When I find myself in the kitchen making something that requires a recipe, ninety-nine percent of the time I tweak something: the ingredients, the prep, the method of cooking. It’s a compulsion, really. I have to change something because, well, just because. It’s just the way I am, and I take a little bit of pride in that.
I do have a few cookbooks that I refer to as, you know, guides for tweaking: my Gourmet cookbook, a couple of Ina Garten tomes, and a copy or two of Martha Stewart’s best. They’re all there to peruse and tweak until my little heart is content. However, I find that on my desk is one cookbook which contains recipes where tweaking usually means that I end up with results that are inferior to those I get when I follow the recipes straight-up: my Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen.
To start with, the mere fact that this cookbook resides on my desk instead of the bookshelf speaks volumes. Due to exceptionally limited space on my teeny-tiny desk, cookbooks don’t generally get to live there. Follow that up with the fact that of the four recipes that I’ve made from the book, three have needed barely any changes whatsoever, and you’ve got what I’d call a proven winner. Okay, realistically, I know I probably shouldn’t say that, as it does contain two-thousand recipes and I’ve only tried four, but what a four: Summer Peach Cake, Best Buttermilk Pancakes, Blondies, and this Irish Soda Bread. The peach cake was the only one that I changed significantly.
Originally, when I planned to make Irish Soda Bread, I was going to go the traditional route, sticking with only flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk. However, having only a limited amount of buttermilk in the fridge and having never made Irish Soda Bread before, I was won over by ATK’s explanations regarding the changes made to the traditional recipe. They mixed cake and all-purpose flours and added a little cream of tartar, sugar, and butter in an attempt to make the loaf a little less dense. Given the opportunity to choose between something that might potently feel more like a brick and something that was touted as having a “velvety crumb and a rough textured, crunchy crust” (583), can you blame me for going with the Cook’s Illustrated version?
Never had Irish Soda Bread? I can’t speak for the traditional kind or the gussied up versions that include currants and orange zest, but this one tastes like a giant sliceable buttermilk biscuit—the best buttermilk biscuit I’ve ever had. I suppose that given my lifetime in the South, that’s some pretty high praise for those folks up in Vermont.
Classic Irish Soda Bread
recipe barely adapted from the Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook by America’s Test Kitchen p. 582-83
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cake flour
2 tbsp. sugar
1 ½ tsp. baking soda
2 tbsp. butter, really softened
2 tbsp. butter, melted
1 ¾ cups buttermilk, well shaken
Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Usually, I don’t pre-heat the oven until about halfway through preparing a recipe, but since this recipe comes to gether so quickly, it’s better to turn it on before you even begin.
I love that this recipe requires only a few ingredients that are most likely already in your pantry. I can’t say that I ever expected buttermilk to become a household staple, but it did. Don’t have it– add a little vinegar (1 tbsp.) to some milk (a scant cup) and let it sit for 10 minutes. When I’m out, I generally make 2 cups worth and then use the amount called for out of the recipe. It’s a little easier than figuring out the ratios– especially if you’re not mathematically inclined.
Whisk together all of the dry ingredients.
Drop in the softened butter,
and fully incorporate it into the flour mixture, using your very clean fingers.
Make a well in the center of the flour-butter mixture. If find that using a tall glass helps a lot.
I read or saw somewhere that the reason for making a well in the flour is so that whatever wet ingredients you add get incorporated more thoroughly into the flour.
Fill the well with buttermilk (or the sour milk that you made).
The Cook’s Illustrated recipe calls for stirring the buttermilk into the flour with a fork. I found the largest fork I had in my utensil drawer.
Then you stir until all of the flour is moistened. I added a couple of extra splashes of buttermilk because I couldn’t quite get all of the flour incorporated.
Lightly flour the counter; knead the dough, and form it into a rough oval shape.
Place it in a cast-iron pan. I didn’t grease the pan first, but I wish I had, since the bottom of the bread stuck a little to the pan. Were I to remake this, I’d grease the bottom with a little bit of vegetable oil.
Score the top of the bread with a large X shape about an inch deep.
Bake the bread for 40 minutes or so.
While the bread is still warm, brush the top with the melted butter. The sizzle from the melted butter on the hot, hot cast iron pan– so satisfying.
Let the bread cool. Cook’s Illustrated states a minimum of 30 minutes cooling time. Mine sat for a couple of hours.
Then we sliced it open, and it was everything that the cookbook promised:
It was like eating a sliceable buttermilk biscuit. Soft, tender, a little bit sweet.
Divine with a little butter and jam. I only had strawberry jam in the fridge, but I’d have loved to try this with a little honey or marmalade.
It lasted a few days with out getting too stale. I wrapped it in plastic wrap and kept it on the counter. One morning, we cut thin slices from the loaf and toasted them for egg and bacon sandwiches. It’d also make a great accompaniment to a hearty soup or stew. Normally, I wouldn’t recommend that at the end of March, but this year with the thirty degree temperatures outside right now it feels pretty appropriate.
Thanks, ATK. Once again, you haven’t let me down.
Yield: 1 substantial loaf
Photo for Pinning purposes: