When I was growing up, my grandparents would always send me a card with some spending money in it for my birthday or for Christmas, and I have many friends whose grandparents did the same. Then there's my husband. He is the only person that I know whose grandmother sends him money not on his birthday, not on Christmas, but on St. Patrick's Day. Obviously, she is proud of her Irish heritage, and this has definitely rubbed off on Eric, with his tendency to buy clothes that are green and his fondness for stouts.
Every year, around St. Patrick's Day, I like to make an Irish-themed dinner, which Eric really likes. This may be because Guinness is a prominent ingredient in almost everything that I prepare--Guinness Stew, Guinness Cake, Guinness Mashed Potatoes (just joking, but he'd probably like those too). I also make a few loaves of delicious Irish Soda Bread, which is perfect for mopping up the stew.
Soda bread is a quick bread in which baking soda has been substituted for yeast. The recipe dates back to the mid-1800s, when baking soda was introduced to Ireland. The climate in Ireland hinders the growth of hard wheat, which creates a flour that rises easily with the assistance of yeast, so baking soda replaced yeast as a leavening agent. Some say that the cross in the bread was to ward off evil, but the real purpose is to allow steam to escape. It also serves as a guideline for cutting slices. Serve this with some really good butter and your favorite jam. Here are my tips for baking this brown butter bread:
- This bread is best when eaten the day that it is made; however, it will keep, tightly wrapped at room temperature, for 2-3 days. I suggest toasting the bread in the oven for a few minutes if it is more than 1 day old.
- The caraway seeds and the raisins are interchangeable with all sorts of ingredients, depending on what flavor you would like to give the bread. Try chopping up a tablespoon of fresh rosemary and adding some ground black pepper for one variation. You can flavor the bread with orange zest, add chopped toasted walnuts or pecans, or substitute dried cranberries for the raisins. You can even add cinnamon and chocolate chips for a sweeter version.
- Be sure to knead the dough very gently and briefly, only until it comes together. This will prevent developing the gluten too much and making the dough tough.
Irish Brown Butter Soda Bread with Raisins
Makes 2 round loaves
5 tablespoons butter
3 1/2 cups flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons caraway seeds
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup golden raisins
3/4 cup raisins
1 3/4 cup buttermilk, plus more for brushing tops of loaves
Preheat the oven to 375F degrees. Stir the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat until melted, golden brown, and fragrant, 3-4 minutes.
Mix the flour, oats, sugar, caraway, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl to blend and then add the raisins. Pour the buttermilk and the browned butter over the flour mixture and stir with a fork until the mixture is moistened.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead gently until the dough comes together and then divide in half. Shape each half into a ball and then flatten each into a 6-inch round. Place the rounds on a baking sheet lined with parchment, spacing 4 inches apart. Brush the tops with buttermilk and sprinkle lightly with sugar. Using a sharp knife, cut a 1/2-inch deep X in the top of each dough round.
Bake the breads until they are deep golden and a tester inserted into the center emerges clean, 40-45 minutes. Cool the breads on the rack for at least 30 minutes. Serve warm of at room temperature.