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Brown soda bread

I’m not a big bread baker. It just doesn’t tickle my fancy much. But last weekend I tried my hand at Irish soda bread, and now I’m on my second loaf in seven days. This is serious business.

I love a good whole-wheat loaf, and this one might be my favorite yet. It’s dense and chewy, with just enough white flour to give it a soft fluffy crumb.The sturdy crust growls oh-so-satisfyingly under a bread knife, revealing a plush, almost cakelike interior. The flavor is deep and gruff and wheaty, shot through with flax and oats and the licorice tang of whole caraway seeds. It really makes anything you’re eating with it feel like a good square meal. And since it’s a quickbread, there’s no kneading or rising involved–the dough comes together in minutes, and goes from mixing bowl to cutting board in under an hour.

There are two options for baking this bread: in a loaf pan, or rounded on a baking sheet. I’ve tried them both; the spongy middle turns out identical, but the crust is astonishingly different. The loaf pan produces a lighter bread, with a crackly-crisp crust on the top only. This would be a terrific breakfast bread, ideal for slathering with butter and jam. The round loaf, meanwhile, is crusty all around: the top is jagged and crunchy, and the bottom is solid like an artisan loaf. I’ve never had a crust this solid and satisfying on a whole wheat bread before. As an accompaniment to a thick winter stew or a hearty vegetable soup, I’m not sure it can be beat.

This bread is at its absolute best warm from the oven. As it cools, it loses a lot of its belly-warming charm. Once that happens, the only fix is the toaster oven–but it’s a good one. Toasting this bread restores some of that wonderful all-over crispness, and heightens the nuttiness and sweetness of the bread itself. A toasted slice of this bread is almost as satisfying as an oven-fresh one, with a thin shaggy crunch giving way to fluffy insides. My personal favorite M.O.? Freeze leftover slices–no more than an inch thick, please–and toast them straight from the freezer.

Oh, and though I’m not a beer drinker, I have it on good authority that this bread is The Thing to have with a glass of Irish stout. If you try it, please report back.

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