I've been racking my brain for any memories of Easter family dinners, but so far all I've come up with is chocolate. Lots of chocolate. I suppose my sister and I were too stuffed with bunny ears and foil-wrapped eggs and jelly beans and the like to eat much at the table. I do, however, have a fond memory of my engineer father trying to drill holes in eggs with his electric drill so we could empty them, with mixed results.
Brown bread, or arán donn in Irish, is a staple of Irish meals, everywhere in the country. It appears from breakfast to dinner, usually accompanied by butter. It does not contain yeast, and any rising comes from the chemical interaction of buttermilk and baking soda. It's quick to make, and it should be eaten the same day as it's baked.
I have been trying to make it on my own—and I've been having little luck. I've collected, at last count, thirteen recipes, from Irish cookbooks (both high-end and pub food, and including one from the famous Ballymaloe cooking school in County Cork), friends, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the back of the Irish wholemeal flour package. Guess what: they're all different. No two alike. (And I'm not even counting the one from my former Irish teacher, an lovely older woman from Connemara, who doesn't even measure her ingredients.)
How can there be so much confusion about something that in its simplest form contains all of five ingredients? The basic recipe has: wholemeal flour (preferably coarse and stone-ground—Odlum's is the favored Irish brand, available by mail order), white flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk. You combine the dry ingredients, make a puddle of buttermilk in the middle, and mix with your hands (but not too much or it gets tough). Shape it into a round loaf, cut a cross in the top, and bake in a hot oven. That's it.
In a perfect universe, maybe. Me, I've ended up with a lot of chewy, doughy lumps. Great exercise for the jaw.
Then many sources start adding things to the basic recipe: oat bran, oatmeal (both rolled oats and steel-cut), sugar, brown sugar, eggs, butter, honey or molasses. Suggested cooking temperatures range from 375 to 450, in one stage or two. And the proportions of wholemeal flour (which really does make a difference—using regular brown flour is definitely not the same) to white flour are all over the map too: ratios range from 1:2 to 3:1 brown to white. The average ratio is just under 2:1 brown to white flour, but given the consistency of the Odlum's wholemeal flour, I'd tip it toward 1 1/2 to 1 (and the Odlum's package agrees; Ballymaloe pushes it even closer to half and half).
Irish Brown Bread (1 large loaf)
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
3 cups wholemeal flour
2 1/2 cups white flour
1/4 tsp of salt
1 tsp baking soda
2 cups (full fat) buttermilk (plus more if needed)
Whisk together the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Make a well in the middle and pour in the buttermilk. Mix quickly with your hands just until blended (overwork it and it will get gluey), adding more buttermilk if needed. The dough should not be too sticky.
Make the dough into a ball and place it on a an ungreased baking sheet. Flatten it until it is about 2" thick. With a sharp knife make a cross in the top (do not cut through). Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 400 degrees and continue baking until done (you'll know it's done when it sounds hollow when you tap it).
Cool on a rack. Serve with lots of butter! (It's good with blackberry jam too.)
I wish I could tell you that this is the perfect recipe, but it's still not quite there (not gummy this time, but rather crunchy). If anyone out there has a treasured recipe for Irish soda bread, I'll be happy to add it to my collection!