We are all Irish on St Patrick’s Day. Or so the saying goes.
Woo-hoo! Green beer for everybody!
St Patrick himself was not originally from Ireland, so we can all follow his lead and act Irish on his day. St Patrick was English, an unlucky guy who was kidnapped and enslaved the Irish back in the 400’s, and after 6 years a slave, made it back to England. There, he converted to Christianity, and decided to go back to pagan, backward Ireland to try to save souls.
The story of his driving the snakes from Ireland is really a metaphor- his mission was to drive the pagans from Ireland.
There were never any snakes.
St Pat’s Day, with all the parades and shamrocks, was really started in the US, where the wave of Irish immigrants who came here to escape the potato famine had settled on the East coast. Those early Irish Americans had lived in poverty and deprivation, and made it to places like New York City and Boston. Once a year, they celebrated their shared heritage with food, drink, and parades.
It looked so fun that all the rest of us joined in.
The iconic foods of Ireland are all peasant dishes. Poor farmers lived on what they could raise, and cabbage and greens are easy to grow. Potatoes fed the masses there, until the potato blight, so potatoes are part of the soul food of Ireland to this day. Champ, Colcannon, and Guinness Beef Stew are all traditional dishes that will be served in pubs across America on St Pat’s Day.
For me, the iconic Irish food is Irish Soda Bread. Simple and easy to make, an Irish farm wife could stir one up, using the buttermilk and butter from her precious cow. She might even bake it on the hearth, or in a cast iron pan.
If you have bought an Irish soda bread in the past and found it heavy and dry, don’t hold it against the Irish. It’s a quickbread, and often made with very little fat. It also requires delicate handling, to prevent the gluten from making a tough crumb. I’m sure a starving Irish farm worker would have been grateful for it, but to my taste, that stale, tough loaf is only good for bread pudding or feeding the birds.
For my St Pat’s I thought I’d make an Irish Soda Bread that is suitable for vegans, and mostly whole grain. I made four small loaves from this recipe, so that I could give away three. Because it’s not a party if you don’t share!
To replace the dairy in the bread, I used almond milk, curdled with apple cider vinegar. I mixed up a blend of whole wheat pastry flour with rolled oats and a little unbleached flour. Instead of butter, I used margarine, and you can use coconut oil, if you prefer.
Dried currants and some orange zest give the bread a lively texture and aroma. Of course, you could use another dried fruit, like raisins or cherries, if you prefer. The main thing is to mix just until a dough is formed, and don’t toughen up that gluten.
All those “Irish for a day” eyes will be smiling, when you share a loaf of orange-scented Soda bread!
Irish Soda Bread with Orange and Currants
Makes 4 8-inch loaves
3 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup unbleached flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons fine salt
6 tablespoons organic brown sugar
4 tablespoons chilled margarine or coconut oil
1 3/4 cups plain almond milk
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons ground golden flax seeds
the zest of one orange
1 cup currants
flour for shaping
1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.
2. In a large bowl, whisk the pastry flour, oats, unbleached flour, baking soda, salt, and brown sugar. Use a grater to shred the margarine or coconut oil coarsely into the flour mixture, tossing with your hands to mix.
3. In a measuring cup, stir the almond milk, cider vinegar, flax seeds and orange zest. Let stand for five minutes to hydrate the flax seeds. Stir the almond milk mixture into the flour mixture, until almost mixed. Add the currants and finish mixing, don’t over stir.
4. Flour a clean counter and dump the dough out, form a mound and cut in quarters. Shape each quarter into a disk about an inch and a half thick, and transfer to the prepared pan. Use a sharp knife to cut a cross in each loaf.
5. Bake for 35-40 minutes, until the tops of the loaves are golden brown and the bread is firm when pressed. Cool on racks, then serve warm with jam.