I’ve had an ongoing battle with soda bread for a while now. A bread recipe that requires zero yeast and zero kneading should, by my calculations, be a snap to make. And it is. Whether the resulting bread is also a snap to eat is an entirely different question. After my second or third failed attempt, it was time for a shock and awe approach. I scoured the internet, magazines, and my cookbook collection for soda bread recipes, and diligently tested every last one. The results ranged from mildly disappointing to truly devastating. It was shock and awe alright, only I was the one in shock. As for the awe, there wasn’t any. Just a whole lot of awful. One loaf was about as appetizing as a brick of pressed sawdust. The next was slightly better, but still crumbled to bits at the mere sight of a serrated bread knife. With a little tweaking, I managed to produce a couple of loaves that were moist, chewy, and even a teensy bit flaky, almost like a buttermilk biscuit. Almost. Which begged the question, why the heck am I investing two cups of buttermilk in a subpar soda bread when I could be making a batch, no, two batches of perfect, never-“almost” biscuits?
So I put my foot down. No more soda bread. And that was my stance, toes firmly planted on the kitchen floor, for the better part of two years. Until last Saturday night when, with not a crumb of bread in my pantry and nothing to lose, I decided to lift said foot and step tentatively in the direction of what would turn out to be the loaf I had been waiting for.
My most common complaint about the soda breads that I had tried in the past was simply that they didn’t live up to what I had in mind. I’m not sure that was very fair of me, given that I don’t think I really knew what I had in mind. Whatever it was, I was hell bent on figuring it out. It was a classic case of I’ll know it when I see it. With enough tweaking and thinking and tweaking some more, that elusive just-right soda bread would be mine. But last Saturday night, I was too tired to do much figuring. I had absolutely nothing in mind and, for once, I didn’t fight it. Instead, I looked around and took stock of what I did have: A crumpled old recipe. A half-empty carton of buttermilk in the back of the fridge. And the humble thought that a little bread might be nice with the tomato lentil soup that was simmering on the stovetop. When I realized that I was missing several of the listed ingredients, I didn’t tweak as much as improvise with what I had on hand.
This hearty, brown loaf may not be everyone’s idea of the perfect soda bread, but it’s mine. I’d say it’s the complete package. There’s the requisite craggy crust, and a crumb that’s spongy, yet compact enough to stand up to a proper, almost sandwich-worthy slicing. And slice it you must! This bread was made for the toaster oven. When I served a piece to my friend, Eitan, for breakfast one morning, he went so far as to pronounce it his “ideal toast.” I’d call that crazy talk if I didn’t know exactly what he means. In the toaster, everything that’s good about this bread gets better. It’s nuttier. Sweeter. The flavor is undeniably biscuit-like, but in a good way, a way that has you reaching for another slice, instead of wishing you’d made biscuits instead. And did I mention that there’s whole wheat flour in there? And oatmeal? And flax seeds? And that it takes less than ten minutes to prepare? This bread is all kinds of wonderful. It was a long time coming.
After so much trial and error, I was, at least, right about one thing all along: Sometimes, you have no idea what you’re looking for until it’s on the table, staring up at you through a layer of raspberry jam. Suddenly, there it is. The just right thing. When I think about how this particular just right thing came to be, I begin to wonder whether I was, perhaps, getting in my own way with all of that figuring, tweaking, and aiming. I do that sometimes. But more and more, I’m learning to step aside and let myself through. It’s so… humane. I like how it feels.
I’m off now to bake another one of these loaves for a late dinner. Here’s the recipe, in case you’d like to join me.
Brown Soda Bread
Adapted from Bon Appétit, May 1996
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 3/4 cups whole wheat flour
3 Tbsp. instant oats
1 Tbsp. ground flax seeds
2 Tbsp. packed dark brown sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. (1/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 cups buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and butter a 9x5x3-inch loaf pan. Combine the first seven ingredients in a large bowl, and mix well. Add the butter, and rub it in with your fingertips until the mixture resembles a fine meal. Dig a well in the center of the dry ingredients, fill with the buttermilk, and stir just until the liquid is fully integrated. Any longer, and you risk a tough dough. The consistency will be something between a very soft dough and a thick, lumpy batter.
Transfer the dough to the prepared loaf pan, and bake until the bread is golden brown, and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. It should take between 35 and 40 minutes. Turn out the bread onto a rack and cool slightly before serving.