Food and friendship go hand in hand – they give us a chance to savour food and savour life
Time with friends is a treasure. Time with friends who are ordinarily busy with very demanding careers and who have very little downtime is like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. This analogy seems completely apt in the case of me getting to spend time with my dear friend Donna McElligott.
Donna has worked for the CBC for almost 30 years, travelled to all seven continents, lived in Moscow, Beijing, Inuvik and served as a parliamentary correspondent in Ottawa. I’m getting to spend more time with my friend this year because she’s on sabbatical from her post as host of Alberta at Noon. She’s taking time with her family and most of all, time with her octogenarian mother, Mrs. Sheila McElligott. Enter Irish Soda Bread.
Donna promised me a cooking lesson with her mother so I could learn to make this classic Irish staple. Anytime I get to learn a heritage cooking skill from someone whose looking to pass it on to the next generation I feel I’ve hit the mother lode of gold. And forget the need for lucky charms; every time I’m in a room with Mrs. McElligott I’m completely enchanted listening to the lilt of her beautiful Irish accent.
We spent a sunny afternoon baking in Donna’s recently renovated (read: not quite finished – stuff everywhere – Did I mention what a genuine and unpretentious person Donna is?) kitchen right around St. Paddy’s day. I got to savour food and savour life with my two favourite Irish women. The warmth of the sun pouring through the windows was only matched by the shared cups of tea, the story telling and my joy in watching the uncanny similarities in expressions and gestures of this loving mother and daughter duo. I loved copying recipes from the old tattered and faded scraps of paper straight from Mrs. McElligott’s recipe box. It’s a gift to learn a few of her family’s favourite recipes directly from this beloved mentor.
Forget the pot of gold actually. I’ll take a pot of tea and the gift of real friendship over fairy tales any day. Especially if that pot of tea comes with some sweet little scones and Mrs. McElligott’s Irish Soda Bread. It is my great pleasure to share these real life treasures with you in hopes they help you savour your food and your life a little more. Forget luck, may the skill of this sweet Irish woman be with you as you make her recipes.
Mrs. McElligott’s Irish Soda Bread
Notes to the Cook
This is not yeast bread. This is what is known as a quick bread. The soda is doing the work of the yeast to give the wheat some levity but it is a much denser crumb and not the pretty smooth crust you might be used to. The trick here is to try and add some air to the flour by tossing it gently with your fingers before you add any wet ingredients. The tossing also mixes the soda and salt throughout. Once you add the wet, you have to distribute them but disturb the mixture as little as possible. It’s like making muffins. The more you stir, the tougher they will become. Kneading is also a gentle thing. You aren’t trying to develop gluten strands; you are really just lightly forming the shape.
My advice: watch this great video before you try this at home folks.
2 c whole-wheat flour (organic and freshly milled if possible)
1 c unbleached flour (organic and freshly milled if possible)
1 ½ t salt
1 ½ t baking soda
1t cream of tartar
About 1 ½ – 2 cups of buttermilk
1. Preheat the oven to 375°F
2. Sift the flour into a bowl
3. Add the salt, baking soda and cream of tartar.
4. Lift the flour and let it flow back through your fingers, tossing it about 15 times to make it feel light and airy
5. Make a hole in the middle of the flour
6. Add one cup of the buttermilk and begin stirring it in judging how much more you need as you stir and aiming for fairly wet looking dough
7. Use fingers to gather all flour in and gently knead the dough ball in the bowl
8. Transfer the dough to a buttered and floured cooking pot like a LeCreuset Dutch oven
9. Use a sharp knife to score the top of the bread with a cross shape (maybe this is good for Easter after all)
10. Bake at 375°F for 45 minutes.
11. Best served with Irish stew (of course)
Mrs. McElligott’s Currant Scones
Notes to the Cook
These are so delicious and easy it’s silly. That is, it’s silly not to make them more often.
1/3 c currants
1 c boiling water
2 c unbleached flour
5t baking powder
¼ t salt
1/3 c butter, cold and cut into small pieces
1 c milk
1. Preheat the oven to 425°F
2. Soak the currants in the boiled water for a few minutes while you gather your ingredients and then drain them and pat them dry.
3. Combine the dry ingredients
4. Cut butter into the dry ingredients with a pastry blender
5. Pour milk over the dry ingredients and gather the dough together with your fingers
6. Place the dough on a floured board and knead it five or six times
7. Pat the dough out till it is a ¾ inch thick disc.
8. Cut out scones with a glass that has the diameter of the scones you’d like to eat.
9. Place the circles of dough on parchment paper lined or buttered and floured baking sheet
10. Brush tops with milk and sprinkle with a little sugar.
11. Bake at 425°F for 15 – 18 minutes or until golden
12. Serve with some clotted cream or butter and preserves and fresh pot of tea.