Wednesday, January 28, 2009
SNOW AND IRISH SODA BREAD
As I write this, snow is pouring down across the southwest corner of the state, as it has been doing all morning—7-inches on the ground already and counting; by far the heaviest snowfall of the season. Here along the river, we’ve actually received less snow (so far) than folks just a few miles south. Still, the river looks like something from Currier and Ives, or maybe a work by Robert Duncan, who paints a lot of snow scenes and, better than anyone I know, does a terrific job of rendering snow to look real—light and fluffy, rounded and mounded, shadows just right. The island across from the cottage is indistinct, at times almost invisible, fuzzy behind the moving curtain of falling snow. The light is flat and dim making snow and sky blend into one. The feeling is of a murky, condensed world in which there are no horizons, just a small clarity in a misty landscape that fades to uncertain boundaries, nebulous, amorphous, so vague you think it all might end a step beyond the obscured boundaries of your sight. Downstream, at the bend, three great blue heron have decided to fish together. The big birds are standing along the far bank, equally spaced about five feet apart. Though these “blue” herons typically appear more gray than blue, today, in the light and against the backdrop of snow, they live up to their namesake. I like winter. And I like winter most of all when it’s snowing. There’s a deliciously threatening quality to a good snowfall, an impending sense of forced adventure that always makes me want to huddle inside, snug and warm, where I peer out from my refuge at a transfigured landscape—lovely, harsh, stark, menacing, breathtaking. Winter isn’t any fun unless you have at least one good snowfall sufficient to close businesses and schools, halt all but the reckless and snow-savvy from trying to drive, while pitching the TV talking heads into a blathering frenzy. As always, when I looked out and this morning and saw what was happening—the whole glorious extent of the unfolding weather drama—I immediately went into survival mode. Not that there was really much of anything to survive, of course, except another mediocre Buckeye snow which probably wouldn’t even be noticed by the folks in Minnesota or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. What can I say? Sometimes a man with deep Celtic roots has to give in to those vestigial tremors in his blood, the restless stirring of some ancient DNA. In days of yore, I might have hied myself off to the snowy woods and slain a mighty stag. Mighty stags not being in great abundance hereabouts, I instead set to making a kettle of hearty beef stew—the sort of stew which can be served on a plate and eaten with a fork; big chunks of beef roast, potatoes, carrots, and onions, in almost equal proportions. When it comes to food, I am an unabashed peasant. If you’re taking my order or serving me a meal, I’ll eat what the countryman is having—the fellow who works the land, faces weather and circumstance as it comes, knows something of the natural world around his bailiwick—sky and birds, trees, grass, water, soil. A man who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, or stain a shirt with sweat. If the countrified cook is also a hunter/gatherer, every so often supplementing the table with a taste of the wild…so much the better. My idea of good food is fresh, in season, and simply prepared with a minimum of ingredients and fuss. Nothing beats a good beef stew during a snowstorm…and you can’t have a good beef stew without good and appropriate bread; something rough, heavy, able to sop up the rich juices. Corn bread (not—OHMYGODNO!—sweet cornbread…ugh!), hoecakes (again…gag, gag, double ugh, not sweet!), cat head biscuits, bannock bread (especially if you’re making your stew while camping), or Irish soda bread. Today I decided on the latter. If you look on the Internet you’ll find about a gazillion recipes for Irish soda bread. At least half of them are nothing of the sort…not even close to the real thing. And to put it bluntly, if an Irish soda bread recipe calls anything other than four ingredients—flour, baking soda, salt, buttermilk—it isn’t Irish soda bread. It may be tasty, but it isn’t authentic. There’s a dandy site at www.sodabread.us/index.htm that delves into the history and parameters of Irish soda bread and its making. My own recipe calls for a daub more buttermilk, but is otherwise identical to the one on this site. I bake my soda bread at 425 degrees in a preheated oven, and instead of using a Dutch oven as a baking container (my Dutch oven normally resides in the attic with the rest of my camping gear), I employ a cast iron skillet, and place a second skillet, turned upside-down, on it as a lid during the initial half hour of baking. This makeshift arrangement works perfectly. Here’s my recipe: 4 cups all purpose flour 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 teaspoon salt 16 ounces buttermilk I like King Arthur’s organic unbleached flour; never use self-rising flour. I mix the dry ingredients with a whisk. Then I stick my cast iron skillet in the pre-heated oven for a minute or so to allow it to warm. While that’s happening, I measure out and add my buttermilk, stir everything together, and turn the slightly sticky dough lump onto a countertop dusted with flour. Knead the dough no more than a minute, and form it into a flattened circle, about an inch-and-a-half or slightly more, thick, and about the same diameter as the skillet’s bottom. For authenticity, slice a crosshatch in the top of the rounded dough. Remove the heated skillet, grease it lightly, bottom and sides, with butter (or I suppose, having never used the stuff, one of those sprays) and place your bread in the skillet. Put the skillet in the oven, turn the other skillet over and place it atop, lid-like, and give it 30 minutes at 425. Remove the lid (inverted skillet) and give it another 15 minutes. Your bread should sound hollow when thumped. That’s it! Real easy, real good, and the real thing. And it goes great with a pot of hearty beef stew on a snowy winter day. Yum, yum!