Friday, March 15, 2013

St. Patrick loves Pyroceramic - Traditional Irish Soda Bread

Normally I gush about Corningware.  This recipe is no different, for it does utilize Corningware, but I thought it would be fun to indulge in a little holiday history...  

For 'tis soon to be the day, upon which, a healthy chunk of the American population will celebrate by garbing in green garments and gregariously gorging itself upon gallons of green beer.  Yes, St. Patrick's Day is upon us again.  But I wanted to take a moment, remove the beer goggles and examine the roots of St. Patrick's Day.

Though St. Paddy's day has come to be a celebration of ALL things Irish (You can bet your shamrocks that I'll not only be wearin' green but will be sporting my Guinness baseball cap as well), it originally started as feast of St. Patricius, the patron saint of Ireland.  Now, if you don't know anything about good old St. Paddy, let me give you a quick run through........  I mean, it IS his holiday after all.

So WAY back when the Roman Empire's grip on the British Isle was beginning to slip... about 386 CE, a bouncing baby boy was born to a family of high standing within the ebbing Roman society.  Some say it was England proper, near the border of Scotland, but then again, his given name is reported to have been Maewyn Succat, which is Welch.  Whatever his true name or village of birth, suffice it to say that he was born on the big isle.  Little Maewyn showed little interest in theological pursuits, even though some of his extended family were members of the church hierarchy.  He just ran around doing what children do with little or no religious aspirations.

Meanwhile.....  The Hiberians (Ancient Celtic Irish) were massing for one of their notorious raids.  They had become experts at taking advantage of the holes in the Roman Empire's armor.  As luck (in the end) would have it, they raided Maewynn's village when he was 16 and spirited him away to the Emerald Isle to be sold as a slave.  He spent 6 years tending sheep for one of the pagan chieftains in western Ireland.  Even though the peoples of Ireland (Eire) had been exposed to Christianity by this time, they were still practicing the old Pagan ways.  Most of Britain had already been converted (Aside from those north of Hadrian's wall on the big island), due to Constantine's dictate that Christianity was the state religion (the first Council of Nicaea that hammered out the Bible met in 325 C.E.)  Maewyn's exposure to the full brunt of Celtic Paganism must have been somewhat of a culture shock.  Supposedly, it was during this time that he found solace in the very religion he had ignored as a child.  Christianity.  

Eventually, he escaped and made his way back to Britain.  Surprisingly, he left again and returned to Ireland to become ordained in the fledgling church that had managed to established itself.  Eventually becoming a bishop, Maewyn, ah hem, I mean Patricius set out to convert the whole Isle of Eire to Christianity.

This concerned the Druids.  The Learned Ones...  Philosophers, judges, educators, historians, doctors, seers, astronomers and religious leaders of the Celts.  (Whew!  That's a lot of hats)  From Christan eyes?  Satan worshiping pagans.  Patrick (Maewyn) set out to convert them, as well as the rest of the inhabitants, from their "wicked" heathen ways. He was met with staunch resistance, of course, so it wasn't all shamrocks, leprechauns and fairy dust to be sure, but I can guarantee you that during his crusade, he didn't drink copious amounts of beer, nor did he imbibe shocking quantities of spirits.  It can also be deduced that he did not carrying a loaf of Irish Soda bread to be brandished as a weapon, since baking soda wouldn't be available for another 1400 years.  I'm pretty sure he would have been better served by a shillelagh anyway, don't you think?  Then again, I have had some Soda Bread that could have done some serious damage if used as a projectile.

Patrick eventually succeeded in his quest, or at least that is what Muirchu maccu Machtheni tells us. (the Irish bishop who wrote Patrick's hagiography, The Life of Saint Patrick, two hundred years after Patrick's death). Though I find the "driving of the snakes" to be a more of a metaphor than a truth.  I highly doubt Patrick was literally banishing boas, proscribing pythons, vitiating vipers, sequestering serpents, clearing cobras, and abolishing asps and adders, since it was the last Ice Age that denuded Ireland of it's snake population.  I don't think that he actually forced the Druids to leave the island and take their religion with them, either.  No, that would have been foolish, for their knowledge would be of great use to the church... Conversion was definitely a preferable outcome.  I think Muirchu is speaking of something a little more basic.  The Church saw all pagan religions as Satanic.... Satan is considered to be the Master of Serpents, as is evident in the story of Adam & Eve.  Thus, I think by converting Druids and non-Druids to Christianity, Patrick was in effect driving Satan's influence over the people from the island.  Thus, no more snakes.

Patrick was also said to have utilized the Seamrog (Shamrock or Little Clover) to explain the Trinity to the Pagans, though I think this is a later addition to his repertoire.  Then again, Patrick would have been extremely well versed in their pagan ways and may have drawn on this Druidic symbolism used to describe the triple aspects of the Moon Goddess (Maiden, Mother, Crone) or the Sun God (Son, Warrior, Consort).  But that is a theosophical discussion for another time..... 

