Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I Is For Irish Soda Bread

I have a large head.  No, that's not a metaphor.  I really mean it, my head is large.  Not Elephant-Man-large, but on the larger end of the cranium circumference continuum.  Bigger head = bigger brain?  I'd like to think so, but buy into that twist of neuroanatomic reality and pretty soon you are sliding down the slippery slope toward phrenology.  A big head means that buying hats can be difficult, as can finding wigs that fit comfortably...for Halloween.  I blame attribute my sizable skull to my Irish heritage.  I read (or heard) somewhere that the Irish are known for their large heads.  I suppose it could be some odd early 20th-century form of racial profiling, or maybe it's just something I heard on the old Rosie O'Donnel show and it somehow stuck in this large head of mine.  Whatever its genesis, I do have a large head and I do hail from Irish stock...or so goes the story.  Supposedly there was some scandelous hanky-panky a few generations ago in the Catskill Mountains, thus introducing genes from the Emerald Isle into the Finch family DNA.  Without going into juicy details, that's the family scuttlebutt. 

But I have reason to question family lore, particularly when it comes to ancestral heritage.  An oft-told, but suspiciously abbreviated, tale from my childhood included a pair of Norwegian brothers who came over on the boat and settled in upstate New York to make their fame and/or fortune, reproduce heartily and, fastforward, here I am...large head and all.  Plausible.  So I went with it...proud of my Norwegian background I chose the language of my forefathers as my foreign language in college (3 semesters worth), read Norwegian folktales, and tried to insert "Uff da" into my daily lexicon.  I was getting there...at the height of my Norwegian-ness I was even dreaming in the language of my stoic Nordic ancestors. 

Then this noble Viking house-of-cards folded with one quick Germanic puff of wind.  My sister met a stranger who shared our Norwegian surname.  An avid family arborist, this genetically-linked stranger had done her homework.  Within minutes she had erased the Norwegian brothers from our past, replacing them with German(!) brothers, one who settled in hardscrabble upstate New York, the other continuing his journey across the plains and mountains and settling in California, the land of plenty.  This mysterious German stranger had facts, names, and dates...the pitiful Norwegians didn't stand a chance.  I traded dreams of hiking the geothermal hills of Iceland (a Norwegian version of a spa treatment, I suppose) for a trip to the motherland to drink gallons of beer.  Uff da, indeed!
No bagpipe-bleating stranger has yet to wander in from the fog to weave a plaid-ridden tale of kilt-wearing Scottish barbarianism which could dissuade me of my Irishness.  I am (part) Irish; I have proof - just measure my head!  So, for the time-being, I offer this oven-bourne tradition from my maternal homeland, an authentic Irish Soda Bread. 
The fresh-off-the-plane Irishmen who taught me this recipe were quick to point out that Ireland does not have a history filled with wealth and riches.  Soda Bread was peasantfare, and a quick study of the traditional ingredients is a lesson in poverty/wealth and nutrition.  Refined white flour was saved for the upperclasses, the peasants were left with wholegrain flours.  Filler was needed, so a handful of whole, cracked grain makes the bread go that much farther.  Butter was a product to be sold, not to be eaten by a dairyman's family, so very little fat is included in this recipe.  And what is buttermilk but a byproduct from buttermaking...using whole milk or, god forbid, cream in a bread recipe would be like taking money and eating it.  Fruit or spices?...forget it, they were luxuries  saved for celebrations, not for this basic, daily bread.  Of course, knowing what we now know about health and nutrition, we realize that if the Irish peasantclass hadn't been starving, they would have been very healthy. 
Irish Soda Bread
Yield:  2 loaves
(Pardon the odd measurements, this is scaled down from a much larger batch)
AP Flour..........................8.2 oz
Whole Wheat Pastry Flour.....9.5 oz
Oats/Rolled Spelt...............1.4 oz
Whole Wheat Flour.............4 oz
Salt................................0.3 oz
Baking Soda......................0.5 oz
Sugar..............................0.5 oz
Butter.............................2 oz
Buttermilk........................20.5 oz
1.  Mix all the dry ingredients.  Cut the butter into the dry until well incorporated.
2.  Add the buttermilk and beat thoroughly.
3.  Dust work surface with whole wheat flour, and turn the dough out onto it.  Divide the dough in half, form rounds, place on parchment/Silpat lined baking sheet.  Dust tops lightly with whole wheat flour.  Let rest 20 minutes.
4.  Preheat oven to 500.  Place the loaves in the oven and immediately lower temperature to 480.  Bake 30-35 minutes.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

