Friday 22 August 2014

Irish Brown Bread Breakfast of Kings

Way back in my first post, I promised to divulge the ancient art of making Irish Brown Bread (Soda Bread), and the time has finally come. Brown Bread is the best thing to come out of Ireland since… no, actually, Brown Bread was the original awesome thing. Everything else is “since Brown Bread”.

This is the easiest bread in the world to make, requiring no kneading, no proving, nothing. It barely needs a kitchen. But despite all this, it’s sublime. You can eat it with just butter, or a spoon of jam, but here are two other great ways to enjoy this bread if you’re in the mood for a breakfast a little more… Fancy-Ass.

About damn time!

    Empty half a kilo of wholemeal flour into a mixing bowl and sieve in half as much plain flour. Add 2 teaspoons of baking soda and 1 of salt. Dice soft butter into the mix and rub it into the flour with your fingers. Throw in some chopped fresh rosemary, because why not?

    Make a well and pour in about 400ml of buttermilk. Mix quickly with your hands, and add more buttermilk if the mixture is too dry to all stick together. Throw the ball of I Don’t Even Know If You Can Call That Dough onto a floured baking tray, and stick it in the oven heated to 230ºC. After ten minutes, turn it down to 200ºC and cook for about 35 minutes. Wouldja look at yerself, ya just made bread!

    When the bread’s out of the oven, scramble half a dozen eggs, crack pepper into them, and dump them in a heated pan with bubbling butter. Turn the heat right down and gently push the bottom of the eggs around. When you’re thinking to yourself “yeah, these’ll probably be done in another two minutes”, take them off the heat and serve. Yes, they will look gooey. Yes, you’re used to scrambled eggs being more solid. Yes, you’ve been doing it wrong this whole time.

    Butter a few slices of the bread and arrange them around the pile of silky, creamy eggs on your plate. Lay smoked salmon on the bread and squeeze over plenty of lemon juice.

Breakfast… is served.

Oh wowzer! I’ve never had authentic Gaelic Bread before! Or is it Celtic Bread?

It’s neither, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll stop talking. It’s only out of sheer professionalism (amateurism?) that I’m still going to give you the recipe. Although everything you need to know is right up there, I’ll geek out and go a little more in-depth below.


For the Brown Bread
  • 500g coarse wholemeal flour
  • 250g plain flour (soft flour)
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 50g butter
  • a few sprigs of rosemary
  • ~500ml buttermilk

For the Rest
  • smoked salmon
  • a lemon
  • free range eggs
  • chives
  • moar BUTTER!

I haven’t bothered with quantities because it really just depends on how fat hungry you are.

Buttermilk may not be available where you live, which is a shame but not a deal breaker. Simply stir two tablespoons of vinegar (or lemon juice) into half a litre of full milk and stir. Leave it to rest for ten minutes and you’ve got yourself a decent substitute.

Making good Brown Bread starts with the flour. Wholemeal flour is pretty straightforward, so that’s fine. But it’s important that the white flour you use is not “strong flour” or “bread flour”. Standard plain flour in Ireland is very soft (low gluten), and this is what you want to use. It’s also very important that the flour not be self-raising. Self raising flour already contains baking powder.

Which brings us to the not inconsequential difference between baking soda (aka bread soda, aka bicarbonate of soda) and baking powder. Baking powder is a mix of baking soda and another agent (cream of tartar). Soda is alkaline, and when mixed with a wet acid, such as buttermilk, it reacts and releases CO2. This is how the bread rises. Cream of tartar is the acid already in baking powder, so it doesn’t need anything extra, just moisture and heat. Adding buttermilk to baking powder would result in a pretty funky tasting bread. It’s simple to remember. To bake soda bread, use baking soda. Got it? Grand.

    Start by preheating the oven to 230ºC. Now find a big mixing bowl and just dump the wholemeal flour into it. No point in sieving it, it’s supposed to be rough. White flour isn’t though, so sieve that in on top and sprinkle in the two level teaspoons of baking soda and one heaped teaspoon of salt. Give everything a quick mix.

