I am partial to a particular type of Irish brown bread. Not the squat, greyish-brown soda bread but the other brown bread, loaf-shaped and tan-coloured with a nutty crust and a moist, dense crumb. It has occurred to me more than once, while enjoying it in some café or other, that I have no idea how to make it.
In the past, I’ve been put off because the recipes in Irish cookbooks don’t always indicate which kind of brown bread you are going to get if you go to all the trouble of making it. Sometimes, brown bread that looks lovely has an oddly green crumb or is disconcertingly sweet. So, time to experiment.
There was a recipe on the pack of Howards Extra Coarse Wholemeal Stoneground flour I bought last weekend. I had most of the ingredients and remembered to pick up the others yesterday afternoon. The health food store had no wheatgerm but I figured I would manage without. On the way home, I had a niggling feeling I was missing something else.
I was. Buttermilk. Standing pyjama-clad in the kitchen this morning, I considered showering and going to the supermarket just to get it – a lot of extra activity first thing on a Sunday.
Google revealed there were lots of things you could substitute for buttermilk. Milk would do, once it was soured either by leaving it out of the fridge or adding a teaspoon or two of lemon juice or vinegar. Waiting for the milk to sour on its own would leave me breadless for the next day or two, I had no lemons or ‘normal’ vinegar, only the snazzy varieties. Snazzy anything would ruin wholesome Irish brown bread.
Next option, natural yogurt mixed with milk. Nigella Lawson says this will do nicely. I had two small tubs of yogurt in the fridge and mixed those with some milk. Lobbed all my dry ingredients into a bowl, along with a beaten egg and 200ml of my ‘buttermilk’. The dough came together quickly and beautifully.
I admired it in the bowl before upending it into my well-greased loaf tin. My well-greased 2lb loaf tin. The lump of dough cowered pathetically in the bottom of the tin. I squinted again at the bag of flour. I had missed the mention of the 1lb loaf tin. I don’t have a 1lb loaf tin. I considered my options. I didn’t really have any. I gave the lump of dough a few nudges to even it out a bit and stuck the tin in the oven.
Within half an hour, the whole house smelled of bread baking. I gloated delightedly to myself as I scrubbed the sink. I imagined future guests devouring some little seafood dish I had thrown together and gaping in gobsmacked awe as they realised I had made the accompanying brown bread myself.
Then I made a mental list of people not to ask to that particular soirée. Lots of Irish women can rustle up brown bread in about 30 seconds flat. Best to invite the ones you know struggle to make toast.
Twenty minutes later, the timer pinged and I went to investigate. I definitely had a loaf of brown bread. A pretty puny-looking loaf, only an inch or two high at either end and maybe three inches in the middle but a loaf nonetheless.
Another hour passed and the loaf, my loaf, was still slightly warm. I cut two slices, topped them with cream cheese and smoked salmon, squeezed some lemon juice over (I had picked up a lemon along with the Sunday papers) and grinded pepper on top.
My bread was good. The crust might have been a little too crunchy and I certainly need to buy a 1lb loaf tin but you know what, the bread was alright. I give myself a B for that.
Quick brown bread recipe, as per the Howards Stoneground flour packet
- 6oz (175g) wholemeal stoneground flour
- 2 oz (50g) plain flour
- 1 oz (25g) each of pinhead oatmeal, wheatgerm and bran. (In my case, 40g oatmeal and 35g bran)
- 1tsp each of bicarbonate of soda and sugar
- Half tsp of salt.
- 1 egg
- 275ml of buttermilk (in my case, 200ml or so of the yogurt/milk mix)
Place the dry ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Beat the egg and add to the dry ingredients with the buttermilk, mixing well to form a dough. Place the dough in a well-greased 1lb (450g) loaf tin. Bake in a preheated oven 375F/190C/Gas mark 5 for 50 mins approx. Turn onto a wire rack to cool.