F is for Fondant...G is for Ganache...H is for a Henna-Inspired Cake

F had me stuck.  Since Christmas (and my last blog posting) I have made a couple of Fougasse but was uninspired to write about either one.  I tried a Foccacia topped with tomatoes and onions, and it was good...but also an awful lot like just a thick-crust, bready pizza...and, again, it did not elicit the muse.  We had an absolutely wonderful (and 30 year overdue) weekend visit with some old Friends...truly the highlight of 2010 thus far...fun but no F-based baking to write about.

But then Sri got pregnant and, yes, I was called upon to make yet another baby shower cake.  And I'm happy to do it...as much as I this-and-that about making fancy cakes for pregnant women, it does require me to tap into a different creative source than does making wheat bread, coming up with a good one-liner, or writing a (hopefully) entertaining blog...and that's a good thing.  Plus, and this crashed into my head from who-knows-where, I was thinking about babies and being a parent the other day.  (A little backstory...the road to parenthood once consumed a considerable amount of our time, energy, and emotional ugh...ending in a houseful of broken hearts, heavy sighs and regret that continue to this day.)  Anyhoo, I was driving home from Safeway, having finally located some white chocolate for Sri's cake, when I heard a song on the radio by a fellow named Colin...brain wheels start spinning and whirring and I think to myself, "If we had a baby I would want to name him Colin"...soon followed by a "hmmm" and the question, "Are we too old to be parents?"...a few mental math problems later I come to the conclusion that, yes, we really are too old to be new parents, but the thought stuck with me for a mile or so.  By then I had come to the red light at Camino Verde, was almost home, and my thoughts returned to Sri's cake. 

Sheesh...what am I, a junior-high school girl?  Well, in many ways, yes, I do share more than one trait with middle school girls...but really, who, besides Ellen-The-Eighth-Grader, starts thinking about being a parent because the folk singer on the radio had a name that you like.  And who, other than me, dismisses the idea (the life-altering, DNA-continuing idea) a mile down the road...I would guess, based on my circle of friends and associates, that the answer to that question is probably..."lots of people."  In fact, the majority of our friends have chosen to live a childless life.  Of course, for us, it really wasn't our choice - it was more just our fact.  So now we are in our mid to late 40's, and it's kinda too late...which, on the first reading, sounds pathetic and sad, but it really isn't.  I think that we are probably much better at raising dogs, tortoises, and chickens than we would be at raising something whose brain was a little more bumpy...like a child.  Because even though the name Colin is a responsible name for a baby, probably next time I get the parenting urge, I will have reason to think that Velvet or Saigon are good names for babies. 

So I will watch TV tonight with 3 dogs snuggled up close to me, completly happy with Merceredes' growls, and Mayor's warmth, and Miss Imogen's deep breathing in my ear...and I will be content and proud that I can bring a sweet girly cake to work tomorrow for Sri's baby-shower.  Congratulations, Sri!

Cake Facts...The bottom tier is a chocolate cake with espresso buttercream and whipped dark chocolate ganache.  The top tier is a Meyer lemon genoise, with apricot buttercream and a white chocolate sour cream ganache.  (There are a few cracks in the fondant, mostly along the edge, but I'm getting better at working with the crazy stuff.  Oh, and these pictures show the toothpicks that are holding up the little pink leaves on the top...hopefully they can be removed tomorrow before the baby shower.)