March 13, 2011

Walnut-Cranberry Irish Soda Bread

It's true. I am not Irish. But.

I am marrying a man who is a certain percent Irish, that part is true. So is the part where I graduated from a college fairly rich in Irish-Catholic tradition, where St. Patty's Day was as revered as Easter and celebrated far more wildly than the rising again of Jesus himself. It is also true that I live in a city where the Erin Express makes it's annual rounds, escorting hoards of people in head to toe green with shamrock antennae flying from their heads from bar to bar. They look like aliens. It's pretty festive.

I don't like caraway, and so I generally never liked Irish Soda bread, but this year something in me shifted. I am not sure but it could have something to do with any of the above factors. It could also have to do with the fact that this March 17th is Match Day. What is Match Day, you ask? Be glad that you do not know. It is the day that all medical students everywhere find out where they will spend the next years of their life as a doctor. M is waiting his fate as a Pediatrician, and I am awaiting my fate as the soon-to-be wife of one. We try to think positive. It will be a  fun(!) surprise to find out where we match! Hurrah for surprises that determine our life's direction with the tearing of an envelope.

My future mother in law is visiting for Match Day. She is Irish, and she loves crumby carbohydrates, especially ones with cranberries in them. She is known to have fierce cravings for muffins and other breads. This I find both admirable and endearing.

I thought I would make an Irish Soda Bread for our unique and memorable St. Patrick's Day. My Irish Soda Bread would not have caraway. Instead, it would have walnuts and dried cranberries. And to make it all even better, my own mother was visiting for the weekend so we could bake together. She is Italian (like me), but she still got pretty excited when I told her what we were baking. Plus, she got to take home her very own loaf.

There was much stirring, measuring, and impatient waiting for the thing to cool so we could just cut a slice already. The apartment smelled like heavenly toast laced with the sweet edge of sugar. First, the loaves cooled a bit in the pan before we could move them to the racks. Hello, beauties:

In the baking, I also switched half of the flour from white to wheat. Nothing lost, everything gained. This recipe is a keeper, and despite the many pre-existing Irish influences in my life, I finally have found my very own reason for celebrating St. Patrick's Day. It has to do with a crisp, firm outer crust and a soft, moist inner crumb. It has to do with the earthy crunch of walnuts and tang of dried cranberries. Mom and I sat at the table over this bread for a long time, talking, pulling apart the pieces as the sun lowered in the sky, casting shadows on the crumbs in our plates.

The comforts of bread are plentiful, this I know. And this year, I need comfort, and I need celebration. Both at once, if I may. Pass me the knife and a pat of butter, I'm Irish.

Walnut-Cranberry Irish Soda Bread: Makes two loaves. Recipe adapted from Epicurious.
2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups whole-wheat flour
8 tablespoons sugar, plus 1 T for sprinkling later
3 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoon salt
1.5 teaspoons baking soda
6 tablespoons butter, chilled, cut into cubes
2 cups lowfat buttermilk
1 cup or more dried cranberries
1.5 cups walnuts, coarsely chopped

* Cook's note: I think this bread would benefit wonderfully from a T. or so of orange zest. I plan to bake another loaf in the next couple of days and use some orange zest -- I'll let you  know how it tastes!

Directions: Preheat oven to 375°F. Spray two 8-inch-diameter cake pans with nonstick spray. Whisk flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda in large bowl to blend. Add butter. Using your fingertips, rub in until coarse meal forms. Make a well in center of flour mixture, then add the buttermilk. Gradually stir the buttermilk together with the dry ingredients until just blended, then mix in the raisins and walnuts. Using floured hands, shape dough into ball. Transfer to prepared pan and flatten slightly (dough will not come to edges of pan). Sprinkle dough with remaining 1 tablespoon sugar. Bake bread until brown and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Cool bread in pan 10 minutes. Transfer to rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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