Sunday, 18 March 2012

St. Patrick's Day Weekend, Part I: Sláinte!

"Traditional" Irish Soda Bread, recipe in the second half of this post
At the tail-end of my short spring break in Michigan, I went to one of my favourite grocery locations: Holiday Market in  Royal Oak, not too far from the highway. Of all the diverse variety packed into the seemingly small space, it's the cheese selection that I am most impressed by and in which I am certain to find my favourite cheese (comté). And so, I purchased a bit of comté, as well as raclette; in addition, I also picked up Irish Tipperary cheddar (the fromagière's favourite among the Irish cheeses available). [As a side note/reminder, I've before used a similar cheese, Dubliner.] With Irish cheese (then) soon to be en route back to campus, I was even more excited to cook an Irish-themed meal. And what better day to do so than St. Patrick's Day? Eventually, I went with the idea of claiming a foodie experience and celebrating St. Patrick's Day throughout the entire weekend (though, really, it could be celebrated any day of the week). For this first part of the weekend, I decided on focusing more on the drinking theme of St. Patrick's Day, in which case my Gaelic phrase for the day was aptly "Sláinte!"

When I think of St. Patrick's Day, my immediate thoughts go first to the fact I get to wear out my arguably obsessive green attire, and then to McDonald's Shamrock Shake which, until I did some research for this post, I didn't know/realise had not been available at all locations until this year. In my recent voyages over to the nearby location of Whit's (here in Granville), I had noticed the signage for their own mint shake before but each time purchased my ever faithful grasshopper Whitser. Though Whit's doesn't claim to have their own take on the Shamrock Shake, I nevertheless read it as such and didn't want to taint my own image for the McDonald's favourite. This time around, however, yesterday seemed like the perfect time to finally get out of my apartment, enjoy the extremely great weather and test both shakes. A quick car ride over to Newark, I went to the McDonald's and quickly noted that, at least in terms of appearance, this was not the Shamrock Shake I remembered in the past. Served in a clear, plastic cup, the shake was topped off with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry. Sure, I suppose points could be given for presentation but what exactly is the point of the cherry on top? I love the shake for its minty flavour and green look; call my picky, but it looked like a Christmas treat. And against the thick shake, the cherry wasn't even trying to alter the flavour profile.

Maraschino cherry aside, one sip from the Shamrock Shake and I was clearly reminded of the nostalgia associated with it. Having a Shamrock Shake in March has become a ritual for me, a clear sign that spring is here, but I don't think it was until middle school if not high school when I realised the fact it was only available these four-ish weeks of the year. Along with my shake, I also got a small order of fries (a much better serving than the XS available in kids' meals) and if I got the plain hamburger that finishes off this trifecta, I wouldn't have room for the food still to come (and even still this proved to be a bit of a challenge). After finishing up my fries and still with about half my medium shake left, I headed for a quick stop to the local grocery store in town and picked up some hard cider (because, though it's St. Patrick's Day, beer has not agreed with my palate) and a quart of buttermilk for the soda [get it?] bread I planned to make later in the evening.

After dropping off these two items, I walked into the village and decided to go with the Broadway Pub for dinner. And as the evening drew closer to Granville's apparently first pub crawl, Granville certainly looked more and more green. Keeping in line with the drinking theme (if you haven't figured it out by now, "Sláinte!" [pronounced in a variety of ways but most often "slawn-cha"] is Gaelic for "Cheers!"), I ordered a glass of Irish whiskey (neat; and Jameson, of course); and since I was aiming for the Irish theme for just liquid states, I tried out one of the Broadway Pub's newest menu offerings, jambalaya. As the day approaches when I finally head south for this year's NAES conference in New Orleans, I can't help but have a higher affinity (as well as higher expectations) for such southern comfort food.

Unfortunately, though good-tasting, I can't honestly say this particular serving met my expectations. I'm sure there are many ways of making jambalaya, but I don't recall it ever being as soupy as this particular serving was. And if this was the case, one thing I immediately felt I was missing was a huge chunk of bread to sop up the otherwise great sauce. Across the spectrum, I'd place this jambalaya closer to the Italian risotto style than the Spanish paella preparation. That being said, the jambalaya was served piping hot and the proteins (andouille, chicken and shrimp) were cooked rather well. In addition to the temperature heat, the spice heat was at the level I had expected (and helped out by the great andouille sausage) and complemented the similar burn from the whiskey. On a side note, I should note I found a renegade piece of bleu cheese and the fact the jambalaya was topped with cheese threw me off a bit.

As I ate, I quickly became full again (again, good thing I didn't get that hamburger) but made sure to save room for dessert. And so the waitress packed up my leftovers (the wait staff has consistently been great each time I've visited) and I went a few doors down to Whit's to get a mint shake for my comparison tasting. In addition to their custard base goes some milk and the mint syrup; just like their Whitsers, everything is blended together and served in a cup. In contrast to the Shamrock Shake, Whit's shakes are thicker because of that frozen custard but for some reason tend to melt quicker (undoubtedly the general heat throughout the day didn't help in this observation). And again, I must just have higher nostalgic expectations, but the mint flavour definitely isn't prominent in the Whit's mint shake than it is in the McDonald's Shamrock Shake. Nevertheless, both are great in their own right but in this unofficial taste test, McDonald's is still my clear favourite among the mint-based (non-alcoholic) drinks. If you think there's something better, do let me know in the comments section below!

