Friday, March 15, 2013

Spotted Dog (a.k.a. Irish Soda Bread): A Question of Authenticity

I had to stop and check through my posts before I continued to write this one, just to make sure I hadn't ALREADY posted this recipe. Mine comes from The Ballymaloe Bread Book, by Tim Allen. This slim volume has been a huge instructor in the kitchen for me. I can't recommend it highly enough. 

Food is a battleground for authenticity--it's an intersection of everything, past, present, future, personal proclivities, and so forth. And soda bread is no exception. People get heated about it. That which we know as Irish soda bread is called Spotted Dog in Ireland: "a currant for every station," as the bread keeps well for train and other travel adventures. (You may have also heard of the dessert called Spotted Dick. Basically, anything with spots typically signifies currants.) I've read that adding caraway seeds to soda bread happened in the United States. I've heard that only Irish wholemeal flour is authentic. I've heard that anything beyond flour, buttermilk, salt, and baking soda isn't soda bread at all--after all the "soda" refers to baking soda. Some say don't add an egg. Some say add sugar. I've had cloying, gross, soggy soda bread that takes like cake. That ain't soda bread. To me, I want a soda bread that honors the tradition, and doesn't stray too far from it. It has to taste like the simple, quick, tea-time (or anytime) bread that it is. In the kitchen, I typically like to bend the rules, but with soda bread, I don't want to piss off my ancestors. So I follow this one, from Tim Allen. 

Here's how I do up Spotted Dog--a.k.a Irish-American Soda Bread

1 lb unbleached, all-purpose flour (you can add in a bit of wheat if you want, but be prepared for a different texture and a different experience with the buttermilk)
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 T. sugar (optional
4 ounces currants (or raisins; I prefer baking raisins as they are more moist).
1 large egg, room temperature
12 ounces buttermilk (or more if needed)

1. Fully preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. The oven needs to be good and hot.
2. Weigh the flour, and add the salt through currants. Make sure you gently lift up the currants and distribute them throughout the flour with your fingertips; they will clump together otherwise. 
3. Combine the buttermilk and the egg, which you can beat lightly with a fork right in the 2-cup measuring cup you pour it into.
4. Make a well in the center of the flour. Fill the measuring cup with buttermilk, and add the egg so that the total liquid equals about 14 ounces. Pour most of the liquid into the center of the well.
5. Here’s the messy part. Using your fingers, open and stiff, mix the dough together in a full circle, dragging the dough from the sides of the bowl to incorporate it all. You must work quickly and deftly. It will be shaggy and moist, but not too wet. Add more liquid from the measuring cup if needed.
6. You may need to add more flour. This is okay. Ambient humidity is totally affected by bread recipes, especially something that requires chemical leavening like soda bread. When the dough has just about come together, carefully tumble it out onto a pastry board coated with flour.
7. Tidy it up, forming it quickly into a round loaf that measures about two inches high. Slash a cross into the loaf, and prick each of the quarters with the tip of the knife to let the devil out of the bread (not kidding.)
8. Bake for ten minutes at 425, and then drop the temperature down to 400 degrees for the remaining 30-35 minutes. The bread is finished when it’s golden brown all around and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. Don’t let it get too dark; this bread does not keep long and will get dry fast enough on its own, so you don’t want to help it along by overbaking it. Remove it, and please, for the love of the Irish or even just the Irish-Americans, please wait until it’s fully cooled before you slice it. You don’t want to disturb the important work that happens when bread cools.

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