The Glory of Irish Baking

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Photo by Maureen Cotton

Rustic Italian bread is all well and good, and who am I kidding, I can't get through a day without it. But Irish baking is one of the world's great traditions, as I wrote after attending an American artisan bakers' conference where the star demonstration was by an Irish baker named Jimmy Griffin, a jovial young fourth-generation baker from Galway. Everything he showed us we wanted to make: barm brack, a less-rich panettone; batch bread, high squares of puffy white bread baked right up against each other; and, of course, soda bread.

That's the true glory of Irish baking -- salty and sweet, tender, well...every time I encounter it I go into a reverie, one from which I'm sharply awakened when I realize I can't make it at home:

There was soda bread, of course, that soft, sweetly nutty excuse for endless amounts of butter and the best possible accompaniment for cheddar or smoked salmon. I can eat soda bread in virtually unlimited quantities, but it's a terrific challenge to make here, where the available whole-wheat flour produces harsh, tough results. Irish "brown" flour is much "weaker" (lower in gluten) than American whole-wheat flour -- good for the delicate texture of Irish brown bread and for pastry, but not so good for yeast breads. Nothing in America is quite like it.

Determined to learn how to make Griffin's soda bread, a family recipe and a signature of his bakery, I took technical notes on the protein and bran levels of the flour he had brought from Ireland...but then I gave up and resolved to order another shipment of Odlums soda-bread mix from Ireland.

Luckily, I can find superb soda bread any day of the week in Boston -- as you'd expect. And you'd expect the best Irish bakery to be sold out on St. Patrick's Day. But no! as I learned when I recklessly paid an afternoon visit yesterday to Keltic Krust. It may be improbably named, or rather improbably spelled, and improbably situated in Newton, a tony suburb, and not in South Boston or Dorchester, the traditional Boston Irish strongholds. But for 14 years Keltic Krust has been turning out Irish breads and scones with exactly the right light texture -- something given to few, including many Irish bakeries in this country.

When you find a soda bread source, you'll stock up on Irish cheddar, Kerrygold butter, and chutney, and have lunch for life.

When I visited, far from the parade madness (for which everyone in Boston gets the day off, as this was the obscure Evacuation Day and a city holiday -- surely you remember the day the British soldiers left Boston?), the wooden slat shelves were gratifyingly full of loaves both low and neatly rectangular, both white and brown, "brown" being a light whole wheat that kind of corresponds to whole-wheat pastry flour but not really. Soda bread is usually the first thing to run out, but luckily had been treated to an unusually large morning bake, the unusually nice helpers told me. (And one of them, a professional photographer, even took my cell phone in hand to take nice pictures.)

For successful results making brown bread, you need to buy a mix. Don't try it at home! But when you do find a good source or a mix (incredibly easy to use and fast to bake), you'll stock up on Irish cheddar, Kerrygold butter, and chutney, and have lunch for life. (Ari Weinzweig, our Behind the Counter star, has long been discovering and introducing Ireland's superb cheeses and butters to grateful Americans.)

Something you can and should try at home are Irish scones, though -- far more delicate than the ones from the sawdusty bricks you're likely used to:

They sounded dainty and dull after the gorgeous trays of hot cross buns and the Celtic whiskey brack, a buttery yeasted cake crammed with whiskey-macerated fruit whose mixing was halted for a spontaneous round of shots of Jameson's. Instead they were a revelation.

And a revelation you can make at home -- easy recipe at end of piece. Or wait, of course, till you're anywhere in the vicinity of Keltic Krust, holiday or no.

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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.
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