Back in my apartment, I confirmed my decision to attempt traditional Irish soda bread and make use of the buttermilk I had earlier purchased. When I previously typed in soda bread recipes, I received such hits as this, this and this. And then, I happened to click on this link, home of the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread. This group is so serious that on its main page, clear descriptions about this Irish tradition are available, principally separating the bread from its much more cake-like counterparts (the aforementioned links of which happen to be culprits). In sum, Irish soda bread at its core should and does only contain four ingredients: flour, baking soda, salt and buttermilk. For last night's preparation, I made white soda bread (I actually had to go back for a quick run to the grocery store because I didn't have any baking soda to my name; how in the world could you make soda bread without the baking soda?!). Before even getting to the recipe, the Society suggests that the best flour to use for soda bread recipes are "soft" flours. Here in the States, this would mean cake flour. Since I don't typically store cake flour and because I know cake flour is typically sifted about 27 times to achieve its relatively light consistency, I took out my grinder/chopper/mixer gizmo and pulsed the flour in smaller 1/2-1 c batches. In between these batches, I took the time to sift and double sift the flour until I had the 4 c claimed for this particular preparation. [I should also note I preheated my oven to 425°F and took out one of the baking racks, bringing the sole rack to the lowest level of the oven.] Either I lost count, or the slight grinding down of the flour plus the regular sifting actually worked (in the photo above with the two spoons, the ground flour is on the left one), but in the end I believe I actually only ended up using 3 1/2 c all-purpose flour (yet when measured came out to 4 c). If nothing else, seeing that similar recipes such as this one just call for the 3 1/2 c all-purpose flour, I was perfectly happy with taking the time to mess with the flour. [Next time around, I'll stick to either 3 1/2 c all-purpose or 4 c cake flour.]

In addition to this back-and-forth business with the flour, I also sifted in 1 level tsp each baking soda and salt. Once thoroughly combined, I poured in 14 oz of buttermilk (=1.75 c) and used a wooden spoon to mix everything together. As I mixed the ingredients together, I noticed really quickly how sticky of a batter this would turn out to be. It clearly became gluten-heavy, but it wasn't coming together as typical yeast-based preparation have in the past.

Perhaps I needed the other 1/2 c of missing all-purpose flour, perhaps not; I went with the batter as it stood and onto my lightly floured board I scraped out the dough and quickly kneaded it by hand. (Note: flour the board before you touch the batter.) Make sure not to over-knead the dough; not only will it mess with the bubbles and chemical reaction taking place between the baking soda and the buttermilk (don't forget that the common buttermilk substitution is regular milk and white vinegar), but I tell you now the dough is so sticky that without additional flour it's not going to settle down to the point where I doesn't stick to your hands. Knowing this now, the point of kneading the dough for this preparation is to make sure it's at least compacted and shaped into a round, pseudo-flat disk. Get this disk onto a baking dish or sheet lightly greased with canola oil and lightly floured. Though a rather wet dough, remain confident that it will hold its overall shape which should be about the size of a standard mixing bowl.

As also described in the Society's recipe, I cut a cross onto the top of the bread. Noted at European Cuisine's website, this transforms the traditional soda bread into a "cake." In practical terms, doing so allows "the bread stretch and expand as it rises in the oven". To replicate the traditional Irish cast iron cooking vessel known as a bastible pot, cover the bread with a metal bowl (though not a traditional rationale as to its final shape but more so as a practical reason for this purposes of this preparation, this is why the bread is shaped to be the size of a standard mixing bowl) and get this this entire lot into the oven (again, this is why I earlier transferred the baking rack to the lower level and took out the second baking rack; my oven is so small that this set-up wouldn't fit if I hadn't done the aforementioned).

By the time the bread has had half an hour baking time in the oven, your kitchen should smell even more amazing than before you started. Carefully take off the metal bowl (I used a kitchen towel and an icing spatula to help pry and lift off the bowl) and let the top of the bread brown by continuing to bake the bread for 15 more minutes. At that point, do a quick tap on the top of the bread; if it sounds tough, you're most likely there. To confirm the bread is ready, carefully lift up the bread and knock on its underside. If it sounds hollow, you're good to go.

If you can help it, let the bread cool slightly before cutting into it. And when you're finished eating as much bread as you can, use the upside-down bowl to help prevent the bread from drying out. I wasn't too keen on the tea[/dish] rag or even paper towel with sprinkled water as described in the original recipe, and so I just used the bowl I had used earlier. I was hesitant to completely cover the bread with the bowl and so I put a bottle cap underneath the rim to let additional heat out.

Barring my arguably unnecessary flour procedure, this recipe was incredibly easy to follow and yielded a rather complex result. Upon smell alone, I knew it would be a great accompaniment to a meal and indeed it was, i.e., with some of my jambalaya leftovers. Though the bread was made up of only flour, baking soda, salt and buttermilk, I smelled sweet, nutty notes, almost like browned butter; one of my colleagues suggested (and I agree) it smelled somewhat like cornbread. In any case, the bread was great and confirmed my opinion that the bread was much needed with my earlier meal. I'll also note here that when tasted at a cooler temperature, the jambalaya tasted a bit too salty, the effect of which was cancelled out by both the bread and my cold glass of cider. Speaking of cider, and before I sign off for the night, I do want to share this link with you which may serve a later purpose at your next toasting engagement. For the rest of my photos from this first part of my St. Patrick's Day weekend, click here.

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