Irish Brown Bread

We were in Ireland this past June and I have to tell you--the food is seriously good there.  In case you didn't know, Ireland went through a culinary revolution in the past dozen years and it's hard to get a bad meal anywhere.  This is not true of England.

If you have the chance to go, make sure you stay in a B&B or an inn that provides full breakfast.  The Irish are great believers in the old adage that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  Most of the inns we stayed at had a professional chef make the breakfasts.  You could order an entree (eggs, sausage and the like) plus partake of a heavily-laden buffet.  The yogurt is to die for, but this comes as no surprise once you've seen the contented cows grazing in fields around every corner.

What I enjoyed most, however, was the brown bread.  Now, I knew about Irish Soda Bread and have made my own many times.  It's good.  But, brown bread is a different animal altogether.  It's made of coarse whole wheat flour, it has a tenacious crust and a very dense moist interior.  I came home from the trip thinking that I had to get my hands on a recipe.

The recipe was fairly easy to find.  Bon Appetit had done a story on brown bread called A Slice of Ireland.  In it, Andrew McCarthy (yes, the actor) describes his search through Ireland for the perfect brown bread.  He found it and shares the recipe with us.

It took another four months to find the flour.  The whole wheat flour available in the grocery store is milled too finely to do this bread justice.  I finally found a vendor at the Mill City Farmer's Market that mills small quantities of flour.  When I saw the coarse-ground wheat flour they offered, I knew it would be perfect for brown bread.

A cautionary note for those of you who have never tried brown bread.  This is a brick of a loaf.  You could build houses with it.  You could use it for a stepping stone.  It's heavy and hard on the outside.  But once you cut it open and slather it with butter (use salted butter for this purpose) you will understand the allure of this bread.  Have it with a cuppa tea, just like the Irish.

Irish Brown Bread
Recipe by Mary O'Callaghan
Bon Appetit, March 2010

Nonstick vegetable oil spray
3 cups all purpose flour
3 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup (packed) brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) chilled margarine or butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 cups buttermilk  (I use about 1/3 cup plain yogurt mixed with milk if I don't have buttermilk on hand)

Preheat oven to 425°F. Line an 8x8" baking pan with parchment paper and spray the sides with nonstick spray.

Whisk both flours, sugar, and baking soda in medium bowl to blend. Add margarine and cut in until margarine is reduced to pea-size pieces. Add buttermilk; stir until shaggy dough forms. Turn dough out onto lightly floured work surface. Knead until dough comes together, about 10 turns.

Place the dough into the pan and push it to fill the corners. Smooth the top.

Bake bread in center of oven until deep brown and bottom sounds hollow when firmly tapped (a bamboo skewer inserted into the center of the bread should emerge clean without any stickiness or moistness), about 45-50 minutes. Transfer bread to rack and cool completely.

Enjoy the bread hot or cool, but freeze any portion that is not eaten on the day it's made or it will turn to rock.  Consider yourself warned.