Tasting Irish baking traditions in Belfast and beyond, with sweet tray bakes, potato farls, rustic brown wheaten and Irish soda bread — and recipes, too!
Words and photos
By CINDA CHAVICH
“Bakers: On your mark, get set, bake!”
And so my weekly, vicarious baking fix begins — channeling my great, great Irish grandfather, a baker, through the trials of home bakers, competing on British (and now Canadian) TV.
I’m an accomplished cook but I must have missed out on that baking gene. Luckily there are several great artisan bakers where I live, and a perfect baguette, a loaf of chewy sourdough or a flaky croissant is always close at hand.
But today I’m in Bronagh Duffin’s colourful kitchen, in her little cooking school on the edge of Lough Neah in Northern Ireland, and we’re making that simple Irish staple, soda bread.
It’s her granny’s recipe, with just four ingredients, and so quick and easy to bake, it’s literally child’s play — and one of the breads Duffin teaches both kids and adults to bake here. We dump the flour into a bowl with the baking soda and salt, then add just enough buttermilk to create a soft dough that's formed into a round loaf. It’s set on a baking sheet and scored into quarters — just partway through “to let the fairies out” — then baked.
Thirty minutes later we’re tearing into a warm, golden loaf, as simple and satisfying today as it was when baked on a griddle over an open fire in centuries past.
In Northern Ireland, says Duffin, home baking is a tradition that’s offered comfort to many through troubled times.
“Growing up in the 80s, with The Troubles, life was quite difficult”, she says recalling Northern Ireland’s long civil war. “Food was a healing thing — it offered some comfort and brought people together.”
Now Ireland has peace, but fresh bread — from flat, griddled potato bread and malty, rustic wheaten to massive baps and sourdough to slather in good Irish butter — is something I encounter with nearly every meal in my travels through Belfast and up along the rugged northern coast.
FARLS, POTATO BREAD AND BAPS
St. George’s Market in Belfast is the place to head for breakfast and the famous Belfast Bap.
The bap itself is a big, dense, bulbous bun — originally created to feed a hungry populous in the 19th century — and at The Belfast Bap Co. quelling hunger is a given, the bap split, toasted and piled high with Irish bacon and sausage, then crowned with a fried organic egg. A long queue snakes beyond the griddle at busy market stall, where each giant breakfast sandwich is cooked to order.
Said to be the classic hangover cure, the Belfast Bap is a Sunday tradition.
But there are other fresh, local breads on offer at this historic food market, tables piled with sweet and savoury cheese scones, boxy loaves of dark wheaten bread, and triangular potato breads and soda farls, thick griddle breads to split and serve with Irish cheese.
Even the famous dark Irish stout, Guinness, makes an appearance in simple soda breads.
I’m smitten by the little individual muffins of Guinness Wheaten in the breadbasket at the excellent James St. South restaurant in Belfast, too. I didn’t get a chance to meet the legendary chef Niall McKenna, but he also has a cookery school at James St. South and is generous (see his recipe below).
“There is nothing like bread-making to take the stress out of the daily grind and our bread class at the cookery school is one of the most popular on the schedule,” McKenna told the Irish News. “Customers always talk about the nature of daily bread-baking being a dying art but we are lucky to be able to sustain the making of bread and also share the pleasure of a wonderful array of flavours with our customers.”
Though yeasted breads and sourdoughs require time and skill, simple soda breads deliver solid returns, with minimal investment. Like Duffin’s basic soda bread, these are quick breads, raised with baking soda and easy to whip together at home.
A SERIOUS SWEET TOOTH
The other side of Irish baking is sweets, the kind of homemade squares (the Irish call them “tray bakes”) that your mother or grandmother might have made.
They’re waiting for me as a welcome nosh in my room at the modern Ten Square Hotel in Belfast, little squares of layered chocolate and creamy green mint that would rival our Nanaimo Bar, and the quintessential Belfast treat, Fifteens. I’ve read about this homey local snack — a combination of crushed digestive biscuits, candied cherries, chopped marshmallows (fifteen of each), mixed with sweet condensed milk and rolled in coconut.
