Let me just say that I have no Irish ancestry, and I therefore have no particular affinity for Saint Patrick’s Day. My Swedish grandmother used to send me St Patrick’s Day cards, and I wore green as a kid (purely self-preservation), but I am a Viking from top to bottom. If you thought I was Irish, you probably knew me in college when I’d use anything as an excuse to party.
I try not to get caught up in the hoopla, but I cannot help making Corned Beef and Soda Bread this week. For one thing, it is expected of me. For another, they’re pretty good foods which, I am sad to say, are all but forgotten the rest of the year.
I hate to be among the pack of food writers offering Soda Bread recipes this week, but I actually love this recipe. I used to teach this during the cut-in lesson when I worked at the big schools. It is an often forgotten member of that family, overshadowed by stuck-up scones and primadonna pie dough.
I like this classic version with caraway and raisins, but it’s also fun to create your own. The salty crumb is offset nicely by a hint of sweetness. Try some other dried fruits such as dates, Armagnac soaked prunes, or chunks of ripe banana. I also love to add fresh herbs, which are currently plentiful in the backyard. Try rosemary and raisin, thyme and lemon zest, or sage with some candied ginger. Better yet, come up with your own flavor combination. (Looking for ideas? The Complete Idiots Guide to Spices and Herbs … by me … has a list of great flavor pairs.)
1/4 cup good Irish whiskey
1 cup golden raisins
2 tablespoons caraway seeds, toasted, cooled and ground
3-1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. kosher salt
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cold, and diced into small cubes
1-3/4 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup honey
2 tablespoons milk
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Streusel, scones, biscuits, and pie dough are all made using the cut-in technique. This is a method of incorporating fat and flour together not by beating or creaming, but by crumbling. The butter and flour do not actually combine, but remain separate, the butter in small chunks floating within the flour. It should never look like a paste. This peaceful coexistence of fat and flour is the key to tender, flaky baked goods. In the oven the moisture contained within the fat evaporates into steam, pushing up the dough, and leaving little pockets of air that our mouth reads as flakiness.
I like to keep the butter in what I call pea-sized pieces. While they do not have to be round, they should be approximately that small. To get your butter small, but keep it from melting and joining with the flour into a paste, keep you ingredients cold. I like to freeze the diced butter before adding it, and if the temperature in my kitchen is particularly warm I’ll even freeze the flour for 10-15 minutes.
I prefer using my fingers to break down the butter because I can better monitor the butter size. Many bakers like to keep their hands out of it entirely, preferring to use a pastry blender, a couple of knives or forks, or even a food processor (a technique that requires mastery). When I use my hands I am careful to pinch the chunks with my fingertips, and not my big, hot hands.
(The pastry blender is a groovy little tool used to break fat into flour. It’s been used for decades, and I bet if you don’t have one, your grandma does. It consists of a bow of a few wires connected to a handle.)