Drinking holidays vaguely based on the culture and history of a given country drive me crazy. I'm all for an excuse to tip back a few imported beers, but what does drinking a Corona or ten on the fifth of May have to do with the Mexican Army's victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla back in 1862? Cinco de Mayo–or Drink-o de Mayo, as it is often referred to by US college students looking for any reason to increase tequila consumption–is little more than a regional holiday in Mexico.
Today, St. Patrick's Day, falls into the same category for me–a day of clichéd Irish culture and exaggerated Irish heritage embodied by wearing green and the excessive intake of Guinness and Jameson, corned beef and cabbage. Logic would dictate that Bastille Day in America should be spent eating cake, wielding pitchfork-shaped balloons and swilling Bordeaux. Its all so wrong in so many ways.
Like many Americans, I'm part Irish, my Furey ancestors coming to America to escape the Potato Famine. So while I won't be wearing green today or insisting that anyone kiss me simply because of my heritage, I figured I'd be remiss if I didn't throw an Irish-influenced recipe your way. But we'll be wholly avoiding clichés–not brisket, no cabbage–and instead looking at a staple of Irish eating: soda bread.
I find it hard to imagine Andrew McCarthy existing anywhere outside of a John Hughes film, but apparently the former teen star has become somewhat of a travel writer and the father of a truly Irsih child, living part-time in Dublin with his Irish partner and their family. McCarthy wrote about his experience living in Ireland and his search for the perfect soda bread in a recent issue of Bon Appétit. The loaf he considered perfection–found at a Ballinalacken Castle Country House & Restaurant–is made for a recipe of the utmost simplicity: a fifty/fifty mix of white and whole wheat flours is sweetened with brown sugar, given texture by cutting in chunks of butter, then moistened with buttermilk, the batter leavened simply with a few teaspoons of baking soda–hence the name. The resulting loaf looked as unpretentious and rugged as the recipe itself, the crust fissured and crunchy–its color the slightly molted brown of whole wheat. Inside, the bread was dense and moist, showing none of the irregular pockets and caves of a yeast-leavened bread. With some butter and a bit of marmalade, it makes a perfect breakfast–on a St. Patrick's Day morning or any other day of the year.
Adapted from Bon Appétit
3 cups all-purpose flour
3 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup (packed) brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) chilled butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 cups buttermilk
Preheat oven to 425 degrees and grease a baking sheet with a bit of butter or oil
Mix together the dry ingredients–flours, brown sugar, salt and baking soda–in a bowl. Using your fingertips, cut the cold butter into the dry ingredients, breaking down the chunks of butter until they've dispersed throughout the flour mixtures.
Stir in the buttermilk and mix until incorporated, making a barely formed batter. Turn the mixture onto a floured surface and kneed together until the batter smooths out, just about ten turns or so.
Form into a rounded loaf, about nine inches across, and place on the prepared baking sheet. With a knife, cut a half-inch-deep X across the domed top of the loaf. Bake for an hour or until the loaf is well-browned and finger tapped against its bottom side yields a hollow sound. Transfer to a rack to cool.