    If you leave your butter out of the fridge like a madman with no regard for proper order, then you can use it as is. Otherwise, put the butter in a cup and stick it in the pre-heating oven for half a minute to soften. Slice the softened butter into little cubes and throw it into the mixing bowl. I’m not going to ask where your hands have been, just go clean them. Now get your fingers in there and start rubbing the butter into the flour. Find every little nub and work it between your fingers and thumb until it’s really good and blended, melting from the warmth of your touch… Did it just get hot in here?

    Cooking! Right! Okay. Now the flour with have a slight breadcrumby consistency, which is perfect. Any remaining small chunks of butter will just melt and contribute to the texture of the bread as it cooks. Strip the leaves off your rosemary sprigs and roughly chop them before adding in to the mix. This is technically optional, but try it once and you’ll not go back. The smell alone while it’s baking makes it worth it. Shout out to my sister for that one.

    Alright, final ingredient, buttermilk. Hollow out a well in the middle of the flour and pour in most of the buttermilk. This is where things get messy, so get out your baking tray and flour it before going any further. You won’t really be able to touch anything after this. Using your hands, drag the flour into the milk and quickly, yet lightly, mix it all through. This should seriously only take a matter of seconds. Max half a minute. See, as soon as the buttermilk mixes with the baking soda, the reaction begins. Not only do you not need to knead this dough, you need to not knead it! Now form it into a big sticky ball, adding more buttermilk if it’s too dry to come together.

    Pick it up high, then literally slap it down onto the baking tray. It should now be a rough, flattish circle. 5cm thick is what you’re aiming for. Even it out a little, score an X in the top with a knife, open the oven door with your foot or your chin or whatever’s not covered in dough and bung it in there. After 10 minutes, turn the oven temp down to 200ºC. Blasting it at the higher heat for the start ensures a nice crust. After another 30-35 minutes, it’ll be done. Test it by lifting it and knocking on the base. If it sounds hollow, it’s ready. Leave it on a wire rack to cool a little before slicing it.

But I’m hungry now!

I feel your pain. But waiting for it to cool gives us time to prepare the rest of the breakfast. Think of it as an investment.

    To make beautiful scrambled eggs, the trick is do as little as possible. Crack your eggs into a bowl and grind some pepper over them. Using a fork, beat them for only a couple of seconds. They don’t need to be aerated, they’re not an omelette. They don’t even need to be entirely mixed, little bits of pure egg white and pure egg yolk will give it an elegantly marbled look. If you’re into that sort of thing.

    Heat up a pan (preferably non-stick) and melt a decent chunk of butter in it. When the butter melts and starts to froth, add the eggs and immediately turn the heat down low. Use a spatula (again, non-stick rubber is best) to slowly drag along the bottom of the pan, lifting up curtains of the setting egg. Keep repeating this movement, shifting the egg around and preventing any of it from being in contact with the base of the pan for long. If you want to, you can use the spatula to cut up some of the larger pieces of solid egg, but that’s purely preference.

    The eggs will soon be mostly set, but still coated in a sheen of wet egg. It’s important to remember that “wet egg” does not equal “raw egg”. At this point, the eggs are fully heated through, and are completely cooked, even though they haven’t all coagulated. Take them off the heat before you think they’re done, as they will continue to cook further from the heat in the pan (and themselves). If you were to keep cooking until they’re dry, you would lose most of their flavour, and all of their creaminess. It’s like the difference between a medium-rare steak and a well done steak. Don’t be that person. At the very least, try it once. Ahh go on. Go on go on go on go on.

    Now all you have to do is slice and butter your bread (proper butter! None of this unsalted, low fat, easy spread, I-can’t-believe-it’s-not nonsense) and pop a slice of smoked salmon on top. Spoon your eggs onto the plate, squeeze lemon juice over the salmon, and chop fresh chive over the eggs. Sure look it, you can’t say fairer than that. Now off with ye.

(Assuming you don’t eat all the bread for breakfast, leftovers go brilliantly toasted with pâté, or with thick chunks of hard cheese and gherkins, and a bit of relish. Or just the old staple of butter and jam of a morning.)

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