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.