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The Emerald Ovens

My first trip to Ireland was attended by the concerned advice of well-meaning friends and relatives on the availability of good—no, simply edible—food on that island. Suggestions ranged from eating in American chains exclusively to filling my luggage with canned soup and ground coffee. The expectation was that I’d return six sheets to the wind and down 20 pounds.

Happily, the truth lay far from this postcard of indigestion. In Dublin, anyway, good food was everywhere. Fresh meat and vegetable markets crowded the streets behind our place and good bread was never far away. There was even a cooperatively owned cafe just across the Liffey (the river that runs through Dublin), which became a special treat. Yes, lack of funds meant many a peanut butter sandwich and skillet full of potatoes and canned vindaloo sauce from the Indian grocers near the laundry. But, we ate well.

This year, we’re rolling out new items in the bakery to pay homage to a food tradition that’s overlooked more often than a four-leaf clover. In our Cheese department, you’ll also find a great price on Dubliner cheese (actually made in Cork…), a sharp-sweet cousin to cheddar with a uniquely crystalline texture. It’s a great choice to pair with one of the rich breads from our bakery and a warm glass of whiskey as we all watch the long-awaited spring roll in. Here’s what’s in store:

Barmbrack or Tea Brack
The only food I know that has been featured in the works of both James Joyce and Van Morrison, and been pressed into service at Halloween as a fortune-telling instrument. These splashy attributes aside, this is a soul-satisfying marriage of cake and bread spiked with tea-soaked fruit. Like many Irish sweet breads, this is dense, rich and moist and shouldn’t stale quickly. Should that happen, though, it (along with the bread to follow) would make a spectacular bread pudding with caramel sauce and ice cream. A recipe workable for both will wrap up the article.

Porter Cake
The icon now known as Guinness stout began life as “porter.” This cake uses stout to create a rich, yeasty caramel in which dried fruit is stewed before baking into a lightly spiced cake that, like soup, is actually best when not eaten fresh, but rather sealed into a tin for a couple of days after cooling from the oven. This cake is known to have fallen off in availability in Ireland these days, perhaps owing to the desire not to pour perfectly good beer into a pot on the stove. We’ll save you that heartache and deliver the finished product.

Soda Bread
Soda bread will always hold a soft spot in my heart, a superlative rendition being my main memory of my childhood landlady in Cambridge, MA. She was given to fits of temper and delusion not infrequently, but her soda bread cured all. The plainest and best-known of our St. Pat’s foods outside corned beef and cabbage, this one should be eaten soon after baking so as not to lose the crisp, biscuitish crust that sets off the buttermilk tang so well.

Hope to see you all in the store as the ground, window dressing and clothing (but please, not the beer) begin to green up.

Bread pudding
Here’s the bread pudding recipe for your leftovers:

  • 12 thick slices barmbrack or porter cake
  • 1 Tbs. ground nutmeg
  • 2 2/3 c. light cream or half-and-half
  • 2 2/3 c. whole milk
  • 6 eggs, beaten
  • 3/4 c. brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 3 Tbs. soft butter (Irish, if you have it)

Directions: Generously butter a glass pie tin or 9 x 9 baking dish and generously butter the slices of barmbrack or porter cake. Layer buttered bread in the dish, sprinkling nutmeg between the layers. Heat cream and milk gently in a saucepan for 2-3 minutes, then whisk in egg, vanilla and brown sugar. Pour warm custard over the layered bread, cover after cooling and refrigerate overnight. Preheat oven to 300ºF and place pie tin into a baking dish filled halfway with warm water. Bake 40-45 minutes or until pudding is firm and brown. Serve warm with:

Caramel Sauce

  • 1 c. brown sugar
  • 1/2 c. cream or half and half
  • 4 Tbs. butter
  • pinch salt
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract or Irish whiskey

Directions: Mix the brown sugar, cream, butter and salt in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook, whisking gently, for 5 to 8 minutes or until mixture thickens. Add the vanilla or whiskey and cook another minute to thicken further. Can be stored refrigerated, but best served immediately.

Slainte mhaith.

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