Ever since I learned how to bake my own bread, my family has been trying to find occasions on which to eat the stuff. These can be as eventful as someone’s birthday or, at the most mundane, a simple pasta supper. (But hey: simple is a relative term as far as we’re concerned. What’s simple to us may very well be bloody damned complicated for others!)
For bread, however, you need to have yeast in your store cupboard. Under ordinary circumstances, there are either packets of Red Star or Fleischmann’s Rapid-rise Yeast or a six-packet box of Hovis Fast-acting Yeast in mine. However, for some weird reason, there wasn’t any yeast available in the baking aisles of my favorite supermarkets and over at the grocery section of the Union Jack Tavern. As ridiculous as this may sound, it was enough to make me cry. It was a good thing that a recent peek at Serious Eats pointed me in the direction of an Emerald Isle classic: Irish soda bread.
The original recipe was food blogger Sydney Oland‘s soda bread with port-soaked raisins: a behemoth of a loaf made with buttermilk and more butter and studded with the aforementioned raisins soaked in ruby port.
While reading the recipe, I thought it looked easy enough but had a few reservations. I’d tried making soda bread before, this made from a recipe my cousin made with her classmates for a school project. It was, alas, an unmitigated disaster and the resulting mini-loaves were hard enough to cause serious cracks if chucked at a nearby wall!
But you know the old saw: if at first you don’t succeed, try and try till you actually do. I am pleased to say that the resulting loaf was an excellent one.
Just a few things, though. Buttermilk is not easy to find in this part of the world and, even if you can manage to track it down, it’s not always available. In which case, I recommend souring milk with some balsamic vinegar – a hack which results, surprisingly enough, in sour milk with a balanced mix of tanginess and a hint of buttery sweetness. Plus, given how I didn’t have any port (it’s not something we keep in the downstairs room where the wines are stored), I soaked my raisins in rum; the results were pretty good. Plus, I used vanilla sugar in this loaf to give it a sweeter fragrance.
The resulting loaf will not bake with a white crumb like Sydney Oland’s because of the balsamic-soured milk; it’ll actually turn out beige. Nevertheless, it will look pretty good and taste lovely. It will have a good crust – neither too hard nor too tough – and a dense but moreishly tender crumb within.
Balsamic Soda Bread with Boozy Raisins
- 1/4 cup raisins
- 1/4 cup dark rum
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons compound vanilla sugar or dark brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) cold salted butter, cut into chunks
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar + enough milk to yield 1-1/2 cups liquid
- 1 egg
In a small, non-reactive bowl, pour the rum over the raisins. Cover and leave to soak overnight.
When you’re ready to bake, preheat your oven to 400 degrees / Gas Mark 6. Grease a standard-sized baking sheet; set aside.
Whisk together the milk and balsamic vinegar; leave at room temperature for about 30 minutes to an hour. Sift together the sugar, flour, and baking soda. Rub the butter in with your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Make a well in the center.
Whisk the egg into the soured milk and pour into the well. Drain the raisins and add to the well. Using a wooden spoon, mix until a rather moist dough is achieved. Tip the dough out onto a clean, floured surface and knead for a couple minutes.
Place the kneaded dough onto the prepared baking sheet and form into a round. Leave to rest for about a couple minutes.
Using a serrated knife, cut a cross halfway into the dough as shown above. This ensures that the loaf cooks through properly, but I think you should follow the old Irish superstition of saying a prayer or making a wish as you cut through. It’s a comforting wee gesture, really. 🙂
Dust the top of the loaf with more flour and bake for 25 minutes. At the end of baking time, turn off the oven but leave the loaf inside for an additional five minutes. Remove from oven and leave to rest for another five minutes before slicing. Serve with lashings of butter, marmalade, jam, or potted meat spreads.
Makes 1 loaf.