I eat my words–and my quick bread

Tonight I ate humble pie–or more accurately–Irish soda bread. I was passing some serious judgement on quick breads in my last post, and I would like to formally rescind my hasty evaluation. Comparing quick breads and yeasted breads for flavor and texture is a silly endeavor. A quick bread is a quick bread is a quick bread, if you will. In my mind, I’ve somehow come to associate real, good bread with the intimate process of weighing, mixing, kneading, waiting, adjusting. This effort and personal involvement somehow infuses a mental flavor in the bread–you love to eat it because you know it rather well. Because a quick bread, as its name implies, can be made in a jiffy, it carries none of this flavorful significance, and for this reason I dismissed it as an option.

When work went on a bit longer than I expected today, my plans to make a yeasted bread tonight were thwarted. I simply didn’t have enough time before I fell into a deep sleep to make, ferment, and bake a nice yeasty loaf. Although I felt like I was cheating, I decided to bust out the baking soda and make a quick bread.

Having little experience in the quick bread realm, I opened up a tiny little book called the Irish Baking Book by Ruth Isabel Ross, because who better to turn to for quick breads than the Irish?

I opened the book up to the very first and most basic recipe for “brown soda bread,” and in a matter of seconds I had a ball of dough ready to bake. Weird. The recipe, in all its simplicity, was as follows:

Combine: 4 oz. white flour, 12 oz. whole-wheat flour, 1 1/2 tsp. baking soda. 1 1/4 tsp. salt, 1 1/4 cups buttermilk. (I substituted 4 oz. of oat flour for 4 oz. of the whole-wheat, just for a little extra flavor, and, since I was lacking in buttermilk stores, combined a little milk and yogurt to achieve a similar consistency and flavor.)

The finished dough felt so strange and crumbly and unfriendly. It didn’t want to be kneaded, it didn’t want to develop glutenous strands, and it certainly didn’t want any yeasty fellows munching away at it. This was a solid rock of simplicity–traditionally and in actuality a product of necessity, not of luxury. The dough ball, while small, looked like it could do some damage if thrown with any amount of force.

Feeling like I just wasted some fine ingredients on a brick of dough that couldn’t possibly bake into anything remotely delicious, I skeptically shoved the thing in my 400 degree oven and waited for almost a half hour with very low expectations. While the loaf that emerged still had the hefty, dense feel of its cousin dough ball, the magical stuff known as baking soda had rendered a definite transformation. It was like sticking one of those little pill-sized tabs into the bath water, and soon discovering an awesome dinosaur washcloth floating around. Here I had a magically appearing loaf of bread.

This hearty little loaf took literally no more than 45 minutes from first mix to first bite. And first bite was a pleasant surprise: definitely dense, but distinctly flavorful and comforting. Its main flavor was wheat–just what it should be–but the dairy played a nice supporting flavor role, and certainly worked in tandem with the baking soda to create a moist and soft crumb. I added a slab of butter to the equation, and I was definitely in business.

Considering this soda bread on its own, and not as the cheap brother of yeasted bread, I was filled with appreciation. I got all of the warm-fuzzies one gets from smelling baking bread, enjoying the warmth of the oven, and eating the piping hot first slice, but I didn’t have to set aside a whole afternoon to make it happen. This is not to say that I will be making quick breads from now on–far from it–but just that these breads certainly do have a well-earned place on the menu.

Thanks, Ireland.