When I think of Irish foods, of course soda bread and potato soup come immediately to mind. Irish soda bread can come with raisins, currants, or caraway seeds. My favorite has currants in it. Smaller than a raisin, they create a more delicate crumb in the bread. It is a savory bread with lightly sweetened fruit. When slathered with rich Irish butter, it is the best part of breakfast.
Soda bread is more like a soft textured cake than a bread. It depends on the leavening power of baking soda activated by buttermilk to rise. Sometimes slightly dense, it is soft and chewy. It is made with the soft wheat that grows in Ireland, which doesn’t form gluten like other types of wheat. The lack of gluten doesn’t work for yeast breads, but it is perfect for soda bread. Somewhere between a scone and a bread, it breaks apart for easy eating. The closest we can get to the Irish flour here in America is cake flour. It has the least gluten in it and will make the tenderest bread. If you use only all-purpose flour, be very careful about how much you handle the dough. The more you knead it, the tougher it will become.
Traditionally formed into a ball and then slashed deeply with a knife, the “X” or cross on the top of the bread has several interpretations. Legend has it that the cut allows the devil or faeries escape the bread. For those with more of a religious nature, it can also be considered the symbol for a cross and used during Christian holidays. I think this bread is best served at breakfast, but you can eat it anytime of the day or night.
Often baked in a Dutch oven by Irish housewives, they would set it in the coals of the fire and heap some coals on top, creating an “oven” in the fireplace. The Irish had discovered that a diet of potatoes and milk could be nutritious enough to survive on and those items dominated their cuisine until the failure of the potato crops in 1845. Out of desperation, soda bread became a substitute for the potatoes and helped keep many from starving to death.
If you want a more savory bread, leave out the orange zest and currants. You can add fresh herbs if you want – thyme and chopped rosemary would both scent the bread beautifully. Do yourself a huge favor and don’t serve this with margarine. You already know how much I hate margarine, and eating it with something this glorious would really be a crime. Use real butter, and if you can afford it, buy Kerrygold from Ireland. It is an amazing butter, full of creamy goodness that can’t be believed. Our American butters don’t even come close. I could practically eat this butter by the spoonful, it is that good!
Ireland’s dairy cows graze freely outdoors on lush green, unpolluted pastures for most of the year. The peaceful lifestyle helps the cows give plenty of pure, creamy fresh milk. Kerrygold was founded in 1961 when the Irish Dairy Board was established to bring together a collection of small dairy farms throughout Ireland. The products are still produced by small, artisan farmers whose attention to detail and care for their livestock shows in every bite of cheese and butter from Kerrygold.
The best potato soup I know is my Potato-Leek soup. Rich and thick with chunks of potatoes, it is truly soul satisfying. Using leeks, very large green onions, which are mild, infuses the soup with a lovely soft onion flavor that complements the potatoes without overwhelming them. It is the perfect combination and by far the easiest soup to make in my repertoire.
A leek looks like a large green onion, but is very mild in flavor. You can used them in place of onions in any recipe. The dark green tops are very tough and virtually inedible, but they have great flavor and can be used to flavor soups and stocks. You could also use them in place of sliced onions to create a “platform” to rest roasting chicken or other meats on. They would flavor the drippings and help protect the bottom from overcooking.
Potatoes have gotten a bad rap over the years. They are actually very healthy for you – it’s all the yummy things we add to them that are unhealthy! High in Potassium, Vitamin C and Vitamin B6 as well as a good source of fiber, they are naturally fat free. When cooked and seasoned simply, potatoes can certainly be included in anyone’s diet – even if they are watching their weight!
This would be a great recipe to have your children help with. They can peel the potatoes, wash the leeks, measure out the ingredients and of course their favorite part will be smashing the potatoes! When you get children involved in cooking, they are much more excited about eating their creations. What a wonderful way to help shape their future diet choices!
To raise this soup up from rustic to fancy, I thought of the incredible tomato soup served at one of our favorite restaurants in the Napa Valley, Bistro Jeanty. Chef/owner Philippe Jeanty, formerly the executive chef at Domaine Chandon, creates an unforgettable presentation by topping his soup with puff pastry. As it bakes, it swells up creating a large dome of pastry over the bowl. You break into the pastry and the aroma of the soup envelopes you. I wanted the same experience for you. This is a show-stopping display that your guests will never forget.
Of course you do not have to take the final step and can serve the soup ladled into bowls and sprinkled with chopped chives. As with many soups and stews, the flavors improve with time and this is better on the second day. It will thicken considerably as it cools so don’t be alarmed. It will thin out again when you reheat it. Smash some of the potatoes for a rustic, chunky texture, or completely puree. I like it somewhere in between.
