Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Irish Soda Bread with Dried Fruit and Caraway

A true Irish soda bread uses whole-grained flours, not white, and little, if any, sugar (it's actually quite bland). Instead of yeast, which was not readily available to then-poor agrarian farmers, baking soda was used. When combined with acidic buttermilk, the chemical reaction caused the bread to rise. Just be sure your baking soda is fresh.

In Britain, the addition of eggs and some sort of fat would constitute a "cake" rather than a "bread." Hence, this is sometimes called a "railway cake" sturdy enough to take the travails of travel.

This loaf is particularly good lightly toasted and spread with cream cheese. It’s really quite easy to make. British counterparts would call for dried currants. I settled for American dried sweet cranberries. I steeped both the berries and raisins in a cup of boiling water to plump them up. I drained them in a sieve and then rolled them on a cloth towel to dry as much as possible. (Some people would use a hot, strong cup of leftover tea. I've done that, but it really does not impart any flavor.) Don't omit the caraway. (If you can find them, use baking raisins which are already plump and juicy).

One could, of course, free-form the loaf into a rustic sphere or boule and bake in the oven. Or one could, I guess, use loaf pans. I have done neither.

Just about any dried fruit would work here. I've also
used golden raisins.

  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1 1/2 - 2 cups raisins, (not recommended) or a combination of raisins and dried cranberries and other dried fruits (highly recommended) that includes dried cherries and if possible, dried citron
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon caraway seeds
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 1/4 cups buttermilk
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • Fresh grated orange peel from 1/2 orange (optional but highly recommended)

Before making the bread, preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9-inch round cast iron skillet or a 9-inch high-sided round baking or cake pan. I  use an 8 x 11 cast-iron, enamel-lined Dutch oven

Have your pan well greased and ready to go. As soon
as you add the buttermilk, the batter will begin to rise
and you don't want it sitting around.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour (reserving 1 tablespoon), sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, raisins and caraway seeds. In a small bowl, blend eggs, buttermilk and sour cream. Stir the liquid mixture into the flour mixture just until the flour is moistened. Knead dough in bowl about 10 to 12 strokes. Dough will be very wet and sticky. Place the dough in the prepared skillet or pan and pat down with moist hands. Cut a 4-inch long x 3/4-inch deep slit or incision in the top of the bread. Dust with reserved flour.

For this batch, I grated in some orange peel
from half an orange I had in the fridge.

The batter will be very thick. 

Bake in the preheated oven for 60-75 minutes or until it reaches an internal temperature of 200 F. This is a wet dough, hence the long baking time. Let cool a bit and turn bread onto a wire rack to cool.

This was delicious and is a perfect breakfast
with a hot cup of tea or coffee.

TIP: Dried fruits are readily available around Christmas. I suggest you buy extra to store for recipes such as this. 

Orange Date Squares with Orange Icing

So, you're standing in line for your morning coffee and the decision-making begins: what to have with it . . . Something sweet? Healthy? Low calorie? These orange date squares have you covered on all 3 fronts. With only 1/3 cup butter and less than one cup of sugar, they are a justifiable choice. Their sweetness and heartiness comes from the dates and oranges. The orange icing is simple.

Derived from an old recipe, I added the spices. Next time, I may add even more. And I may just soak those dates with a shot of cognac or whiskey thrown in. I suspect these would make great muffins--spread with cream cheese! This had a nice rise and the texture is somewhere between a scone and cake.

  • 2/3 cup granulated white sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups pitted dates cut in medium-sized pieces (about 8-9 ounces)
  • 1/3 cup soft butter (not margarine)
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans (I used walnuts)
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • Grated zest from two oranges
  • Optional:
  • 1/4 teaspoon (scant) ground cloves 
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Pour the boiling water over the dates and let stand for 20-30 minutes, mixing occasionally.   The water will eventually be absorbed making an unctuous, creamy mixture.

Cream the butter and then add the sugar a little at a time until nice and fluffy. Add eggs and orange rind and beat for 2 minutes. You will see a change in texture. Then add the juice and mix only until well blended. (When you add the juice, the mixture will curdle and most of the juice will settle to the bottom. It won't affect the taste or texture of the cake.)

A microplane makes easy work of zesting citrus. Remember
to zest first before squeezing the juice from the orange.

Add the sifted dry ingredients, a small amount at a time, to the batter. Then add the nuts and dates alternatively and mix only until well-blended. Pour into a greased and floured 8 x 8 x 2-inch pan. Bake 1 hour in a 350 F oven (mine was done in about 40-45 minutes). Let stand on a cake cooler 10 minutes then invert and allow to cool. Frost with Orange Icing.

Orange Icing
  • 1 tablespoon melted butter
  • 2 tablespoons orange juice
  • 1 1/4 cups sifted confectioners' sugar

Add enough sugar, a small amount at a time, to butter and juice to form a medium consistency. Beat until smooth.