Forget corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day, try soda bread

C orned beef and cabbage is a given for St. Patrick’s Day, despite the debate about whether anyone in Ireland actually eats it and the fact that boiled cabbage is an acquired taste at best. But soda bread can bring a note of authenticity and some slightly sweet relief to the table.

Jerry O’Brien, an assistant manager at Ri Ra at Mandalay Place, is a native of Ireland who said he’s been a baker since he was about 12 years old. Accordingly, he knows a thing or two about the origin of soda bread and what makes a good one. The bread came to be, he said, during the potato blight in Ireland, when the shortage of potatoes led not only to famine but also a shortage of yeast for baking bread.

“So they went to the recipe,” O’Brien said. “It was basic ingredients: wheat flour (soft wheat, so it can be grown in Ireland with the climate we have), baking soda (which has been in Ireland since 1840) that helps to raise the bread, buttermilk (which they had on the farm), eggs and then to sweeten it either honey or molasses.”

“It’s a pretty basic recipe,” he said. “That’s why it was so popular in Ireland during the famine. In some places we put a cross on top of the bread to bless it — ‘to keep the devil out’ is the saying back home.”

Soda bread takes different forms, which O’Brien said has much to do with geography. In the south, where he’s from, whole wheat is used, but in the north it’s mostly white flour, he noted.

“In the olden days, they would put it over the fire,” he said. “They would put a plate over the fire and cook it over that. The outside would be hard, kind of crispy, and the inside would be soft, and very moist. The recipes passed down the generations and you see houses today where they still bake their bread daily.”

At Ri Ra, soda bread is the first thing that’s put on the table after a customer is seated.

“Straightaway people know it’s Irish soda bread; they don’t even have to ask,” he said. They also serve it with their beef and Guinness stew, with the shepherd’s pie and, during the day, with salads.

“People love it,” he said. “People always ask for more. We serve it with Kerrygold butter, so it’s the real deal.”

Soda bread also is served at Nine Fine Irishmen at New York-New York.

“That’s a staple in our restaurant,” said chef Mitchell Roberts. “It’s a very dense, heavy sort of bread.”

They also serve it with Kerrygold butter, Roberts said.

“It has a very hearty crust,” he added. “It’s best served at room temperature to preserve the flavor of it, texture of it.”

Joseph Romano, vice president of operations for Golden Gaming, which owns four Sean Patrick’s Pub & Grills in Las Vegas, said the firm crust and dense texture are the reasons the company decided not to serve soda bread in their pubs.

“We have some classics,” Romano said, “but we’ve really given it a new twist. We have your classic corned beef and cabbage, we have your classic shepherd’s pie, but then we do Irish nachos,” house-made potato chips topped with corned beef, sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing and cheese. “And then we do an Irish pizza.”

Double Barrel Roadhouse at the Monte Carlo doesn’t usually serve soda bread, but executive chef David Mangual is putting it on the menu for St. Patrick’s Day. He’s using sour cream, dried cherries and caraway seeds.

“It softens up the bread a lot with the sour cream,” he said. “I’ve got it in cast iron; it has a more rustic style. And whipped honey-butter to go on top.”

Roberts said he thinks soda bread is a natural for an Irish pub.

“When people think of Ireland,” he said, “they think of soda bread and shepherd’s pie.”

IRISH SODA BREAD

^

  • 4 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for currants
  • 4 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1½ teaspoons kosher salt
  • 4 tablespoons (½ stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch dice
  • 1¾ cups cold buttermilk, shaken
  • 1 extra-large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 teaspoon grated orange zest
  • 1 cup dried currants

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.

Combine the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the butter and mix on low speed until the butter is mixed into the flour.

With a fork, lightly beat the buttermilk, egg and orange zest together in a measuring cup. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the buttermilk mixture to the flour mixture. Combine the currants with 1 tablespoon of flour and mix into the dough. It will be very wet.

Dump the dough onto a well-floured board and knead it a few times into a round loaf. Place the loaf on the prepared sheet pan and lightly cut an “X” into the top of the bread with a serrated knife. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean. When you tap the loaf, it will have a hollow sound.

Cool on a baking rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes 1 loaf.

— Recipe by Ina Garten from the Food Network

IRISH SODA BREAD WITH RAISINS AND CARAWAY

^

  • 5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1½ teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into cubes, room temperature
  • 2½ cups raisins
  • 3 tablespoons caraway seeds
  • 2½ cups buttermilk
  • 1 large egg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter heavy ovenproof 10- to 12-inch-diameter skillet with 2- to 2 ½-inch-high sides.

