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March into Spring!

March 2017

Céad Míle Fáilte!

The Feast of St. Patrick is enjoyed in my home as a religious event, a cultural commemoration and a celebration of spring. As we March into Spring, I would like to offer readers my traditional recipe for soda bread, along with the accompaniments of the St. Patrick’s Day Feast.

The Milligan soda bread for St. Patrick’s Day is easy and traditional, courtesy of “Mrs. Fleming’s Irish Soda Bread.” (I do not know the identity of Mrs. Fleming, other than the original owner of the recipe in a cookbook entitled Having Tea.) The baking of the bread takes place the day before the celebration of all things Irish. The bread needs time to solidify and for the rather mild flavors to blend.

Unlike other soda breads that I have made, this one does not use buttermilk. It is a more substantial, dense bread.

I always say that I need to bake this recipe more than once a year, but I never do! It is an excellent breakfast bread during fall and winter, not just to pay tribute to the people who saved Western civilization.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place a sheet of parchment paper atop a baking sheet. Flour a large cutting board or, as I do, the kitchen countertop near the sink. (The clean-up for this recipe is a bit messy! But it is spring!)

3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup sugar

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp baking soda

2 tsp baking powder

2 large eggs, beaten

1 pint (2 cups) sour cream

1 cup currants

2 tsp caraway seeds

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, sugar, salt, baking soda, baking powder. To aerate these dry ingredients, lift portions of this mixture several times with your hands and let it fall back into the bowl. Fold in the eggs and sour cream. Add the currants and the caraway seeds. Combine with your clean, bare hands.

Form into a flattened round ball and place onto the floured cutting board. Knead slightly and shape into a wide, flat round bread. Use a floured serrated knife and cut an X across the bread.

Place into the oven and bake for about 1 hour or until the loaf sounds hollow when it is tapped on the bottom. Wrap a tea towel around the loaf to prevent the crust from hardening and place it on a wire rack. Unwrap the tea towel from the loaf when you are ready to serve the bread, as-is or toasted.

The St. Patrick’s Day Feast in my household was initially spawned by a little book called A Little Irish Cookbook, written by John Murphy.

This book was purchased in the early 1990s during one of my research and composing forays in Truckee, California for the writing of NORTHSTAR. Sometimes my family accompanied me; other times I’d escape the Roseville suburbs by myself in our teal-colored Ford Explorer and drive up I-80 East into the Sierra Nevada, to the then-undeveloped Truckee.

In my waxed canvas tote bags, I hauled my research files, 8-1/2x11 yellow legal notepads, Pilot Razor-point pens that would not leak from the rapid change in altitude, packed food (and, at some point in time, an old Mr. Coffee machine) to a now-defunct motel — during breaks in the winter storms that announced for many Californians: ski season!

Everyone else was lugging in skis and other equipment! I was for the most part completely ignored and completely in bliss! (My rabbit fur trapper hat, or Ushanka, got me a bit noticed.)

One of the introductory pages to this resourceful little book is still read aloud from time to time, for sheer humor and aromatic bliss!

Irish Farmhouse Breakfast

I have fond memories of a particularly sunny summer a year or two ago when I stayed in a farmhouse on the Dingle peninsula. As well as the good weather I remember the breakfasts.

Start off with a freshly-cut half grapefruit with a dusting of caster sugar, followed by a bowl of smooth porridge of oatmeal gently cooked in milk and served with an individual jug of cream. After that comes rashers, sausages and eggs, the lot served with scones and brown bread warm from the oven, honey, homemade preserves, fresh butter and a pot of tea.

For each [EACH!] person gently fry two sausages over a low heat until well cooked through and golden brown on the outside. Also fry a couple of slices each of black-and-white pudding. Remove from the pan and keep hot. Drain off the fat, as it is somewhat indigestible, and fry two rashers of bacon, having first cut off the rind. Now fry a couple of eggs in the bacon, spooning the hot fat over the yolks to set them. Fry a few mushrooms, half a tomato and a slice or two of potato cake each. Add a knob of butter if there is not sufficient bacon fat, but do not cook in butter alone as it burns at too low a temperature.

Since we are not heading out at 6 a.m. for a day of work in the field, and since I dislike fatty foods, subtle changes were made to this culinary concept: 2 percent or whole milk instead of cream in the oatmeal; olive oil for sautéing; and the elimination of the very fatty proteins, as well the method of setting yolks with bacon fat! I am still unsure of where that half-a-tomato came from!

My version of the St. Patrick’s Day Feast was, nonetheless, truly inspired by the Irish Farmhouse Breakfast. It is usually eaten in late afternoon. Depending on the nature of the hydrologic (water) year in northern California, the weather in March can vary from cold, windy and rain-soaked (wear your storm-watch Aran-stitch sweater) to overly bright sunlight and warm, about 80 degrees F (wear your sunglasses and shorts).

The meal is thus either eaten at the table in the kitchen by the roaring fire or at the table in the sunroom with the doors open and the ceiling fan on! Like the U.S. Postal Service, neither rain nor heat wave stops the Milligan Irish feast!

To get into the spirit of the proceedings, the following fundamentals are needed:

— scrambled eggs

— sliced Mrs. Fleming’s Irish Soda Bread

— salmon filets

— boiled corned beef

— home fries: sautéed Red Bliss potatoes, chopped yellow onion, salt, pepper and tarragon. When the mélange is fully cooked, transfer it into a baking dish and sprinkle it with sliced green onions and paprika. Bake in a 250-degree-F oven for about 20 minutes.

— homemade tapioca pudding

— pot of hot tea (Yorkshire Gold is best, even if it is not Irish tea); milk and sugar on the side

— sliced Dubliner cheese

— jug of orange juice

Enjoy the nourishment!

And a few Irish blessings:

May the road rise to meet you - Go n-éiri an bóthar leat.

May your blessings outnumber the shamrocks that grow,

and may trouble avoid you wherever you go.

May God bless the ground you walk upon.

May you always have these blessings . . .

A soft breeze when summer comes,

A warm fireside in winter,

And always the warm, soft smile of a friend.

This tribute to Ireland and to spring would be incomplete without a gentle nod to an Irish poet who knew the craft of writing from the heart, W. B. Yeats:

I will arise and go now, for always night and day,

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore,

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

— The Lake Isle of Innisfree

13 November 2023

Spelt Addition

In the previous essay, I stated:

“I always say that I need to bake this recipe more than once a year, but I never do! It is an excellent breakfast bread during fall and winter, not just to pay tribute to the people who saved Western civilization.”

This afternoon, I decided to bake this recipe for breakfast bread during an autumny week in the Sierra Nevada foothills. I’ve made the following change to the original version —

I spread a generous portion of spelt on the counter. Then, after mixing the very sticky dough by hand, I gather up the clump and knead it on the layer of spelt. There were some bits of batter left in the bowl, so I worked those into the “loaf”, adding more spelt to consolidate the “bread” and render it less sticky.

Clean-up is, indeed, called for after the bread is slid into the oven at 350 degrees F for about a hour, or until the bottom is tapped and there’s a hollow sound. The top ought to be golden brown; if your oven tends to run hot, then reduce the temp and add time.

Even in November, I cut the unbaked dough with a serrated knife at right angles, making an X, or the traditional cross.

Spelt flour is a wonderful addition for any recipe using flour. In the right proportion, it adds a nutty flavor to cookies, pancakes, and loaf breads, particularly during the autumn and winter months. I usually convert 1 cup of white flour into 3/4 cup of the white stuff and 1/4 cup of spelt.

Spelt was good enough for the Ancients, and it’ more than fine for this Modern.


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