Many wonderful things happen in March: The weather finally breaks and Spring arrives, the clocks “spring” ahead, my orchid blooms and a fun Irish holiday is celebrated. For the past few years I have sought advice from my three Irish friends, Alan, Brona and Derval, on recipes and lore of Ireland. A few years ago Alan, living across the pond, put me on to a fantastic Shepherd’s Pie recipe. Just for good measure I made it yesterday and it was as delicious as when I created it. The key – and a very important one – is to make sure you reduce the liquid as I instruct. Your end result should be a thick, glossy and very delicious filling. Last year I worked up a tasty root vegetable rendition of Boxty, that garnered high marks. This year I decided to try my hand at baking. Baking, not really my bailiwick as you know, is always a challenge. To that end I turned to my friend Brona for advice.
Let’s talk briefly about brown bread. In mid-19th century Ireland, during the famine, brown bread was consumed by the poor. It wasn’t until nearly the end of that century that people actually realized brown, or wheat flours, had great health benefits. It didn’t matter, brown bread got a bad wrap for being food of the poor and it took a long time to get over it. Lucky for us that happened!
With this recipe I wanted to get as close to authentic as I could. For that I turned to my pal Brona. We’ve known each other for thirteen years, meeting on the stage for my one and only thespian adventure: The Odd Couple. On her advice I headed to Yonkers, McClean Avenue to be exact, and the famous butcher shop called the Butcher’s Fancy. Right at the front door I found my flour, and a variety of other items.
The best part of this delicious concoction: Your active time is about five minutes. Mix the dry ingredients in one bowl, the wet in another and then combine with a spatula. You don’t even need to get the mixer dirty. (I love that!)
Initially I used two tablespoons of baking powder instead of two teaspoons. The result was a softer crumb on the bread. I dropped it to one tablespoon and felt that worked the best. Brona uses two teaspoons which makes it even denser, though still very moist. It’s really a matter of taste on that count.
I did two variations on her main recipe. For the first I swapped out the honey for treacle, the Irish version of molasses. This bread would be perfect as a savory accompaniment, perhaps to smoked salmon.
The second was the addition of a little treacle with the honey, raisins and walnuts. All three are divine but the raisin-walnut was just delicious. Perfect with tea or coffee.
The second best part: all three held up beautifully the next day.
I do hope you will give one of these recipes a try for your upcoming St. Patrick’s Day buffet, or anytime for that matter!
Brona’s Irish Brown Bread
Makes 1 loaf
2½ cups coarse whole wheat flour, I used Odlum’s Coarse Wholemeal flour
½ cup of toasted wheat germ
½ cup ground flax, I used Bob’s Red Mill Gold Flax Meal
½ cup hemp hearts
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons honey
5 tablespoons Kerrygold Butter, melted
2 cups of buttermilk, room temperature
1. Preheat the oven to 375 F.
2. Add all the dry ingredients to a bowl and combine with a whisk.
3. In another bowl mix the milk, honey and butter.
4. Blend all together with a spatula, until combined.
5. Turn into a buttered or sprayed loaf tin. Bake for about 45 minutes. It’s done when the bottom of the loaf sounds hollow when you tap it. Remove and cool on a rack.
Maria’s variations on Brona’s original:
1) Molasses Flavored: Substitute 2 tablespoons of Lyle’s Black Treacle for the honey. Increase the baking powder to 1 tablespoon.
2) Sweet and Nutty Flavored: Reduce the honey to 1 tablespoon, add 2 tablesoons of treacle. Increase the baking powder to 1 tablespoon. Add ½ cup each of golden raisins and chopped walnuts. If your raisins are a little dry drop them in the buttermilk while it comes to room temperature.
• If going authentic with the flour you need to get Odlum’s. In Westchester County, NY you can find it at The Butcher’s Fancy in Yonkers. It’s a great little grocery and butcher shop on McClean Avenue. You can also find it on line.
• Flax and hemp can be found in the organic aisle at the grocery store. You can also find them both at Whole Foods in the bulk bin.