Every year, right around Thanksgiving, my brother sends me one or two cookbooks. This is to get me in the mindset for COOKING with him when he arrives a few days before the big event. Cooking with Warren is an all-caps activity for sure.
Call it sibling bonding, but being in the kitchen with him once a year is a real highlight for me, something that I start looking forward to months ahead of time. Before he gets here, texts with menu ideas start flying between us. Smoke the turkey or not? --Sure. Apple Pie with Bourbon Caramel? --Yes!
Warren cooks with intensity, creativity and passion. He always makes his sticky rice stuffing jammed full of Chinese pork-and-duck sausage (a crowd pleaser), but last year there were a lot of Ottolenghi-inspired dishes, like the savory cheesecake he re-created after tasting one during a recent trip to NOPI.
This time, before I received anything from Warren in the mail, he sent a text: "Let's make bread this year."
A couple of days later, a cardboard Amazon box landed next to the front door. Guess what was inside? Yep, two bread books. One by Ken Forkish and the other by Josey Baker of The Mill in San Francisco.
The Ken Forkish book is beautiful -- thoroughly informative, down to a section on protein levels in flour and a description of him going out to one of the Eastern Washington farms that belongs to the Shepherd's Grain collective, which is where he gets his flour. Cool.
After reading the Forkish book with a great sense of reverence (which is what naturally crept into me as I went along), I was a little startled by Josey's very casual, user-friendly tone (see I'm even calling him by his first name -- he makes you feel like you should be on a first name basis). Ugh, not for me, I immediately thought.
But then I kept flipping through, reading, and it occurred to me. What's wrong with a casual tone? Being user-friendly? With an emphasis on no special equipment needed?
Um, like, totally nothing.
Josey starts you out from the very beginning, with making loaves of bread using packets of active dry yeast. You eventually graduate to making your own sourdough starter, from which you can make a pre-ferment and hearth breads with a much deeper flavor and longer shelf life. The real thing, in other words.
I got my starter going immediately and it's been fun tending to it. Kind of like a low-maintenance, non-complaining friend or pet sitting on the counter. It couldn't be easier. It's also pretty neat that it pulls wild yeast from the air and into itself, becoming something else entirely.
The starter will be ready to go when my brother arrives, though I'll bake a few practice loaves in case I need to make the necessary adjustments before he gets here.
While tendng to the starter and reading through Josey's book, I remembered making Irish Soda Bread a long time ago. In my memory, the loaf was squat and stodgy. But, I decided to give it a fresh try, which turned out to be fun and worthwhile.
Soda bread is so incredibly easy to make that a child can do it. And, in fact, Kingston and I have been making variations of this bread lately where he gets to be in charge of nearly the whole process, from weighing the flours to mixing it all up. The only thing he doesn't get to do is slash the loaves and put them in the oven. He is, after all, only four.
If you are thinking about becoming a bread baker and are at all nervous, this is the one to make. You will, without barely breaking a sweat, develop complete confidence. Soda bread is also the closest thing to instant gratification when it comes to baking anything bread-like.
It's utterly basic in the best sense of the word. It doesn't rely on yeast and gets its lift from the chemical reaction that happens when baking soda meets the acidity of buttermilk. (Remember that grade-school volcano experiment where you mixed baking soda and vinegar and out flowed "lava?")
Always rustic, baking up a little bit different each time but never in any way less than delicious, this fine-crumbed bread will leave you feeling like a satisfied and accomplished baker.
Bread this year? --YES! Please.
Herbed Irish Soda Bread
Have this with some soup for lunch or dinner. It's also great toasted the next day.
Barely adapted from Super Natural Every Day.
2 ¼ cup spelt flour (283 g)
1 ¾ all-purpose flour (221 g)
1 ¾ teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs such as parsley, sage, rosemary and/or thyme (I used a mixture)
1 ¾ teaspoon salt
2 cups buttermilk
Place a pizza stone on middle rack of oven (you can also use a cookie sheet if you don't have a stone). Preheat oven to 400°F.
Whisk together the two flours, baking soda and salt. Add herbs and whisk. Make a well in the center and pour in buttermilk. Stir to combine. Dough will be somewhat tacky. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Knead for about 30 seconds just to bring the dough together. Place dough on a sheet of parchment paper. Brush top with buttermilk. Generously sprinkle flour over loaf. Make two deep slashes in an “X” pattern across the top of the loaf. You may make more slashes if you like. More slashes gives the finished loaf more crusty surfaces. Slide the bread and parchment onto the pizza stone. I typically do this with the back of a cookie sheet.
Bake for 45-50 minutes, until well-browned and loaf sounds hollow when you tap on it. Let it cool, then slice and slather with butter. Best eaten within a couple of days.