Time is the secret to good bread. There’s no shortcut, no cheating – time is absolutely essential to making bread that has complex flavour with only the basic ingredients (flour, water, salt, yeast). While this may sound all quite horrible to any normal person who has a day job or a student, it’s actually not that demanding because of the technique of a long slow fermentation at low temperatures, i.e. keeping the poolish/soaker/biga/dough in the fridge.
This was the breakthrough for my focaccia – the first time i made it it was okay, but by mixing a poolish the night before (a simple 5 minute step), my bread improved massively. Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day was one of the first books to popularize this simple but super effective technique, and Reinhart later took it further with the epoxy method in Wholegrain Baking and Artisan Breads Everday. Till this day, I always ferment dough overnight, unless I’m making enriched breads like cinnamon rolls or hot cross buns. Apparently, even roti canal (prata) dough has to be rested overnight (according to Dr Tay over at www.ieatishootipost.sg)
Despite all this talk about overnight fermentation and the many many advantages, sometimes I just don’t get to do it beforehand (Actually, come to think of it I should be trying out a starter) and I want bread to go with something. Despairing of Indian flatbreads because I grew up with flaky roti prata and cannot get over the fact that I have yet to achieve that flakiness, I decided to try my hand at Irish Soda Bread today.
Irish Soda Bread is traditionally made with only flour, baking soda (hence the name), buttermilk, and salt. When prepared, it’s eaten with loads of Irish butter hence the err Irishness? It is mixed up in less time than it takes to prepare cookie dough (trust me, I’ve made cookie doughs more times than I can recall) and can be put in the oven while you get on with cooking the main course or do some reading.
When I was baking it today, the kitchen smelt wonderful and I wondered why I didn’t make this earlier. When I cut a small slice to sample, I decided that sometimes I really wait too long before trying a good thing (such as not opening my jar of crispy chilli oil flakes) One thing I liked about the bread was its capacity for adaptations – change up the flour, add nuts/seeds/dried fruits, make a big loaf or multiple small ones. This one today was inspired by 101cookbooks and my River Cottage Handbook. It is not traditional at all, but it is easy and 110% (as my yoga teachers like to put it) delicious.
Wholesome Soda Bread (1 loaf, 4 quarters)
125g wholegrain spelt flour
125g plain flour
50g dried pitted dates, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1. Preheat oven to 200C. You want it hot and ready to stick the bread in.
2. Coarsely chop up 50g of the almonds, and finely chop (or process or grind) the remaining almonds.
3. Mix the flours, dates, almonds, salt, and baking soda together in a bowl.
4. In a smaller bowl, mix honey and water together till honey dissolves. It will help to warm the honey up a bit before hand.
5. Pour the honey mixture into the dry ingredients and mix well but not for too long.
6. Shape the dough into a round on a baking sheet, flattening it to about 5cm in height.
7. Cut a cross almost through to the base of the bread so it’s divided into 4 quarters.
8. Put into oven in the middle rack and bake for about 25mins or till the base sounds hollow when tapped.
9. Cool for a while before consuming (preferably with all-natural nut butters or Irish butter if you want to be traditional!)
– I used spelt flour because I really like the taste of it. River Cottage handbook called for all wholemeal flour, whereas I followed Heidi’s half/half spelt/plain flour.
– If you don’t like/have dates, you could use other dried fruits like raisins, figs, prunes (I considered this but decided against opening my 1kg pack for now!) OR omit entirely.
– Do adjust the water according to the flour you use. Some flours are more absorbant than others, and the local weather conditions affect how thirsty the dough is as well.
– Almonds are what I had so they are what I used. Try walnuts or your favourite nut, or omit entirely. Seeds can be used as well!
All in all, it was a rather lovely easy bread, and I shall be making more of this in future, experimenting with different flavour combinations! A savoury one would definitely be on my list hehe.