a huge cliche, I know, but trust me on this one. If you enjoy baking in any small way and have never baked your own bread before, do it!! Do it now!! The satisfaction of kneading the dough, seeing the ‘proof’ of the yeast, and the scent of a freshly baked loaf meandering throughout the kitchen – the whole house even – are all things you do not want to miss out on.

Waiting for the loaf to cool so I could slice it was torture for my rumbling stomach! Bread eaten still warm out of the oven is truly the food of life.

Waiting for the loaf to cool so I could slice it was torture for my rumbling stomach! Bread eaten still warm out of the oven is truly the food of life.

 As if you would need any further incentive after my waxing poetical about the pleasures of the bread-baking process, I can assure you that the finished product also tastes amazing! The flavour of the yeast comes through subtly, and the texture is lovely if the dough has been proved properly; light and airy but with substance, and bit of bite to the chewy, golden crust. There is one downside, however; I think I can safely say (if you love bread as much as I do, anyway) that once you’ve had your first literal and metaphorical taste of bread baking, pre-sliced, shop-bought loaves will never tempt your fancy again! Of course you can still buy decent proper loaves and really good speciality breads from bakeries and even supermarkets, but… and I know I do harp on a bit about budgeting (when (if) I get a proper job after graduating I promise to stop being such a miser!)… they can be so expensive! Compared to the cost of flours and yeast for home-baking, shop-bought bread is comparatively bad value for money.

The recipe I chose – from Mary Berry’s Baking Bible, of course – is a simple white cottage loaf. Those are the ones that look a bit like wide snowmen to my mind, with a large round for the base and a smaller one on top. Mine didn’t retain this shape unfortunately, and instead baked into one large, flattish round. The texture and taste were unaffected as far as I was concerned, so I wasn’t too bothered, but I’m not really sure why it did happen in the first place, so experienced bread-bakers please feel free to enlighten me in the comments!

You can see the vague line of the smaller ball of dough from this angle... not as pronounced as it was meant to be though!

You can see the vague line of the smaller ball of dough from this angle… not as pronounced as it was meant to be though!

The list of ingredients and equipment needed is very short; as you can see the loaf is baked free-form, so you shape it by hand and bake it on a baking tray rather than in a tin. Stock up on bread flour and yeast and you’re good to go!

N.B. It is necessary to use bread flour – strong white or wholemeal (there is a wide range of bread flours available but these two are the basics, and the only two I have tried out as yet!) – because of the extra gluten it contains. Plain or self-raising does work and is occasionally used for some types of bread (soda bread, for example) but be sure to use the type specified in the recipe until you know enough about bread making to experiment with your own preferences.

Ingredients:

  • 450g strong white flour
  • 7g sachet of fast-action yeast
  • 40g butter
  • 1 tsp table salt
  •  300ml warm water

Step 1. Melt the butter, then measure out all the ingredients into a large bowl. If you are using a mixer, combine the ingredients for 4-5 minutes using the dough hook on your swish electric mixer (jel) until you have a fairly sticky, soft dough. If relying on your own trusty appendages, mix the ingredients in the bowl by hand until they come together and you can turn out the dough onto a floured work surface for kneading. Knead for 4-5 minutes or until the dough is soft. It is better to have the dough on the wet side because too much flour will result in a dense texture when the bread is baked. For this reason, Paul Hollywood dares to contradict his Bake Off partner in crime and suggests using olive oil on the work surface instead. Controversial. Here’s a link to his handy tutorial if you’re new to kneading: http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/techniques/kneading_bread_with_oil

Step 2. Transfer the dough to a large, lightly oiled bowl and cover the bowl tightly with clingfilm. Its important for the proving process that no air escapes. Leave in a warm place (not hot, like over a radiator – too much heat can kill the yeast) for about one to one and a half hours, or until the dough has doubled in size.

Before proving. I should have thought to take an 'After' photo as well!

Before proving. I should have thought to take an ‘After’ photo as well!

Step 3. Knock back the proved dough. This means giving it a good old punch up basically; sink your fist into the risen dough, knocking the air out of it. Then scrape the dough out of the bowl onto a floured (yes alright Paul, or oiled) work surface and knead for a couple of minutes until smooth. If your yeast is active, you should be able to see the aerated structure of the dough (again, I should have taken a picture!) which is made up of lots of little strands and holes – looks kind of like a stretchy honeycomb.

Step 4. Cut off a quarter of the dough, and form into a round ball. Shape the other part into a larger ball, and sit the small ball on top of the larger ball on a baking tray (this should be non-stick or lined with baking paper). Oil the handle of a wooden spoon and push it down through the centre of the cottage loaf so it reaches the tray. Remove carefully and put the whole lot, dough, tray and all, into a large seal-able plastic bag for a second prove. I improvised a sort of ‘bag’ with clingfilm, but I’m sure you can buy proving bags on the internet for this very purpose; something I may be investing in if regular bread making is feasible during term time! In this second prove it should take 35-45 minutes for the shaped dough to double in size, again in a warm place.

Step 5. Pre-heat the oven to 22oC/Gas Mark 7 and brush the loaf with beaten egg to glaze (I didn’t do this so it’s not strictly necessary but does give the crust a nice colour and crunch). Pop the loaf on its baking tray into the heated oven and bake for 20-25 minutes until golden. The loaf should sound hollow when you tap on the base – an indication that lots of air is inside, promising a light, fluffy texture! Leave to cool for as long as you can on a wire rack; its not a great idea to cut the bread when its still hot. Store in a bread bin or other air-tight container – it won’t keep for more than a couple of days before having to be relegated to toast duty, but if there’s more than one of you eating it I don’t imagine it will last that long anyway!

Source: Mary Berry’s Baking Bible, p. 285.

No notes on this one really, except to say that the method I’ve written out looks a bit lengthy, but please don’t be put off – most of it is just waiting for the dough to prove! Great if you have jobs to do at home but also want to bake; the long proving times are perfect windows for ticking off lists and getting things done. Or just relaxing and anticipating the success of your delicious home-made bread, if you have that luxury! Go forth and share the bready love people x

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