Monday, January 16, 2006

the irish shooting cake

long-time readers, i think you know me fairly well by now: if i'm going to make a thing, it has to be the most awesome and authentic version of the thing. thus with the soda bread from the day before yesterday.

not being irish, i don't have extensive soda bread making experience. in fact, i think i've made the usual buttermilk-currants-'n-caraway-seed type soda bread exactly twice in my life.

this is partially because i'm no big seed fan, and partially because soda bread doesn't keep well at all. however, my boss is irish, loves soda bread, and has a fantastic recipe that comes to him from his great-aunt who was born in eire.

she probably got this recipe from her grandmother, who, most importantly, taught her how to make it with a light hand, so it turns out light and somewhat delicate. and the great-aunt apparently transmitted this secret to my boss somehow. . .

every year on st. patrick's day he appears with a loaf of this wonderful, tender round and all my colleagues descend upon it like a pack of wolves. it seems everyone in nyc loves soda bread, but a well-made loaf is hard to find!

so why would i replicate what he already has so perfectly? thus, i went to elizabeth david's english bread book to discover an authentic and lesser known soda bread type.

whereupon i find the shooting cake (round soda breads, it seems, are called cakes in ireland, as in "cake of bread;" cut a cake in quarters, and you have 4 "farls"). david cites a recipe from ulster, which she found in a collection dated 1946.

it calls for all kinds of scrumptious things, like irish wholemeal flour, waaay too much real irish butter, big golden sultanas (not that you can actually find real turkish sultanas in the u.s.a.), and lots of demerara sugar. how could one go wrong with something that looks like a giant raisin cookie recipe?

in her usual way, david gives the original historic recipe, her opinion of the ingredients, the original technique of the recipe, and then her 1977 adaptation of the technique for modern ovens and methods -- not too many of us will nowadays find the original instructions for baking in a peat stove helpful -- altho' she will on occasion say, "make it the way they did in the 17th cent., that's still sensible."

sometimes ms. david does forget that not everyone has her encyclopedic knowledge or apparently vast array of antique cooking equipment -- reading david soon brings you to the conclusion that there's no surviving cookbook from the 11th cent. onward that she hasn't studied like the talmud. . .

citing as she does everything from monkish museum-pieces that were illustrated in medieval times down to the humblest west country farmer's wife church pamphlet. . .

so here goes:

16 oz. flour (white all-purpose, better yet, irish wholemeal; or fake the wholemeal as i did: mixing 10 oz. organic white flour at 11.5% protein, 5 oz. organic stone-ground white whole-wheat flour, and 1 oz. organic raw wheat germ. too strong a flour will give you tough soda bread.)
8 oz. demerara sugar
8 oz. nice soft sultanas or golden raisins (i couldn't find any organic ones at all; i wish you better luck), chopped and tossed with 1 tablespoon flour
8 oz. real irish butter (it's softer than other butters, this is somehow important. maybe the moisture content?)
2 large organic eggs (i use pete & gerry's), beaten well
2 lemons, juiced (if you like peel, you can toss the peel in too, but mr. right hates lemon peel, so i left it out), which will give you about 1/3 to 1/2 cup juice or 2-3/4 oz. by weight
2 teaspoons baking soda
about 1/3 cup milk, again about 2-3/4 oz. by weight

i know, i know: you're reading this recipe and freaking out. you're thinking, "how on earth can only 2 teaspoons baking soda raise a pound of flour and all those raisins?" but other recipes use much less for bread without raisins, while some use more but then again, some argue for just a little less but appear to be using self-rising flour anyway, so. . .

look, with the wholemeal and the raisins, it just t'ain't gonna rise much, that we know already. the question is: how does it taste?

pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees f., with your bread or pizza stone on the center or just-above-center shelf. put a piece of baking parchment on your peel (or prepare a 10-in. springform pan).

sift the flour with the soda into a large bowl. with your fingers or a pastry cutter, cut or rub the cold butter into the flour.

you're looking for pea-sized particles here. quickly, and with a light hand, mix in the raisins. and i mean hand. use your fingers for this recipe!

stir the lemon juice into the milk to curdle it, which takes just a minute. quickly, and with a light hand, mix in the eggs.

mix in only enough of the milk to make a soft but not sticky dough; i needed only about 1/2 cup. work as fast as possible so you don't lose the leavening of the soda now that it's met the lemon juice.

don't knead it, or even roll it around excessively! quickly -- have i said this enough yet? -- and with a light hand, shape this dough into a round.

dust the top with flour and cut a deep cross into the dough. really deep, like 2/3s of the way thru, all the way past the edges.

place this in your pan or on your baking parchment. (as a free-form loaf, it will be about 8 inches, and will spread to about 10 or even 11 in.!)

put into the oven and bake for 15 mins. david suggests using your bread cloche or even a big stockpot over the cake during this time to give the cake more chance to rise before the crust forms; i tried it, but didn't discern any great effects.

turn the heat down to 350 degrees f , remove cloche if using, and bake about another 25-30 mins. in the springform pan the bread may take a tad longer.

i baked mine free-form, and got an 11-in. cake. i took it out after 45 mins., which was probably 5 mins. too long.

nonetheless i had a huge beautiful 2-in. high round cake. all that sugar gave it a shiny crust. it smelled yummy.

soda bread is best hot, so i just cut a wedge and boy howdy did it taste good. of course, with so much butter and sugar, how could it taste bad?

i had 3 wedges. uh-oh. this substance may be addictive.

mr. right wandered into the kitchen. note that he dislikes whole wheat anything or raisin anything.

he took one look at the large golden-brown shooting cake and cut himself a wedge. then he had another.

he remarked that was some kind of strange cross in texture between a carrot cake and a scone. which is true; it's an unusual thing.

he cut himself a third wedge. then he cut 2 more to take with him to the editing house this afternoon, where he is working on the film he shot in tasmania.

by that time i had caught on and realized that there wasn't going to be anything left fit to give my boss. i took the remaining cake, cut it into 2 large wedges, wrapped it well, and froze it.

now i understand why david recommends making only half the recipe at a time, in a 7-in. pan. irish shooting cake is dangerously delicious stuff.

if it freezes well, and reheats well -- i assume one tosses it into a low oven until warm and then covers it in yet more irish butter -- i'll make a smaller loaf for my boss next weekend. . .

posted by fortune | 10:51 AM | top | link to this | email this: | links to this post | | 0 comments

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