Written by Chef Alan Zox, www.zoxkitchen.com Thursday, 14 March 2013 08:28
St. Patrick’s Day, or the Feast of St. Patrick, celebrated each year on the 17th of March, is considered both a cultural and religious holiday. It commemorates the birth of Christianity in Ireland through the success and devotion of a British lad of 16 named Patrick who became its champion in Ireland. The young boy arrived on the Irish shores as a consequence of Irish raiders who kidnapped him to become a slave. In the process Patrick, soon to become St. Patrick, witnessed the poverty and pagan beliefs of a people whose destiny was to radically change. He escaped after a few years but returned to become a priest and driving force to convert a population of idol worshiping people to the Catholic Church.
The day called St. Patrick’s Day became a feast day in the 17th century and is observed by the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion (especially the Church of Ireland), the Eastern Orthodox Church and Lutheran Church. The holiday has become more secular over the years especially in communities with large numbers of Irish who emigrated from the Olde Sod. Large populations of Irish can be found in Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. But the holiday is also followed in other parts of the world like Japan, Montserrat in the Caribbean, Russia, South Korea, Switzerland and Argentina where they dance and only drink beer throughout the night to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
In the United States, St. Patrick’s Day is not a legal holiday but is celebrated as others do through displays of the color green, copious consumption of alcohol, religious observances, wearing of shamrocks and parades along with foods that are unique to the United States. The holiday features family meals centered on corned beef and cabbage, lamb stew, soda bread, shepherd’s pie and Irish coffee.
However, as discussed in an earlier column, these “typical” Irish dishes are not all popular in Ireland. Corned beef is very popular in the U.S. but far less so in Ireland. The Irish themselves disagree about soda bread, which is eaten without the cake-like ingredients of eggs, sugar or yeast but for purists is simply flour, baking soda, salt and sour milk, what we call buttermilk. The bread belongs to an earlier era when the Irish people could not afford the bare essential ingredients and cooked in their fireplace. The Irish feel so strongly about their soda bread traditions that they’ve formed a popular organization called the “Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread.” Here’s a terrific soda bread recipe created by popular California blogger and author Heidi Swanson who writes 101 Cookbooks. Swanson has retained the traditional approach.
Makes one loaf but you will appreciate making them fresh every couple of days.
2 1/3 cups rye flour
1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus a ¼ cup more
1 3/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/4 teaspoons fine grade sea salt
2 cups buttermilk plus ¼ cup more for brushing
Preheat oven to 400 Fahrenheit with a rack in the middle. Sift the flours, baking soda, and salt into a large bowl. Make a well in the flours and pour in the buttermilk. Stir until everything comes together into a dough. Turnout onto a lightly floured countertop and knead gently for 30 seconds until the dough comes together into a slightly flattened smooth ball.
Lightly flour a baking sheet and place the ball of dough on the flour. Brush all over the top and sides and bottom with buttermilk and sprinkle generously with about 2 tablespoons of flour. Slice four deep slashes across the top of the dough –2/3 of the way through the dough but not slicing all the way through.
Tradition calls for slicing a deep religious cross into the dough while Swanson is recommending a secular approach to achieve more angles to become crusty. Both goals can be achieved regardless of your preference.
Bake for 30 minutes then quickly move the rack and the bread up a level so the top of the bread gets nice and crusty. Bake for another 20 minutes until a hard crust is formed and the bread is baked through. It will feel very solid and sound hollow when you knock on its base.
Cool on a rack and enjoy. While warm, eat with a slathering of soft dill butter.
Here’s Ms. Swanson’s dill butter recipe that yields about ¼ cup.
1 ½ tablespoons of chopped dill
1 ½ tablespoons finely chopped chives
1 ½ tablespoons finely chopped shallots
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1/3 cup semi-soft farmer cheese or mild, soft goat cheese
½ cup unsalted butter
In a small bowl mash together the first five ingredients of the recipe before stirring it all together into the butter all while keeping the cheese a bit chunky. The butter will keep up to a week unfrozen or roll together into a tube and freeze. Be sure to soften before using.