Sunday, October 14, 2012

Irish Soda Bread


“Pat-a-loaf, pat-a-loaf
Baker’s Man
Bake me some Wheatmeal
As fast as you can:
It builds up my health
And its taste is good,
I find that I like
Eating just what I should.”

Yeah, whatever you say, Ministry of Food. One of the many interesting things I've learned through this project is that flour and bread weren't actually rationed until after the war. In Great Britain and Europe, the cessation of military hostilities didn't mean the end of personal sacrifice: in practical terms, "victory" was accompanied by continued (and sometimes increased) privation for the better part of the following decade. As that renowned brainbox Wikipedia tells us: "Some aspects of rationing became stricter for some years after the war. Bread, which had been reduced in quality during the war but not formally controlled, was rationed from 1946 to 1948; potato rationing began in 1947. At the time this was presented as needed to feed people in European areas under British control, whose economies had been devastated by the fighting. This was partly true, but with many British men still mobilised in the armed forces, an austere economic climate, and a centrally-planned economy under the post-war Labour government, resources were not available to expand food production and food imports. Frequent strikes by some workers (most critically dock workers) made things worse." 

Although commercially baked bread was available during the war itself, it wasn't necessarily to everyone's taste. Much of the flour in use before the war was imported from abroad, and new restrictions meant an increased reliance on domestically grown wheat, with an emphasis on no wastage (how else are we supposed to defeat the U-Boat?). So it was that the National Wheatmeal Loaf was introduced in 1942. This admirably austere product "contained all the wheat grain including the husks. This resulted in a heavy loaf of bread that was a dirty beige colour with a gritty texture."  For those of us with parents and grandparents raised during this period, such details help explain their occasionally baffling tendency to stock up on readily available items. For instance, my own mother never bought fewer than 25 lbs. of potatoes at a time, and the ginormous containers in which she stockpiled staples like flour, sugar, oats, rice, and barley are the stuff of family legend. (We used to joke that if Hitler ever came back, she'd be ready for him, but it's immensely poignant how that childhood hunger informed her worldview, and how far-reaching its effects were.)

Bearing all this in mind, it's easy to imagine the appeal of homemade bread, especially if it doesn't require the time or resources of a yeast-raised loaf. Irish soda bread fits this bill perfectly,  and this recipe is both simple and delicious. I should disclose that I've actually posted this before, but since it's A. virtually identical to the WWII recipe I found, and B. foolproof, I figured if it ain't broke don't fix it. The only change from the original recipe is the substitution of soured soymilk for buttermilk; the minimal investment of time and energy only increases its allure, since everyone will be just as happy and impressed as if you'd spent the whole afternoon kneading things and punching them down (which you are obviously free to let them believe).  So go to the kitchen and mix up a batch, and in about an hour you will be striking a blow for victory - or at least eating fresh, delicious bread. 

Irish Soda Bread
Ingredients:
~ 4 cups white whole wheat flour
~ 2 cups plain, unsweetened soymilk
~ 2 tsp. apple cider vinegar
~ 1 teaspoon sugar
~ 1 teaspoon salt
~ 1 teaspoon baking soda

Directions:
~ Preheat the oven to 450 and coat a flat baking sheet with cooking spray.
~ In a small beaker, mix the soymilk and vinegar and set aside for 15 minutes to sour. (This buttermilk functions as a leavening agent; it helps activate the baking soda to make the dough rise without yeast.)
~ In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, sugar, and baking soda.
~ After 15 minutes, give the milk and vinegar a quick stir with a fork, make a well in the center of the flour mixture, and pour in the liquid. Mix well with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula to form a slightly sticky dough.
~ Knead ever so briefly to ensure it is mixed well (you want to handle this dough very little).
~ Shape the dough into a flattened circle about 2 inches thick, and place on a lightly greased baking tray. Take a sharp knife and make a shallow cross in the top of the loaf.
~ Place the loaf in the middle to top half of the oven and bake at 450 degrees for the first 10 minutes, then lower the heat to 375 and continue baking another 30-35 minutes. The bread is done when a knock on the bottom of the loaf is rewarded with a satisfying hollow sound.
~ Remove from the oven cover with a clean tea towel, and allow the bread to rest for 15 minutes before slicing. 
~ Serve with Earth Balance, marmalade, and/or Marmite for breakfast, or some hot soup at lunch or dinner. (NB this makes great toast, and any stale remnants can be used for breadcrumbs!)

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