And though it’s incredibly sweet, it does offer a taste of childhood comforts in a simple slice.
I find Fifteens, and other squares (think Rocky Road, Jammy Blondies, and Malteaser Squares) at Jam and Olly’s stall in St. George’s market, and wherever I stop for coffee or tea.
Yellowman or honeycomb is another Irish sweet, that fluffy, crispy candy made with melted sugar, syrup and baking soda that we know as sponge toffee (or the centre of a Crunchie bar).
Some Belfast bartenders even like to add honeycomb to cocktails (there’s one featuring local Jawbox gin with ginger ale), and at St. James South my sticky toffee pudding is layered in a sundae glass with ice cream and crispy chunks of honeycomb candy, a warm, cool, crunchy revelation.
Back at home, I’m inspired to revive my family tradition of home-baked quick breads and simple squares.
Brownies were the first thing I learned to bake as a kid, and maybe it was the Irish in us that channeled a love of other easy sweets — the puffed wheat squares, Matrimonial Bars and the gooey chocolate chip and coconut Hello Dolly squares that came out of my mother’s kitchen.
Like the treats I encountered in Ireland, they’re just as easy to whip together today, and offer a similar hit of nostalgia. Perhaps that’s why this kind of old-fashioned home baking is still a staple of Canadian coffee shops and bakeries, too.
The Great British Bake Off celebrates British culture, and is credited with the resurgence in home baking in that country. Along with my recent food explorations in Northern Ireland, it certainly offers me a reason to dust off the baking pans.
I won’t be winning any television bake-offs but I’m celebrating my Irish baking roots along with St. Patrick’s season this year. Sláinte!
GRANNY SUSAN’S SODA BREAD
At Bronagh Duffin’s BakeHouse Cookery School, her Granny Susan’s Soda Bread is a favourite recipe. If you don’t have buttermilk on hand, just add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to fresh milk and it will be perfectly acidic enough to react with the baking soda.
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
200 mL (3/4 cup) buttermilk
In a bowl, combine the flour, salt and soda. Stir in 2/3 of the buttermilk and stir until you have a “shaggy” mixture. Add more buttermilk, kneading the dough in the bowl, to form a soft dough.
Form into a ball and set on a baking sheet that’s been lined with parchment paper. Using a sharp knife, slash a cross into the top of the bread (“to let the fairies out”), then bake in a preheated 230 C oven for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 200 C and bake 20-30 minutes longer, until loaf is golden brown.
Chef Niall McKenna of James Street South restaurant in Belfast makes individual breads, like little miniature muffins, and serves it with fresh Abernethy Butter. This sweet, malty, dark bread could even stand in for dessert with a dram.
600g wholemeal all-purpose flour (5 cups)
150g white all-purpose flour (1 ¼ cup)
75g oatmeal (3/4 cup)
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
2 ½ tablespoons brown sugar
40g unsalted butter (3 Tbsp)
480 ml milk (2 cups)
200 ml black treacle (4/5 cup or 7 fluid ounces) - see note below
½ pint draught Guinness (1 cup)
Preheat the oven to 170C (350 F). Place all the dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl. Add the butter and rub into the dry ingredients until it resembles fine breadcrumbs – I recommend working quickly as the mixture can easily become greasy if over mixed, or if it is mixed using hands that are too warm. Add the milk, black treacle and the Guinness. Mix to create a wet dough.
Lightly grease individual 200g tins (small loaf pans) with butter. Add the wet dough and bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes or until the bread is well risen and cooked through. Leave for 10 minutes in the tin, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool. Eat while slightly warm, if you like. Delicious with salty butter and Irish smoked salmon, cold meats or cheeses.
NOTE: Treacle is a dark brown syrup made with carmelized cane sugar., with a sweet and slightly bitter flavour. You can substitute light molasses or a mixture of dark molasses and golden syrup for a similar flavour and colour, as straight dark molasses are too intense.
