Post #543 The Star of the Show

August 18, 2017 at 1:52 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Two days ago, I was making a pasta dinner.  It was cobbled together with ingredients I had on hand, but was loosely based on a recipe we saw on television the night before.  It was Mary Ann Esposito’s Classic Recipe that makes a tomato based sauce using pork ribs for meat base rather than beef.  We had country style pork ribs the night before with some left over.  They were slathered in barbeque sauce but that wouldn’t hurt the tomato sauce, only make it a trifle sweeter.

It worked out really well.  It’s incredibly easy.  You take a couple of cans of whole roma tomatoes and use your hands to break them apart.  Squishing them is easiest.  You put them in a large skillet with some olive oil, and some herbs, then nestle the ribs into the sauce and braise them until they’re tender.  Then you can do one of two things.  You can leave the ribs whole and eat them straight off the bones, or you can take them out and strip the meat off and put it back into the sauce.  Then you add whatever cooked pasta you like, toss some cheese on top, and eat well.

What I did was make the sauce following the guidelines above.  I added a good chunk of frozen tomato paste to make it thicker and a large sliced onion because we like them.  Then I put the leftover ribs into the sauce, laying them on top.  I put a lid on top of the skillet and set the heat on medium low so everything would cook slowly.  After about 45 minutes, I turned the rib over.  This served two purposes.  First, it allowed the ribs to heat from both sides and become very tender; second, it allowed the barbeque sauce from both side of the ribs to mingle with the sauce.  Once everything was heated through, I made the pasta, removed the ribs, stirred the cooked and drained pasta into the sauce, set everything on the table, and we tucked in to fill our stomachs.

However, as good as that was (and it was very good) it wasn’t the real star of the show.  Pasta is a carb heavy meal as the best of times.  But we both love to have bread with our pasta.  Mostly we like to have garlic bread.  But this night I decided to make Irish Soda Bread.  But I decided to cobble it together to make it unique and it turned out GREAT!!

So let’s talk about ISB for a moment.  ISB was a staple of the peasant diet along with potatoes.  It doesn’t use yeast to leaven it.  It uses baking soda, hence it’s name.  But to make the soda react and cause the gases to make the bread rise, there has to be an acid.  Remember when you used to mix baking soda and vinegar together and have fun the resultant explosion when you were a kid?  It’s something like that only on a baking scale.

So, the first thing you have to do is figure the right proportion of ingredients.  There’s usually just four:  Flour, soda, buttermilk, and salt.  The soda and the buttermilk provide the correct reaction.  The flour creates the bread, and the salt adds a little flavor.  However, traditional recipes add other flavor elements, usually sweeter ones.  I must have read a dozen recipes that added raisins.  Some of them added a little sugar.  A few used sour cream or plain yogurt for the acid.  One even mixed eggs and sour cream which wouldn’t give a traditional soda bread loaf, but I imagine would taste phenomenal.  So, since we don’t keep milk of any kind in the house (neither of us like it), I needed to figure out what I had and how to do this.  I think I came up with a reasonable compromise.

I wanted a smaller loaf, so I went with smaller proportions.  I wanted a tastier loaf, so I added a sweetener.  I originally considered lemon as my acid, but then decided to go with vinegar since I had more experience using vinegar in this kind of situation.  Turned out I only had balsamic vinegar, but thought, oh what the heck! and went for it.  (In case you’re wondering, vinegars are certainly not interchangeable so if a recipe calls for a specific vinegar, use it.  In this case, it worked out.)  So here’s what I ended up with:

  • 3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1 1/2 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar
  • 1/2 stick butter

I used the egg to add richness, and I used the butter to add flakiness.  First, preheat your oven to 375.  Part of the rising element is the oven temp, so it needs to be a little hotter.  The next time I bake this, I’m going to try 425 as some of the recipes suggest.  The oven needs to be completely heated before the bread goes in.  since it doesn’t use yeast, there’s no proving time so once it’s mixed it can go straight to the oven.  So it needs to be hot before you start.  (This is the concept of a quick bread.)  Put all your dry ingredients in a large bowl with steep sides and whisk them together thoroughly.  Cut the butter into the flour, then using a fork, a pastry knife, or your fingers, rub the butter into the flour until it looks like coarse crumbs.  Make a well in the center.  In a measuring cup, measure 1 1/2 cups cool water and add the vinegar.  Pour into the well, then add the egg.  You don’t want to beat the egg into the water and vinegar so it won’t curdle.  Immediately start mixing with a heavy wooden spoon.  Make sure to mix thoroughly.  The dough will be wet, and it will look brown from the vinegar.  I added another 1/2 cup of flour because it seemed too sticky, but that seemed to make it dense.  More on that later.  You can choose to add more or not.  It’s up to you.  Once all the flour is incorporated and there are no lumps, take the dough out of the bowl and shape it.  Since this is an artisan style loaf, you can shape it any way you like.  Traditionally, it’s shaped into a round loaf with no pan for support.  Also, to allow steam to escape and aid rising, you should cut a large X in the top.  I typically don’t because then the top will crack in unique and unusual patterns.  See the pic above.  But it can help.  I put it into a round tart pan with the removable bottom, but sprayed it well with vegetable spray to make certain it released from the pan.  Then it got baked for 45 minutes.

So, appearance-wise, it was a success.  I got a high rise out of it.  It almost doubled itself at the crown.  It got the wonderful cracks that are the hallmark of a good ISB.  But the proof is in the eating, and I had to wait for a couple of hours for it to cool off.  A lot of people think that warm (or hot) baked goods are best, and there are times when I’d agree.  Have you ever eaten a chocolate chip cookie five minutes from the oven?  Hot, and gooey, and melty, and buttery?  But remember what it does?  It falls apart.  The reason you have to let baked things cool is to allow the steam to dissipate preserving the inner structure so it won’t fall apart.

So, dinner that night, I cut half the loaf into thick slices and set on a plate.  Once everything was ready, we both reached for the bread and slathered butter thickly onto our slices.  I chewed mine, swallowed, and took another bite.

“Does this taste vaguely like banana bread, or pound cake to you?”

He replied, “It does, sort of.”

I thought about it.  “Well, this recipe did call for sugar.  I may reduce the amount for the next one.”

“It tastes good.  Not a dessert bread, but not a sandwich bread either.”

I chuckled.  “A tea time bread, then?”

He laughed too.  “Yeah, cuz we drink tea so much.”

Then it hit me.  “It’s the balsamic.”

“What balsamic?”

“We didn’t have any other vinegar so I used balsamic.  That’s why it looks so brown.  The egg and sugar with the rests of ingredients basically made a cake.  The balsamic added the flavor.”

And you know what?  It tasted good.  Better than good.  Happy accident!  Vinegars aren’t just sour stuff.  White distilled vinegar started as a cleaning agent, but can be used to leaven baked goods without adding flavor.  Apple cider vinegar adds the light flavor of apples.  Balsamic when it’s reduced loses all of the acidity of the vinegar and imparts an earthy, jam-like flavor.

So there you have it.  Follow that recipe and let me know what you think.

Oh, and just so you know, yesterday I made brownies again.  I did it right and these brownies are phenomenal!  I haven’t lost my touch.

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