Enjoy these very Irish recipes and may the lucky leprechauns be at your side as you make them!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
When working with frozen puff pastry, always thaw it in the refrigerator. Bring it down from the freezer the night before you will be working with it. While working with one sheet, keep the second one in the refrigerator.
Kitchen Skill: Cleaning Leeks
Leeks are grown in sandy soil and collect copious amounts of sediment as they grow. To clean them, trim off all the dark green leaves (you can use these to flavor stocks but they are too tough to eat) and discard.
Split the leek lengthwise in half, cutting through the light green portion only. The white portion grows too tightly together to collect sediment. Rinse leeks well under running water, separating the leaves to remove as much grit and dirt as possible. Even though you may think you have gotten all the dirt, still follow the recipe’s direction to soak in a bowl of water after slicing. The last thing you want is something gritty in your smooth soup!
- 1/2 cup currants
- 3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1-3/4 cups cake flour
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 2 tsp fine salt
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter, preferably Kerrygold, cut into small pieces and chilled
- Zest of an orange, optional
- 1-1/2 cups buttermilk
- 1 egg, well beaten
- Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400°F. Lightly butter a baking sheet. Set aside.
- Put the currants in a medium bowl and cover with hot water. Soak for 15 minutes and drain.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cake flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Add the butter and, using your hands, work it into flour mixture, until it is about the size of small peas. Stir in the zest (if using) and currants.
- Add the buttermilk and stir with a spatula, just until the flour is moistened and comes together in a shaggy dough. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead lightly until just smooth, about 1 minute. Form the dough into a ball and place on the center of the prepared baking sheet.
- Using a sharp knife cut a 1/4-inch-deep "X" into the top of the dough to let the faeries out. Beat the egg well and brush liberally over the top of the bread.
- Bake until well browned and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped lightly with your knuckles, about 1 hour.
- Transfer the bread to a rack and let cool completely before serving.
- Yield: 1 loaf soda bread
- 4 to 6 large leeks, trimmed and sliced (see note)
- 3 tbsp butter
- 4 tbsp all-purpose flour
- 1 cup hot water
- 8 cups cold water
- 3 tbsp salt
- 1 tbsp minced fresh basil or thyme leaves or 2 tsp dried
- 1 bay leaf, optional
- 6 large Russet potatoes, peeled and cubed
- 1/3 cup sour cream, heavy cream, or half and half, optional
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper, preferably white pepper
- Puff Pastry Top
- 1 lb frozen puff pastry, thawed and rolled out to 1/4-inch thickness
- 1 egg
- 1 tbsp cold water
- Fill a bowl with cool water. Slice leeks into rings and place in water. Swish around to release any grit and dirt. Set the bowl aside for about 10 to 15 minutes. Impurities will settle to the bottom and the leeks will float. Using your hands, very carefully scoop out the leeks and transfer to a colander (if you don’t agitate the water too much, the grit will be left at the bottom of the bowl).
- In a large pot, melt butter over medium heat. Add the leeks and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium-low heat, for 3 to 5 minutes or until leeks have wilted. Stir in flour and continue cooking 3 to 5 minutes to cook off the raw flour taste, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat as needed so onions do not brown.
- Gradually stir in cup of hot water, blending flour to a paste. Gradually add 2 cups of the cool water, stirring until smooth. Stir in remaining water. Add salt, herbs, bay leaf, and potatoes. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce heat to low and gently boil about 30 minutes or until potatoes are tender.
- Place sour cream in a medium bowl. Add 1 cup of the soup liquid and stir until smooth. Add sour cream mixture to soup and stir well. Add pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. Remove bay leaf and discard. Using a slotted spoon, potato masher, or flat whisk, smash a portion of the potatoes to thicken soup. Leave a lot of them whole for a rustic soup or puree completely if desired. For a really smooth soup, pass through a food mill or strainer to remove most of the solids.
- Ladle into large soup bowls and serve. Serve as is, or for a spectacular presentation, serve the soup in bowls with glorious puff pastry tops.
- For Pastry Tops: Preheat oven to 425°F. Set rack in lower third of oven and do not have any rack above it. The pastry will puff up dramatically and it needs room.
- Ladle soup into ovenproof bowls. Cut puff pastry into circles about 1/2-inch wider than the top of the bowls. Beat the egg and water together to make an egg wash. Brush the edges of the pastry circles with a little of the egg wash and, with the egg side down, stretch gently over top of filled bowls. The tops should be tight like a drum, but don’t pull too hard. Press dough around the edges to seal.
- Brush tops very lightly with egg wash and bake in preheated oven for 10 to 15 minutes, or until dough is puffed and golden brown. Do not open the oven door to check until nearly done because the dough may fall.
- Yield: 6 to 10 servings