Patrick passed into the light on March 17th 461 C.E. and we celebrate his passing with the Feast of St. Patrick's.  Interestingly enough, this falls in the middle of Lent, as such, restrictions are lifted on this day. (which is as good excuse as any to consume beer) Ironically enough, Patrick has never been officially "canonized" by the pope, since the current process didn't even exist until the 1170.  Prior to 1170, diocesan and regional authorities could declare sainthood, that is until Pope Alexander III got his pontiff in a bunch and declared that all canonization should be decided by the Holy See (himself).  Though the Feast St. Patrick was already being celebrated in Ireland as early as the 10th century, it really didn't come into official existence until sometime in the 1600s thanks to a Franciscan monk, Luke Wadding from Waterford, (Yes, Waterford crystal is Irish).  Wadding was a member of the commission revising the Breviary (Liturgy of the Hours) and the 17th of March became a holy day of obligation.

It remained a feasting holiday until about 1903 when it became and official holiday in Ireland.  OF course that didn't stop Americans from getting into the act.  The first St. Patrick's day parade in the United States occurred on March 17, 1762, when Irish soldiers, serving in the English military, marched through New York City; and they have been marching ever since.  It's the largest and oldest continuously held parade in the world (252 years).  While Boston's is technically older (1737) it has not been a continuous affair, as they have skipped years. Since 1848 the parade in New York has been organized and hosted by the Ancient Order of Hiberians.

So what do we do now days to celebrate?  Well, since the restrictions of Lent have been eased, there is the common practice of consuming multiple pints of Guinness. (which is my favorite way to celebrate)  There is also the disturbing practice of dying beer green (sorry, but eww!  It's disgusting) For victuals, at least here in the U.S., Corned Beef and Cabbage have become a staple, though it's not very Irish.  Colcannon is a delicious choice, and unlike Corned Beef, it is actually an Irish dish.  My personal favorite is Soda bread.  I don't know why I like it so much, it's really more of a savory muffin than a bread, but I love it.  True, it too is a new comer to the scene, having become popular in the late 1800's, AFTER the Potato Famine.  That is actually what I will be making this year.  Traditional Irish Soda Bread, though I will be using it as a vehicle to deliver Guinness Fondue to my mouth.

Soda Bread.  By this I mean traditional, no frills, basic, down to brass tacks, stripped down, good old every day Soda Bread.  No Orange Zest, No Raisins (That's technically spotted dog), no sugar, eggs, or butter (cause that makes it a cake).  Now for all of my snubbing additions to Soda Bread, it's mainly because of what I will be using it for... Raisins and Guinness Fondu just doesn't sound appealing to me.  Though I am throwing the word "Traditional" around, there is nothing traditional about the way I bake my Irish Soda Bread.  Due to my lack of an actual Cast Iron Dutch Oven (Bastible) I opt for my Corningware 3 quart deep casserole (A-3-B) though a French White 2.5 liter (F-1-B) will work too.  Pyroceram works JUST as well as cast iron does for baking and it cleans up much easier.  I am sure Maewyn Succat would approve.

So here is how make Traditional Irish Soda Bread in a Non-Traditional way.

Important Note:  The cold wet climate of Ireland does not permit the growing of hard wheat types so their wheat tends to be on the softer, low gluten side.  Lower gluten flours such as cake flour, whole wheat pastry flour or white whole wheat will be your best choices.  If you attempt to use All-Purpose flour, your bread will be to heavy to rise properly. 

Irish Soda Bread 

8 oz Cake Flour
8 oz White Whole Wheat Flour
1 1/4 tsp Celtic Grey Salt
1 tsp Baking Soda
12-14 oz Buttermilk
Corningware 3-quart Square Casserole (A-3-B) w/ lid or French White 2.5 liter Souffle (F-1-B) w/ lid
Butter and Flour for the the Casserole/Souffle

Begin by liberally buttering and flouring your 3 Quart casserole (or 2.5 liter Souffle) and preheat the oven to 425F degrees.

Combine both Flours, Salt, and Baking Soda in a bowl whisking to combine.

Make a well in the center and pout in about 1 cup of the Buttermilk.

Stir everything together.  If it seems a little dry, add a little more of the remaining buttermilk.

I had about 1 oz left over.

Mix until everything is moist and holds together, but is still slightly sticky.

Turn out onto a floured surface, and knead a couple of time, just until smoothed out.

If you knead too much, you will deflate the bread.

Form into a slightly flattened ball and place in the prepared Corningware casserole.

Cut a cross in the top with a floured knife. (This lets the devil out of the bread)

Place the lid on top and bake for 30 minutes.

Remove the lid, and bake for an additional 10-15 minutes. (the bottom should produce a nice hollow sound when thumped)

Remove the loaf from the casserole and place on a cooling rack.

Cover with a tea towel and sprinkle with water.  This will keep the crust moist while the bread rests for 4 hours to set.

Don't worry bout the mess in the pot.

It cleans up rather easily with soap and water.

Now THERE is a beautiful loaf of Irish Soda Bread.

But I am cutting mine up into cubes and storing in a zipper bag, all in preparation for their impending St. Patrick's Day Destiny.....

A nice warm swim in Guinness Fondue.

Where is your Corningware??

1 comment:

  1. We used to have fondue all the time, now I can't remember the last time we had it. A Guinness fondue sounds wonderful. Oooohh with some cauliflower and broccoli and all kinds of things to dip in it.


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