More supermarket shelves were bare here in America’s heartland over the weekend. It came as a shock to see rows of empty self-serve steam tables and display cases vacant of fresh fish and meats. What’s going on?
We can only surmise that food supply and delivery systems are disrupted as workplaces close to protect employees from the spread of the coronavirus. What if I can’t find my favorite brand of steel cut oatmeal next time I shop? In the face of this level of uncertainty, I have only one recourse. I bake bread.
You may be surprised to learn that a simply delicious loaf of Brown Soda Bread takes less time and effort than baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies. (You will thank me for this advice if you take it.) Soda bread has street creds too. Before the Irish attached their name to it, a soda bread recipe had appeared in America’s first cookbook, The Virginia Housewife in 1824. Today the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread (they’re for real) insists that the true recipe consists of flour, salt, baking soda and buttermilk.
Soda bread dates from a time when bread was baked in a covered pot over an open fire or nested among hot embers. I spent a morning some time ago watching a black cook prepare an entire meal over a spacious hearth in the George Whyte House at Colonial Williamsburg. Cooking as if conducting an orchestra, she worked intuitively, shifting the height and distance of various pots from the fire while simultaneously monitoring its heat.
That kind of intimate interaction led to the discovery and formulation of chemical leaveners in the 19th century, At some point an attentive observer realized that the hissing sound from liquid spilling onto hot ashes was a chemical reaction worth containing. The baking powder we purchase today contains bicarbonate of soda (from ashes) and two mild acid compounds that combine in the heat of the oven to create carbon dioxide bubbles that cause the bread to rise. Voila!
BROWN SODA BREAD
1 cup unbleached white flour
1 1/4 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup buttermilk (or 1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar stirred into milk)
1 large egg
2 tablespoons butter, melted
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place your largest, heaviest Dutch oven (cast iron is the best) in the oven with its cover on.
Stir together the flours, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt in a mixing bowl. If using milk acidulated with lemon juice or vinegar rather than buttermilk, let the mixture stand for 10 minutes before blending in the egg.
Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, pour in the buttermilk and egg liquid as well as the melted butter. Mix the liquids briefly then fold the dry ingredients into the wet until combined. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Dust your hands with flour, and lightly knead the dough for a minute or so adding more flour by the tablespoon until you can work it and keep your hands almost dry. Shape the dough into a cushion, transfer it to a sheet of parchment and score the top 1/2” deep.
Remove the pot from the oven, uncover and carefully drop in the dough into using the parchment as support. (Generously spritz the dough with water if you have a mister.) Cover the pot and return to the oven for 40 minutes. Remove the Dutch oven, uncover, lift out the bread and parchment liner. Slide bread off the paper onto a rack and allow it to cool to room temperature.
Serve in thin slices with butter and homemade jam.
BONUS: RHUBARB GINGER JAM
Ingredients for 1 1/2 cups
1 pound fresh rhubarb, trimmed at both ends and cut into 1” long pieces
1 cup sugar
3 strips lemon peel
2 slices ginger root, unpeeled, the size of quarters
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 cup diced crystallized ginger (optional)
Jam: Combine and stir together the rhubarb pieces, lemon strips, ginger root slices and 1/3 cup sugar in a 4 quart saucepan. Cover the pan and allow to stand for 30 minutes.
Bring the fruit and accumulated juices to a simmer and cook, barely simmering for 10 minutes. Add the remaining sugar in two installments allowing the jam to return to a boil before adding more. Stir regularly to prevent sticking. Add the lemon juice and continue cooking until almost all of the excess juices have reduced, before the jam starts to stick to the bottom. Off the heat, pour the jam into a two cup measure.
Pour the jam to within 1/2” of the rim of each jar. If the edge has a drop of jam on it, wipe it clean with a paper towel dipped in the hot water bath. Attach the lid, screw the cap on tightly and invert the jar for 15 seconds (to sterilize the air remaining in the jar) before returning it right side up to the rack. Store cooled jars in dark, cool place The jams taste best if consumed within 6 months. They make great gifts! You can also store jam in unsterilized jars in the refrigerator.
Prepare preserving jars in advance: 3 quarter-pint quilted jars, or 1 1/2 pint and 1 quarter-pint jar. Submerge them in boiling water for 15 minutes. (A pasta pot with an slotted insert is the best container because jars won’t bounce around on the bottom.) Let jars cool on a rack, dip the jar lids in the boiling water and then cool on a rack. Screw caps do not have to be sterilized.