This flat griddle bread is made with mashed potatoes and served with eggs for breakfast, with cheese or soup for lunch, or simply warm with butter. Try farls instead of naan bread with curry, or as a base for Eggs Benedict. Nothing could be easier or more delicious, and a perfect way to recycle your leftover mash.
1 pound of floury potatoes (i.e. Russet)
3 Tbsp melted butter
¼-1/3 cup flour
½ tsp baking powder
salt and pepper to taste
chopped chives (optional)
In a large pot of boiling, salted water, boil the potatoes until tender. Drain well and return to pot, over heat, to dry the potatoes for a minute. Mash or put through a ricer and stir in the melted butter.
Combine the flour and baking powder, and add to the potatoes. Mix to form a soft (but not sticky) dough. If it's too wet, add a little more flour, if too dry, stir in a splash of milk. Season with salt and pepper to taste (and add optional chopped chives).
Divide the dough in half and form each piece into a ball. Roll the ball into a thick round, about ¼-1/2 inch thick, on a floured surface, and cut into quarters.
Heat a large griddle or heavy pan over medium high heat. Brush the pan lightly with a butter and cook the farls for about 3-4 minutes per side, until golden brown and baked through.
Makes 8 pieces.
You won’t find this no-bake sweet anywhere outside Northern Ireland. Its an oddball mixture of supermarket ingredients, but a comforting and weirdly addictive sum of its gooey parts! Unbaked and easy — try it!
15 digestive biscuits
15 marshmallows, chopped
15 glacé cherries, halved
200 mL can sweetened condensed milk (approximately, as depends on the size/brand of biscuits)
½ cup shredded coconut
Put the digestive biscuits into a food processor and whirl to crush (or crush them in a plastic bag with a rolling pin).
Combine with the marshmallows, cherries and just enough of the condensed milk to make a sticky dough. You may only need 15 mL but add more if the mixture seems dry.
Pat into an oblong pan that’s been lined with parchment or cling wrap and dusted with half of the coconut, then top with remaining coconut. Chill overnight and cut into 15 squares to serve.
Alternatively, spread most of the coconut onto a piece of plastic wrap or foil, spoon the mixture over top, dust with remaining coconut, and roll up into a log. Chill and cut into 15 slices to serve.
MINT CHOCOLATE BARS
This is the Irish answer to the Nanaimo Bar — a nutty chocolate coconut crust with a layer of minty green custard in the middle, and a chocolate ganache topping.
A perfect sweet square for tea.
1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup sugar
6 Tbsp cocoa
one beaten egg
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/2 cup fine or medium unsweetened coconut
1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts
1 1/2 cups icing sugar
¼ cup flour
2/3 cup milk
3 Tbsp cream
1/3 cup butter, room temperature, cubed
green food colouring (paste or gel)
.5-1 tsp peppermint extract, to taste
1 cup dark chocolate pieces (55-70 per cent cocoa solids)
1 Tbsp butter
For the base, in a double boiler, combine the butter, sugar and cocoa over medium heat and stir until butter is melted. Whisk in the egg and continue stirring, until mixture is thick, about 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the cookie crumbs, coconut and walnuts. Press into an 8X8-inch pan.
For the mint layer, combine sugar and flour in a saucepan. Whisk in the milk and cream and heat to just below boiling, stirring constantly until thickened enough to coat the back o a spoon.
Pour into a bowl and whisk to cool fully, then whisk in the butter, one piece at a time. Add a drop or two of colouring to give the custard a bright green colour, and add the peppermint extract to taste. Spread the filling evenly over the base and refrigerate for 1-2 hours, until firm.
Meanwhile, melt the chocolate with the butter over low heat, stirring just until the chocolate is melted. Spread evenly over the chilled mint layer and return to the refrigerator until set. Remove from the refrigerator for 10 minutes before cutting into small squares or bars with a sharp knife.
This feature won a Travel Media Association of Canada writing award and was originally published in EAT magazine