All over the northern hemisphere, spring is quickly arriving. New green growth is shooting up from the ground, birds are returning and the days are tentatively increasing.
In my corner of the world, however, there are 10 inches of freshly fallen snow adding to the several feet that came over the winter. The only way to walk around our property is with snow shoes and many layers of clothing. It was -3 degrees F when I woke up this morning! We’re a long way from spring.
This is always a tough time of year for me. My heart is desperately yearning for spring, but the reality of ice and snow is unrelenting. My cat, who has resisted going outside for all of winter is even starting to brave the snow and ice in search of sunshine. You know it’s bad when the cat has cabin fever!
I’ve tried many tricks over the years to combat spring fever. It helps to get outside and observe the small yet persistent changes happening around us. Tree buds are getting bigger and cracking open, phoebes will soon be returning to their nests and there is an unmistakable changing of the length and quality of light throughout the day.
Cooking comfort food and permeating the house with those familiar smells is another way to remember to stay present in the season. While I dream of wandering the wildflower-covered hillsides and singing “The hills are alive…,” I remind myself to continue to relish this season’s gifts.
The rich smell of freshly cooked bread can bring a sense of coziness to a home like nothing else can. To be entirely honest, I’ve long been intimidated by making my own yeast-risen breads. Instead, I’ve been making Irish soda bread for most of my adult life. This simple bread is easy, dense and delicious.
Irish Soda Bread
The Irish have been making soda bread since the 1840s when sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda, was introduced. This bread is made with the simplest of ingredients: flour, baking soda and soured milk or buttermilk, which reacts with the baking soda and causes it to rise.
My friend Kat lives in Ireland and she’s been visiting us for the past several days. She shared that her good friend, who learned how to make soda bread from her mother and grandmother, uses her hands in place of measuring cups. Kat watched her make soda bread one day and saw how her experienced hands measured out the flour, threw in pinches of baking soda and how she simply eyeballed how much buttermilk to use. Kat says she’s had many different loaves of soda bread made by her friend and, while it’s never the same, it’s always delicious.
She has also told me that she was visiting with an elder who was in his 80s and he was sharing about how in his youth soda bread was always cooked in cast iron skillets in the open hearth.
Many of us don’t have experience enough to forego measuring cups, so this soda bread recipe has specific measurements and, while it doesn’t require that you cook it in the hearth, it is nice to cook it in a cast iron pan. If you don’t have a cast iron pan, a cookie sheet also works.
…with a Twist
This soda bread recipe is a combination of cultures as it fuses my love of soda bread with a style of bread that I fell in love with in southern France.
A few years ago I was walking along the cobblestone streets of Aix-en-Provence when I came across a small artisan bakery. I was immediately captivated by their many traditional dense breads. I bought a loaf of fig fennel bread and, as soon as I bit into the aromatic and chewy crust, I knew this would be a lifetime favorite. The combination of the figs and fennel synergistically transforms into a deeper and richer flavor than they could achieve on their own.
Before we get to our soda bread recipe, let’s take a closer look at fennel.
The fennel plant is native to the Mediterranean but is naturalized across the world. It especially loves dry soils near the sea where it can grow in dense forests. The whole plant is wonderfully aromatic but we most often use the seeds in herbal medicine. The seeds are carminative, helping to move slow digestion and relieve sensations of bloating, fullness and tension. You can also simply enjoy fennel after meals to freshen your breath and to support healthy digestion.
Fennel has a slight licorice taste that some people love and some people hate. If fennel isn’t your favorite, you could try the following soda bread recipe with a couple of teaspoons of rosemary (I’d start with either 2 teaspoons fresh or 1 teaspoon dried).
Fig and Fennel Soda Bread
Sweet, chewy and crumbly in that quintessential soda bread way, this soda bread recipe marries the sweetness of figs with the aromatic and carminative loveliness of fennel seeds.
For the past year my husband and I have been perfecting this soda bread recipe to suit our tastes. We’ve slowly added in more whole wheat flour and oats to give it more fiber and even more density. We’ve also added some additional flavor with the rum-soaked figs. My friend Kat was graciously willing to try this soda bread and she said that, in addition to loving the flavor of the bread, the combination of the crystalized fig sweetness with the crunchy walnuts gives this bread an array of textures to enjoy.
We hope you relish this cozy bread as much as we do. Try a slice with a cup of herbal tea, as a simple dessert, or dry out some slices to use for French toast (we like it with rose petal honey drizzled on top).
What you’ll need…
- 3/4 cup sliced Black Mission figs (about 12 figs)
- 1/4 cup dark rum
- 3/4 cup whole wheat flour
- 1/2 cup oats
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 cup white flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 3/4 cup chopped walnuts
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 small egg
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Place the sliced figs into a small saucepan. Add the rum and heat on low. Once the rum is warm, turn off the heat. Let this sit while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
- In a medium bowl, mix together the dry ingredients: white flour, whole wheat flour, oats, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and fennel seeds.
- In a small bowl or glass measuring cup, mix together the wet ingredients: buttermilk, olive oil, and egg.
- Create a well in the dry ingredients. Add the wet ingredients and mix until just combined.
- Add the figs and walnuts and mix just until they are well dispersed through the dough.
- Place on a well-floured surface and shape into a small oval ball.
- Place on a cast iron pan. If desired, cut an X or cross into the bread.
- Bake for 40 to 50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
- Soda bread is most delicious fresh out of the oven. It does not keep well, and it’s best to eat it within 2 to 3 days.
- If you are gluten free, you can substitute a gluten-free flour blend (such as Bob’s Red Mill or Pamela’s) and gluten-free oats.
- If you are dairy free, you can use a milk substitute + 1 tablespoon of vinegar. The vinegar will react with the baking soda in a similar way to the buttermilk.
- In place of rum you could use any type of fruit juice or even water. It will give it a different taste, but as long as the dried figs are rehydrated it should work out just fine.
Now I’d love to hear from you.
Do you make your own version of Irish soda bread?
Do you ever use fennel as a remedy for digestion?
Let me know in the comments below.