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.)
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
- In a small bowl combine whiskey and raisins. Add hot water until raisins are submerged. Let stand overnight, or at least 1 hour.
- Meanwhile, toast caraway in a dry skillet until just fragrant, about 30-60 seconds. Remove immediately from pan and cool, then grind and set aside.
- In a large bowl combine flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt, and whisk together to aerate. Add butter and cut-in until the mixture resembles a course meal. Mix in drained raisins and caraway.
- Whisk together buttermilk and honey. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in buttermilk. Stir to moisten, then turn dough out onto a well floured work surface. Using a plastic scraper or rubber spatula, fold the dough over onto itself 6-8 times. (This is NOT kneading, but more like gently compacting the ingredients.)
- Preheat oven to 350˚F. Form dough into one round loaf and place on a parchment lined baking sheet. Brush generously with milk, then cut an “x” in the top of the dough to facilitate the dough’s expansion. Let the dough stand for 10 minutes before baking. (This gives the dry ingredients a chance to absorb all the moisture, which lets the leavening work to full potential, in turn making the bread a little lighter.) Bake for 35-45 minutes until the crust is a deep golden brown, and the loaf sounds hollow inside when thumped. Cool a little, then lob off a piece and slather it with butter.