Monday, August 30, 2010

Irish Wheaten Bread

Recipe 1

8oz course ground wheat flour 1
2oz white flour
1 heaped teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
16-20fl oz buttermilk

Recipe 2

12oz course ground wheat flour
4oz plain flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 heaped teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon wheat bran
2oz sugar
2oz butter
14-16 fl oz buttermilk
Oven temperature for both of the above recipes should be around 400F for approx. 40-45 minutes. When cooked, the bread should be golden brown on top and sound hollow when tapped. A skewer inserted in the middle should come out clean

Wheaten bread is a traditional Irish wholewheat loaf. It is very quick to make and although it is best eaten the same day, it also freezes well. We prefer ours spread with real butter and honey from my sons' beehive. All bakeries in Northern Ireland will sell a variety of loaves that are leavened with soda.
Irish wheaten bread was traditionally made with locally ground wheat. Every parish had either a watermill or windmill. The flour was not ground as fine as our present shop bought wheat flour. The bread was leavened with baking soda and buttermilk instead of yeast. Soda or wheaten loaves were baked on a griddle over the open turf fire or in a pot similar to a dutch oven but with 3 little legs on the bottom. Glowing turf was raked underneath the pot, and also onto the lid, which had a dipped rim to hold them. This gave an even, all round heat from top and bottom and the pot was also turned during cooking so all sides had some time towards the fire.
The process of turning a bowl full of wheat grain into bread is indeed a lengthy one. Milling enough grain to make one or two loaves is not too onerous a task. Add to that however the time for kneading, resting and baking of the dough and this on a daily basis, by hand, for a large family and it will quickly be seen that one might spend most of the day in the kitchen.
The Irish people had of necessity made their own fresh bread daily and for very large families. They didn't use yeast as a raising agent but baking soda and buttermilk. Their wheat was softer than the hard wheat often grown in America and Canada and so would not respond well in a yeast loaf anyway. Many houses had their own grinding stones or quern.
The buttermilk would have been that which was left over after churning the butter, but buttermilk is now sold in supermarkets and resembles a thick yogurt type milk. It can be made at home by using half a cup of this shop bought milk as a culture and adding a few pints of home produced milk to it and leaving it to stand covered, for 24 hours in a warm place. The milk should then be thick and leave the sides of the jar when tipped and can be placed in the fridge if need be for a few days unless bread is being made on a daily basis. This kind of culture can be kept going from one batch to the next for a few weeks but it will eventually pick up "off" flavors.
As wheaten bread is fairly heavy in texture I use a recipe with a proportion of white flour. I also add 1 tablespoon of alfalfa, sesame, and flax seed to the wheat when grinding to give additional roughage and nutrition to the loaves. And so I can now make enough fresh bread for our family of nine on a daily basis. It takes me approximately 1 hour from grinding the wheat to setting the loaves on the table. I bake mine in a conventional oven because our fireplace is not large enough to accommodate a dutch oven. Although soda bread tastes very different from yeast bread, everyone I know loves it and my children eat it up very quickly.
I'm afraid there is probably no equivalent in America to the turf used on the fires over here. We buy a 'cut' in the summer and spend many hours on the mountain side turning, stacking and lifting it. It burns somewhat like coal and produces a lot of ash which is very good for the garden. The smoke smells wonderful.
I grind my own wheat flour in my 'Country living' grain mill. For yeast bread I would pass it through the mill twice to make it fine enough but for this soda bread one pass is enough therefore saving me yet more time and effort.
Here are a few recipes. They can be made in 2lb loaf pans in the oven but I prefer to dust a baking sheet with flour and make the loaf into a round shape. It will spread out and flatten quite a lot whilst cooking. It is important that the dry ingredients are well mixed before adding the liquid because soda bread should not be kneaded or handled any more than absolutely necessary. When adding the buttermilk, do so slowly as flours vary and some soak up more fluid than others. The mixture should then be blended together lightly with a spoon, gathered up carefully and placed on the floured baking sheet. If using a bread pan, lightly grease it and do not smooth the top of the mixture. Some recipes include sugar, butter and eggs and others just the buttermilk and soda. I prefer to use the following recipe but include one other for those wishing to experiment. There are many other variations including currant soda, treacle soda, and soda farls.

Sarah Matthess grinds her own flour, bakes her own wheaten bread, and lives with her husband and seven children on an acre of "good potato growing land" in Northern Ireland.

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