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Irish Soda Bread: Nutty, crusty and entirely delicious.

KURT WILSON, Missoulian

I am indebted to Irish food expert and cookbook author, Noreen Kinney, for sharing her family’s Irish Soda Bread recipe. This bread is meant to be eaten with meals, plain, with cheese, spread with butter and/or jam, or to sop up gravy.

Noreen says the following about this famous bread. “Strictly speaking, there is no white 'Irish soda bread' with raisins. Traditional Irish Soda Bread is brown, with a coarse texture and no fruit added. That is the reason I was shocked to see the white item passed off as Irish Soda Bread when I arrived in the States. However, in Ireland there is a famous old bread that was very popular with the poorer people in times past, and was considered quite a treat for a special occasion or on Sundays. It is still popular today. Depending on which part of the country one is in, it is known as 'Spotted Dick' or 'Spotted Dog'. Basically it is derived from Irish Soda bread, but uses white flour in place of the traditional ingredients that go into the true Irish soda bread. To enrich the recipe for Spotted Dick (or Spotted Dog), people added raisins when they became available, and could add a full egg beaten into the milk, plus some white sugar. It is the old Irish Spotted Dick, that folk here (United States) call Irish Soda Bread. Probably again, because when they arrived in the States, they could not find the appropriate ingredients to make up the traditional Soda Bread which is always brown with no added fruits.”

Everyone who makes Irish Soda Bread follows a basic recipe but adds her own personal touches to the bread, giving it a highly individualistic character. To a mixture of whole wheat flour and white flour, Noreen, on any given day, might add wheat bran, oat bran, wheat germ, oats, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, and/or poppy seeds. She varies proportions and grains depending on how she wants the bread to turn out. The following proportions are guides. Feel free to vary the grain additions according to your tastes, adding from 4 to 5 ounces total by weight for each loaf. The amounts given below fall into this range.

The bread’s crust is coarse and firm, while the inside is rather dense, but moist. A cross, indented (not cut) on top of the bread, allows the bread to be easily separated into quarters. The sunflower seeds change color during baking, flecking the bread with an emerald green. Why? Please read on. When wrapped in plastic, the bread loses its hard crust, which you can easily bring back after a few minutes in a hot oven. This bread freezes beautifully.

To measure flour for this recipe, dip the dry cup into the flour, fill to overflowing and sweep off the excess. One cup of flour measured this way weighs 5 ounces.

Irish Soda Bread

Ingredients:

1 cup whole wheat flour or Graham flour (5 ounces), plus more for shaping the loaf

1¾ cups (8¾ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons cold butter, cut into pieces

2 teaspoons baking soda

1¾ teaspoons table salt

2 tablespoons sugar

¼ cup wheat bran

¼ cup oat bran

¼ cup untoasted wheat germ

2 tablespoons flax seed

⅓ cup untoasted raw sunflower seeds

1 large egg

About 1¾ cups buttermilk

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Directions:

1. Adjust an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Coat a heavy baking sheet with vegetable cooking spray or line it with aluminum foil or silicone baking pan liner or cooking parchment.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together the whole wheat flour and all-purpose flour. Add the butter and work it into the dry ingredients with your fingertips until the fat particles are very fine.

3. Stir in the baking soda, salt, sugar, wheat bran, oat bran, wheat germ, flax seed, and sunflower seeds. Beat the egg with a fork in a 2-cup glass measure with pouring spout to thoroughly combine the white with the yolk. Add buttermilk to the 2-cup line and stir with the fork to combine well. Add the liquid to the dry ingredients and stir with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula until the dough gathers into a thick, wet-looking mass.

4. Sprinkle the prepared baking sheet with whole wheat flour and scrape the dough onto it. Dust the dough with a bit more whole wheat flour, and pat the dough into a circular shape about 7 inches across and 2 inches high. Don’t be concerned about evenness. The loaf should look rustic. Make a cross-shaped indentation on top of the loaf going right to the edges. I use a plastic bench scraper and press it into the dough very gently. Don’t actually cut the dough. During baking the indentation expands, giving the top of the loaf an attractive pattern.

5. Bake the bread for about 40 minutes, until it is well-browned and sounds hollow when rapped on the bottom. An instant-read thermometer inserted to the center of the loaf should register between 195 and 200 degrees. Cool the loaf on a wire cooling rack. Eat while warm or at room temperature. To serve, cut into quarters and slice each quarter with a sharp serrated knife. You’ll see that the sunflowers have turned green. Why? My friend, food scientist Shirley Corriher, provided the answer.

“Sunflower seeds are chock full of good-for-you things”, Shirley said, and by that she meant they’re loaded with antioxidants. Flavonoids, when they come into contact with an alkali (baking soda in the recipe), turn yellow. Other antioxidants in sunflower seeds, anthocyanins, react by turning blue. Put blue and yellow together and you get green. Nifty.

6. Storing. The loaf keeps well at room temperature, wrapped in plastic, for 2 to 3 days. The entire loaf or quarters of it may be frozen. When completely cool, wrap in plastic and enclose in heavy-duty resealable plastic bags. Freeze for up to 2 weeks. Thaw completely before unwrapping and serving. If desired, refresh the thawed and unwrapped bread in a preheated 300 degree oven for 10 minutes.

Makes 1 loaf, about 2¼ pounds.

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