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Irish Brown Bread

Irish Brown Bread
 
A few years ago we spent a week at the Assolas Country House, an inn in the village of Kanturk, County Cork, Ireland. Every day we had a traditional Irish breakfast prepared by award-winning Chef-Proprietor Hazel Bourke. Every day it was slightly different, but the main components were various egg preparations, house-made black and white puddings, rashers, grilled tomatoes, and various sausages and potato dishes. (I gained weight on this trip!) The one thing that remained the same, day after day, was the basket of fresh brown bread -- rough-textured, slightly sweet, with a nutty taste and a crunchy crust, still warm from the oven -- accompanied by a knob of sweet fresh butter brought in each day from the farm down the road. 

On our last day at Assolas I spent a wonderful hour with Hazel in the kitchen, asking questions about some of the dishes we'd been served (we had several dinners there as well), checking out her cookbook shelf (which of course included a well-worn "Mastering the Art"), and quizzing her about her sources. Finally, feeling emboldened, I asked if she would share her recipe for the brown bread. With a smile and a quick trip to the copy machine she put it in my hands. 

I didn't get permission to publish the recipe from Hazel (this was before blogging) so I can't repeat it here, but I can say that it's very similar to this "Traditional Brown Bread" recipe on the Irish Odlums Flour site. Unfortunately it required two types of flour that were, at the time, only available by special order from an importer: Odlums Bleached White Cream Flour (which, according to the Odlums site is a bleached, all-purpose white flour) and "Hearts Delight" Brown Wheat Meal. (Today you can order Odlum products from FoodIreland.com but when I recently checked I couldn't find any source for the "Hearts Delight" brand. There are several grades of Odlum Coarse Wholemeal available -- I recently ordered some to test. That will be the subject of a future post.) Thus begun a series of experiments in my kitchen with brown bread recipes claiming to be authentic but using on ingredients commonly available in the U.S. 

Most of the recipes I tested called for stone ground whole wheat and toasted wheat germ -- and while that combination appears in one of my favorite bread recipes it didn't have as rough a texture as Hazel's brown bread, nor as nutty a taste. Finally I ran across a suggestion to use oatmeal supplemented with wheat bran, and after some testing and adjusting we decided that it was the closest we could get to Hazel's bread using easily available ingredients. 

Since, like white Irish Soda Bread, there's no yeast involved, this is a quick recipe, with no rising time required. We like it with raisins and caraway seeds, which weren't in the Assolas House version by the way. I make it sometimes with, sometimes without -- usually depending on whether I have raisins or caraway seeds in the kitchen at the time. Both ways are good. 

Unfortunately Assolas Country House closed in 2005, so we can't go back to compare our bread with Hazel's, and on the webpage they put up to announce the closing -- dated 2005 -- it's mentioned that Hazel was teaching full-time. I hope she's teaching cooking!

Regarding glucose and weight control issues, as with all breads portion control is key. I slice the loaves into wedges, 12 to a loaf, and that's the basis of the Nutritional Estimate. (Nobody can eat just one slice so I've assumed that a serving is two slices -- one-sixth of a loaf). At 161 calories, 26 grams of carbohydrates and 3 Weight Watchers points this serving can fit in a carefully planned and monitored plan, and of course the combination of oatmeal and wheat bran adds significant nutritional value to this bread. 

Brown Irish Soda Bread 

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Makes 2 small loaves. 

Traditionally Irish soda bread is baked in a skillet or on a hearthstone. I use a pizza stone, with a wooden peel to handle the bread, but a preheated skillet, prepared with cooking spray, or a baking sheet lined with parchment paper may also be used. The crust will be crunchier if you use the stone or the skillet method. 

Ingredients

  • 1 cup oatmeal, such as Quaker Oats
  • 1 cup wheat bran
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour (I use KIng Arthur)
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 cup granulated no-calorie sweetener, such as Splenda (or sugar if you prefer)
  • 1/2 stick cold butter, cut into dice
  • 2 cups buttermilk*
  • 1/2 cup raisins or currants (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon caraway seeds (optional) 

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 400º. If using a skillet or baking sheet, prepare as discussed above.

2. Place the oats, bran, flour, salt, baking soda and sweetener in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse a couple of times to mix.

3. Add the butter and pulse the processor briefly until the mixture feels like coarse crumbs. Do not overprocess. 

4. Turn the mixture into a mixing bowl. Stir in the optional caraway seeds and raisins if using, then make a well in the center of the mixture. Add the buttermilk and stir to combine. 

5. Turn the mixture onto a floured board and sprinkle another tablespoon or so flour over it. Divide the mass in two pieces and form them into round, flat loaves. (If you're using a skillet you can make one larger loaf. Baking time will be slightly longer.) Cut a deep cross in each loaf (this helps insure even baking)

6. Bake in the preheated 400º oven about 25 - 30 minutes, until lightly browned -- if done, a tester will come out cleanly and the loaf will emit a hollow sound when the bottom crust is tapped. 

Soda bread is always best if served the same day, preferably warm. If you're not serving it immediately allow to cool completely on a rack, then seal in plastic. 

Note: According to the Irish Odlums Flour site, if you don't have buttermilk you can substitute an equal amount of whole milk plus 1 teaspoon cream of tartar, which is said to produce the same result. I haven't tested that method, however. By the way, I don't use the "no-fat" version of buttermilk, as it only shaves off 3 calories per serving and reduces cholesterol by 5 mg. I haven't tested the recipe with no-fat buttermilk.

Nutritional Estimate: 12 servings, 2 slices each. Per serving: 161 Calories; 26 g Total Carbs; 3 g Dietary Fiber; 2 g Sugars; 5 g Fat; 11 mg Cholesterol; 211 mg Sodium; 5 cg Protein. Weight Watchers: 3 points.

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