Ciabatta is a tremendous sandwich-holder. Baguette is divine with butter or as a toasty crostini base. Focaccia is king all on its own. I am powerless to resist the best versions of all of these, but when I want bread for my morning toast or something thick and hearty to eat with a bowl of soup, I reach for whole wheat. I love the dense texture, as opposed to the airy center of a proper baguette. I adore the crunch of seeds and whole grains, even if they occasionally get stuck between my teeth. One of the most satisfying snacks I can eat is a slice of fresh, untoasted whole wheat bread, baked with honey for a touch of sweetness, slathered with best-quality, unsalted butter.
This way, and no other, is how I eat my Whole Wheat Irish Soda Bread. I found the recipe for this bread in the homey little cookbook produced by my elementary school in the late 80s, but the first time I made it, I was in my late teens. Although I really didn’t know what soda bread was, it caught my eye because of the whole wheat flour and the fact that no yeast was called for in this free-form, round loaf. I had never made bread, yeasted or otherwise, and this looked unbelievably simple. Actually, I was afraid some vital ingredient had been left out of the recipe by accident.
I have altered the original to make it sweeter with more honey in the batter and a generous sprinkling of sugar over the top. Despite this, the nutty, wheat flavor dominates just enough to call for a generous pat of butter to coax out the sweetness. Eat it this way with a meal or an afternoon coffee. It could become a dessert or breakfast bread, spread with fruit preserves. Mike and I recently had it with a veggie and goat cheese frittata and some pink sparkling wine for brunch. Strange as it sounds, we were both certain that the buttered soda bread made the delicious bubbly even better. I have heard people say that certain wines contain flavors of toasted brioche. Certainly it could be possible to detect notes of sweet whole wheat bread in your favorite sparkler, couldn’t it?
After combining the wet and dry ingredients, the consistency of the dough should be wet and sticky, but thick enough to hold its shape.
Use a spatula to scoop the dough onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and form it into an 8 inch circle.
Good unsalted butter is a must.
Whole Wheat Irish Soda Bread
I play around with different flour combinations every time I make this. I order an Irish-style whole meal flour from King Arthur that I really like. My current favorite is 1 cup Irish flour and 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour. All whole wheat flour is absolutely delicious too. Any coarse sugar is great here because it won't dissolve completely in baking, but granulated will work in a pinch.
2 c. whole wheat flour (or any combo of whole wheat, whole wheat pastry and Irish style)
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 c. buttermilk plus additional as needed
2-3 tblspn. honey
Preheat oven to 375. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine the flour, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg, buttermilk and honey. Add more or less honey, depending on how much sweetness you prefer. Pour the wet ingredients into the bowl with the flour mixture. Stir until just combined. Set aside and allow flour to hydrate for 5 minutes. Stir gently until all flour is moistened, drizzling in additional buttermilk very sparingly if needed.
Sprinkle some sugar in the center of the parchment paper and spoon the dough out on top. Use a spatula to shape it into a circle, roughly 8-9 inches in diameter and 1 1/2 inches high. Sprinkle sugar all over the top of the loaf. Bake for 23 to 28 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean, and bottom of loaf is browned and sounds hollow when tapped. Cool completely on a rack (at least 2 hours), then cut into slices. Keeps in the refrigerator for 5 days and in the freezer for 3 months.