| Photo © 2009 Peter Cassidy, |
Forgotten Skills of Cooking, by Darina Allen
Needless to say, the past 48 hours have been a frantic game of catch-up, but life is now starting to settle back into normal (whatever that is), and it's time to start playing in the kitchen once again.
During my childhood, many people in the country were poor, and their daily staple would have been wholemeal bread. White flour was more expensive than brown, so white soda bread was considered to be more luxurious—a treat for special occasions.
At times of the year when work was harder, such as at harvest or threshing, or maybe on a Sunday when visitors were expected, the woman of the house would add a bit of sugar and a fistful of dried fruit and an egg to the white bread to make it a bit more special. Nowadays, this does not seem such a big deal but back then any money that the woman of the house got from selling her eggs was considered to be her “pin money,” used for little luxuries such as hatpins. Putting an egg into the bread was one egg less that she could sell, so it actually represented much more than it would for us today.
This bread was called Spotted Dog, and when it was still warm, she’d wrap it in a tea towel and bring it out to the fields with hot sweetened tea in whiskey bottles wrapped in newspaper or cloth to insulate them. The farm workers would put down their tools and sit with their backs to the haystacks. She’d cut the bread into thick slices and slather on yellow country butter. My memories of sitting down with them are still vivid.
Here is her recipe, as published in her book:
4 cups white flour, preferably unbleached, plus more for the work surface
1 level teaspoon baking soda
1 level teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
3 ounces sultanas or golden raisins, more if you’d like
1 organic egg
1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cups buttermilk (see “A Note About Buttermilk” below)
Butter and jam or Cheddar cheese, for serving
Method1. Preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C).
2. In a large bowl, sift together the flour and baking soda. Add the salt, sugar, and sultanas. Mix the ingredients by lifting the flour and fruit up into your hands and then letting them fall back into the bowl through your fingers. This adds more air, and therefore more lightness, to your finished bread.
3. Now make a well in the center of the flour mixture. Break the egg into a measuring cup and gently stir it. Add enough buttermilk to reach the 1 3/4 cup line (the egg is part of the liquid measurement) and combine. Pour most of this buttermilk mixture into the flour. Using one hand with the fingers open and stiff, combine the ingredients, moving your hand in a full circle, drawing in the flour mixture from the sides of the bowl and adding more of the buttermilk mixture if necessary. Mix it as quickly and gently as possible, thus keeping it light and airy. The dough should be softish, but not too wet and sticky. The trick with Spotted Dog, like all soda breads, is not to overmix the dough. When the dough all comes together, turn it out onto a well-floured work surface.
4. Wash and dry your hands. With floured fingers, roll the dough lightly for a few seconds—just enough to tidy it up. Then pat the dough into a round about 2 1/2 inches high. Transfer it to a baking sheet dusted lightly with flour. Use a sharp knife to cut a deep cross in the center, letting the cuts go over the sides of the bread.
5. Transfer the baking sheet to the oven and immediately reduce the temperature to 400°F (200°C). Bake for 35 to 40 minutes. If you are in doubt about the bread being cooked, tap the bottom. It will sound hollow when it is done. This bread is cooked at a lower temperature than soda bread because the egg would brown too fast at a higher heat.
6. Serve the freshly baked bread warm, cut into thick slices and smeared with butter and jam. Spotted Dog is also really good eaten with Cheddar cheese. Soda breads are best eaten on the day they are made, but are still good for a day or so more. They also make great toast.