Whisk first five ingredients in large bowl to blend. Add butter; using fingertips; rub in until coarse crumbs form. Stir in raisins and caraway seeds. Whisk buttermilk and egg in medium bowl to blend. Add to dough; using wooden spoon, stir just until well incorporated (dough will be very sticky).

Transfer dough to prepared skillet; smooth top, mounding slightly in center. Using small sharp knife dipped into flour, cut 1-inch-deep “X” in top center of dough. Bake until bread is cooked through and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 1 hour 15 minutes. Cool bread in skillet 10 minutes. Turn out onto rack and cool completely. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Wrap tightly in foil; store at room temperature.)

Serves 8 to 10.

— Recipe from Bon Appetit

MUMMY’S BROWN IRISH SODA BREAD

^

  • ½ pound all-purpose flour (organic preferred) (about 1¾ cups)
  • ½ pound whole wheat flour (about 1¾ cups)
  • Barely rounded teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 13 to 16 ounces buttermilk (depending on the consistency of the buttermilk)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Mix the flours in a large wide bowl; add the salt and sieved baking soda. Lift the flour up with your fingers to distribute the salt and baking soda.

Make a well in the center and pour in all the buttermilk. With your fingers stiff and outstretched, stir in a circular movement from the center to the outside of the bowl in ever increasing concentric circles. When you reach the outside of the bowl, seconds later the dough should be made.

Sprinkle a little flour on the worktop. Turn the dough out onto the floured worktop. (Fill the bowl with cold water so it will be easy to wash later.)

Sprinkle a little flour on your hands. Gently tidy the dough around the edges and transfer to oven tray. Tuck the edges underneath with your hand; gently pat the dough with your fingers into a loaf about 1½-inch thick. Now wash and dry your hands.

Cut a deep cross into the bread (this is called “blessing the bread”) and then prick it in the center of the four sections to let the fairies out of the bread.

Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, then turn the oven down to 400 degrees for a further 15 minutes. Turn the bread upside down and cook for a further 5 to 10 minutes until cooked (the bottom should sound hollow when tapped). Cool on a wire rack.

Makes 1 loaf.

— Recipe by Darina Allen from Kerrygold

BROWN BUTTER SODA BREAD

^

  • ¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter
  • 3½ cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup old-fashioned oats
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¾ teaspoon ground black pepper, plus additional for topping
  • 1¾ cups buttermilk
  • 1 egg white, beaten to blend

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 375 degrees.

Stir butter in heavy small saucepan over medium heat until melted and golden brown, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat.

Stir flour, oats, sugar, rosemary, baking powder, baking soda, salt and ¾ teaspoon pepper in large bowl to blend. Pour buttermilk and melted browned butter over flour mixture; stir with fork until flour mixture is moistened.

Turn dough out onto floured work surface. Knead gently until dough comes together, about 7 turns. Divide in half. Shape each half into ball; flatten each into 6-inch round. Place rounds on ungreased baking sheet, spacing 5 inches apart. Brush tops with beaten egg white. Sprinkle lightly with ground black pepper. Using small sharp knife, cut ½-inch-deep “X” in top of each dough round.

Bake breads until deep golden brown and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool breads on rack at least 30 minutes.

Serve bread warm or at room temperature.

Note: You’ll get the most tender soda bread by kneading the dough gently and briefly, just until it comes together, so the gluten is minimally developed.

Makes 2 loaves.

— Recipe from Bon Appetit

SODA BREAD WITH DARK CHOCOLATE AND CANDIED ORANGE PEEL

^

  • 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 6 tablespoons (¾ stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
  • 6 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, cut into 1/3-inch pieces
  • 6 ounces candied orange peel, diced
  • 1¼ cups buttermilk
  • 1 large egg

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350 degrees.

Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper; butter parchment.

Whisk first 5 ingredients in large bowl to blend. Add butter; rub in with fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in chocolate and orange peel. Whisk buttermilk and egg in medium bowl to blend; add to dry ingredients. Stir just until incorporated.

Turn dough out onto floured work surface and knead gently just until dough comes together, about five turns. Form dough into 6½-inch-diameter round, about 2 to 2½ inches high. Transfer to prepared baking sheet. Using sharp knife, cut 1-inch-deep, 3-inch-long slits in top of bread, forming sunburst pattern.

Bake bread until well browned and very firm when pressed and tester inserted into center comes out clean, turning baking sheet halfway through baking, about 1 hour 10 minutes total. Transfer bread to rack and cool completely, at least 3 hours. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Wrap in foil and store at room temperature.)

Makes 1 large round loaf.

— Recipe from Bon Appetit

Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella@reviewjournal.com. Find more of her stories at bestoflasvegas.com and follow @HKRinella on Twitter.

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