Irish soda bread did not originate in Belfast, just as potatoes weren’t indigenous to the green isles and tartans aren’t Scottish. The Irish picked up the soda bread tradition from Native Americans who had been leaving their breads with pearl ash, a precourser to modern baking soda. These loaves taste like a hybrid of a savory muffin and crusty loaf of bread, but they’re closer to your mama’s banana bread than a sourdough in their chemistry.
Pearl ash is a powder that is derived from a strong lye solution. Also known as pot ash, the substance begins with burnt trees. Ashes from burnt wood are mixed with water to make a solution, which can be as gentle as a pretzel flavoring or as caustic as a clog drainer. The solution is then cooked down to a powdery substance in a kiln, resulting in a powder that, when combined with an acid, bubbles and helps everything from biscuits to cakes rise up. When yeast wasn’t available, this ash was used in combination with sour milk (or buttermilk) to make quick breads that required less fuss, time and fermentation than yeasted breads. These breads were also not dependent on hard wheats. In order to have a tall, crusty loaf of yeast-risen bread, bakers need to work with flours made from strong, or hard, wheat varieties. The harder flours commanded a higher price than the softer wheats typically relegated to biscuits and pancakes, but these ash-leavened loaves made good use of the cheaper, softer wheat varieties.
Soda breads may lack the flavor development and custardy structure of yeasted doughs, but we love how quick they are to pull together and how easy it is to customize them. Our recipe calls for two parts all purpose flour to one part whole wheat (Spelt is my favorite here) and can be made sweet or savory. I’ll throw in a few tablespoons of honey and fresh thyme for a sweet loaf, parmesan and rosemary for a quick bread to serve with soup or, obviously, some finely chopped chocolate to pair with a hazelnut spread right out the oven.
Tips: If you’re out of buttermilk, replace it with the same amount of whole milk and add 2 tsps of lemon juice or vinegar for every cup of liquid. Be sure to use the baking soda in your cupboard- the one you’ve been keeping as a fridge deodorizer might impart the shrimp scampi flavor it absorbed on your top shelf.
This St. Patty’s Day, go ahead and thank both your Irish brothers and sisters and the original Americans for their contributions! Check out our recipe for a simple, quick and easy-to-flavor Soda Bread.
Chocolate Meringue Tarts
Pate Sucree au Chocolat (Chocolate Sweet Tart Dough)
|3 Tbsps||16g||Cocoa powder|
- Cream the butter, sugar and salt with a paddle attachment in a stand or hand held mixer. Need a workout? Start with room temp butter and beat with a wooden spoon. Either way, mix until no chunks or bits of butter remain.
- Add the egg and vanilla and beat until smooth. Add the flour and stir until your dough just comes together.
- Grab two sheets of parchment paper (about the size of a cookie sheet) and a rolling pin (or wine bottle). Roll the dough between the sheets until it covers the entire area. This is a good thickness for a tart crust. Slide this dough onto a cookie sheet and freeze for at least an hour. Or a week.
- Preheat your oven to 350F. Grab an 8" or 9" tart pan or a couple of 4" ones. Peel off the top layer of parchment back and cut out circles about 2" larger than your pan. Once you can bend the dough without it cracking, lower it into your tart pan. Don't freak out if it does crack a little; you can patch this up.
- Tarts need to have thin crusts- no one wants to bite into a doughy corner. Be sure to thin out the crust, but not so much that you can see metal. If the dough is too warm, pop it back in the freezer for a few minutes.
- Grab a fork and dimple the dough all the way to the bottom of the pan. Bake for about 15 minutes for a larger tart and 12 for smaller ones. Set aside.
Chocolate Pudding (makes more than you need, because pudding is great for breakfast).
|1/4 cup||Potato or Corn starch|
|2 tsps||Kosher salt|
|7 ounces||Dark chocolate (or 10 oz milk)|
- Chop up the chocolate and set it aside.
- Place the sugar, starch and salt in a non-reactive pot (anything but aluminum, really). Slowly whisk in the milk, followed by the yolks.
- Turn the heat to medium and whisk continuously until it boils (a little over five minutes). Remove from heat and whisk in the chocolate until smooth. Set aside to cool a bit.
|1 tsp||Vanilla extract|
|1 tsp||Cocoa powder|
- Place a medium saucepot filled 1/3 of the way with water and bring to a simmer.
- Place the sugar, salt and egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer. Holding the bowl over the saucepot, whisk the mixture until it feels warm to the touch.
- Place the bowl on the stand mixer (or begin beating with a hand held mixer) and beat with the whisk attachment until stiff peaks form. Add the vanilla and cocoa powder once the mixture is nice and stiff. Spoon or pipe over the pudding and torch!