With St. Patrick's Day approaching I was asked whether I could bake some Irish Soda Breads for A & B Naturals, the store that sells my breads. Never having successfully baked one before - my first trial at King Arthur's "Whole Grain Soda Bread" ending in a brittle brick - I said, of course: "YES!"
"Yes" usually means that I know where to find a recipe, and, indeed, I remembered having seen one in "Cook's Illustrated". I studied the write-up for Irish Soda Bread to find out what had gone wrong with my prior misbegotten trial.
Mixing Irish Soda Bread has nothing in common with making regular breads. Apart from the right kind of flour - Irish white flour is quite low in protein, it has less gluten than American all-purpose flour - it doesn't require yeast but is leavened with baking soda.
Clueless about the true nature of this Irish tradition, I had given my King Arthur bread the usual treatment, kneading the heck out of it, adding more and more flour because it seemed too wet, and then cursing helplessly because, in spite of all my efforts, it strongly resisted being folded and shaped. What finally came out of the oven was a grainy, unappetizing brick that would have surely gone to the dogs if Buffy had already been with us.
Fortunately America's Test Kitchen never fails to take the scary out of cooking. Reading their introduction I understood that, with my uncouth handling, I had debilitated my hapless first trial bread. To achieve Soda Bread perfection the dough had to be mixed like muffin batter, barely allowing the ingredients to come together, before turning it out onto the counter and gently patting it into a round.
Enthusiastically I started preparing my first Classic Soda Bread, following the instruction. Everything went well until I emptied the bowl over the counter. The dough fell apart in larger and smaller lumps, and, also, shed quite a bit of loose flour. When I gingerly started turning it over, trying to capture the loose flour, a band of unruly crumbs broke free, rolling all over the counter.
When I finally managed coaxing all loose flour to stick, and herding back the crumbs that had gone AWOL, the sweat I broke was not only due to the oven heat.
While my bread was baking I looked through all those other Irish Soda Bread recipes I had gathered, and, also, consulted with Youtube. Did anybody know a way to make this procedure less of a crumbly challenge, more streamlined? For baking several loaves at one time? Even using a mixer?
What I read and saw was all hands-on only, even Jeffrey Hamelman, one of the bread baking VIPs, described his experiences in Dublin as being "literally up to the elbows " in dough. The idea of handling a large batch of soda dough more likely to resist centripetal forces than submitting to them seemed rather daunting. Moreover, handling it with the gentlest touch!
My Irish Soda Bread turned out very nice, it was well worth the effort. And finally, I found at least a way to make it a little easier to bring the dough together without overworking it.