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Umbria vs. Ireland: The St. Patrick's Day Challenge

Baking Soda Breads

(photo: Soda "Cake", Irish Soda Bread, Torta al Testo)

This time of year my Irish roots always always get the better of me and I find myself craving a pint of Guinness, beef stew, and Irish Soda Bread.  It's one of those "expat" holidays that I have learned to just keep to myself.  When I happily proclaim to my neighbors that it is indeed St. Patrick's Day, they look at me like I have three heads.  When I go to the "pub" and order a Guinness, it comes out looking like a Coca-Cola.

Anyway, in my annual research of Irish Soda Bread recipes, this year I stumbled upon The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread.  Let me tell you, these people mean business!  The site is full of interesting tidbits about the history of this controversial bread.  Why is it controversial?  Well, first of all, it is not supposed to be sweet!  Any additives such as eggs, raisins, sugar, orange zest, whisky etc., and you no longer have Irish Soda Bread, you have Soda "Cake" (which is what I always made...)!

So what is the real Irish Soda Bread?  Well, as it happens, it is not a far cry from Umbria's own Torta al Testo (obviously la torta is flat like a pizza, but the idea is the same).  Flour, baking soda, salt... and because it is Ireland, a healthy dose of buttermilk instead of our ubiquitous olive oil.  In the olden days it was cooked in a bastible pot (or dutch oven) with coals placed above and below the pot - just like the southern Umbrian version of Torta al Testo, Pizza sotto il Fuoco.  Makes sense:  2 agricultural lands, covered in rolling green hills, both steeped in the traditions of peasant cooking.... 

Therefore, tonight I will feast on Irish Beef Stew with a nice stout and Irish Soda Bread.  Tomorrow.... Spezzatino di Manzo (beef stew), a bottle of Torgiano Rosso and Torta al Testo.  Salute!... or... Sláinte!

Umbria vs. Ireland:  The St. Patrick's Day Challenge

(photo:  Irish Soda Bread and Torta al Testo with their respective cooking vessels.)

The REAL Irish Soda Bread recipe (from The Society for the Preservation of ISB):

4 cups of all purpose flour.
1 Teaspoon baking soda
1 Teaspoon salt
14 oz of buttermilk

Irish Soda Bread Dough

Preheat the oven to 425 F. degrees.  Lightly crease and flour a cake pan.

In a large bowl sieve and combine all the dry ingredients.

Add the buttermilk to form a sticky dough.  Place on floured surface and lightly knead (too much allows the gas to escape)

Shape into a round flat shape in a round cake pan and cut a cross in the top of the dough.

Cover the pan with another pan and bake for 30 minutes (this simulates the bastible pot).  Remove cover and bake for an additional 15 minutes.

The bottom of the bread will have a hollow sound when tapped so show it is done.

Cover the bread in a tea towel and lightly sprinkle water on the cloth to keep the bread moist.



Poor Man's "Umbrian" Brownies

Torta di Pane

In these times of financial crisis (especially here in Italy), some Italians are looking back to the old ways - the ways of their grandmothers, whose frugality in the kitchen not only fed their families, but is the basis of the "rustic" Italian cooking we know and love today.  I was having coffee at a friend's house the other day, and she offered me a piece of Torta di Pane, or "bread" cake - one of the original recipes per non sprecare nulla (to not waste anything)!  Since the basis of this recipe is old bread, I dubbed it "Umbrian" (it is Italian, but not necessarily Umbrian); and since there is a little chocolate and it looks familiar, I dubbed it "brownies."  There are many variations on this recipe, and it is truly a recipe to make with whatever you have leftover in the house, so don't worry if you have to subsitute - a little of this, a little of that....


350g old, dry bread.  500ml milk.  2 eggs.  3 Tbs olive oil.  6 Tbs sugar.  4 Tbs cocoa powder.  1 tsp cinnamon.  1 old banana, diced (or old pear, or raisins, nuts, etc).  powdered sugar for dusting.

Cut the bread into slices or cubes and let soak in milk for about an hour.  With your hands, break up the bread and "knead" it with the milk until it becomes homogenous.  Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well with a wooden spoon.  Poor into a shallow baking pan (or brownie pan, if you will) and bake at 180C/350F for about 40-45 minutes.  Let cool completely and sprinkle with powdered sugar before serving.  If you would like to unmold this dessert, line the baking dish with parchment paper first.  Enjoy!

P.S.  this dessert is actually kind of healthy too... shhhh!