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IRISH SODA BREAD

3 1/2 c flour
1/2 t sugar
1/2 t salt
1/2 t baking soda
1 1/4 c to 2 1/2 cups sour milk

"Sour milk" is milk that has had a couple of teaspoons of buttermilk
stirred into it, has been put in a scalded container and wrapped
in a towel, and left in some peaceful corner at about 75 degrees
F for 24 hours. The original Irish name is *bainne clabhair*,
"clabbered milk", or "bonnyclabber" as the Scots have anglicized
it. The flavor isn't *quite* as tart as buttermilk, but there's
enough acid to make the bicarb react correctly. If you don't have
time to do sour milk, buttermilk will do perfectly well. Sweet
milk doesn't work as well, and your bread may not rise correctly:
if you're going to use sweet milk, use baking powder instead of
bicarbonate of soda.

First, decide whether you're making farl or cake. If farl, find
your heaviest frying pan (cast iron is best) and put it on to
preheat at a low-medium heat. (You're going to have to experiment
with settings. Farl should take about 20 minutes per side to get
a slight toasty brown.) If making cake, preheat the oven to 450
F and find a baking sheet. Full preheating is vital for soda bread.

Sift the dry ingredients together several times to make sure the
soda is evenly distributed. Put them in a good big bowl (you want
stirring room) and make a well in the center. Pour about half the
buttermilk or sour milk or whatever in, say about a cup and a
quarter, and start stirring. You are trying to achieve a dough
that is raggy and very soft, but the lumps and rags of it should
look dryish and "floury", while still being extremely squishy if
you poke them. Add more liquid very sparingly if you think you need
it. Blend until the whole mass of dough has become this raggy
consistency.

Then turn the contents of the bowl out immediately onto a lightly
floured board, and start to knead. The chief concern here is speed:
the chemical reaction of the bicarb with the buttermilk started as
soon as they met, and you want to get the bread into the oven while
the reaction is still running on "high". DON'T OVERKNEAD. You do
not want the traditional "smooth, elastic" ball of dough you would
expect with a yeast bread; you simply want one that contains almost
everything that went into the bowl, in one mostly cohesive lump.
You should not spend more than a minute or so kneading...the less,
the better. You *don't* want to develop the gluten in the flour.
If you do, you'll get a tough loaf. Once you're done kneading,
shape the bread. For cake, flatten the lump of dough to a circle
about 6-8 inches in diameter, and put it on the baking sheet. Then
use a very sharp knife to cut a cross right across the circle: the
cuts should go about halfway down through the sides of the circle
of dough, so that the loaf will "flower" properly.

If you're making farl, flatten the dough ball out to a circle big
enough that the farls are about 3/4 inch thick. Too thick, and
they won't bake properly. Then use the same very sharp knife to
cut the circle of dough into four wedges. Try not to crush or
compress the dough where you cut it (if the knife is sharp enough,
you won't). Then bake. When putting cake in the oven, handle it
lightly and don't jar it: the CO2 bubbles are a little vulnerable
at this point of the process. Let it alone, and don't peek at it.
It should bake for 45 minutes at 450F. If making farl, dust the
hot griddle or frying pan with a little flour, and put the farls
in gently. The cut edges should be 1/2 inch or so apart to allow
for expansion. Give the farls 20 minutes on a side; they should
be a sort of mocha-toasty color before you turn them. Keep an eye
on the heat--they scorch easily. The heat should be quite "slow".
The farls will rise to about twice their original height. If you're
making cake: At the end of 45 minutes, pick up the loaf and tap
the bottom. A hollow sound means it's done. For a very crunchy
crust, put on a rack to cool. For a softer crust, wrap the cake
in a clean dishcloth as soon as it comes out of the oven.

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