Hello from China! We’re in Shangri-La at the moment, up in the mountains near the Tibetan border. Its incredibly beautiful, but absolutely freezing. I’m wearing 7 layers of clothes, and my fingers are still freezing as I type. I don’t know how i’m going to cope when we hit Mongolia and Russia!
There’s one thing we really miss when we’re travelling this part of the world, and that’s good bread. Back in Hong Kong we did ok. In general the bread is sweet and soft, but in the expat populated areas you find bakeries and cafes selling delicious fresh loaves of bread. Out here in China, however, this sadly isn’t the case. Travelling through a former French colonies of South East Asia we were lucky and tucked into delicious crusty baguettes, a legacy of the former empire. Here though, sliced, sweet white bread is about as good as it gets. Every morning hostel breakfasts run along a similar lines; two eggs, omletted or fried, and a slice of this bread, claiming to be toasted but really just warmed up a bit. Finding somewhere that makes their own fresh bread is like finding the Holy Grail.
I usually avoid bread choices, opting for porridge, steaming bowls of noodles or fluffy buns cooked road-side, stacked high in metal towers.However good the noodles though, I still find myself craving a decent loaf. Soda bread is my most recent bread love. Just before we left Hong Kong I made so many of these loaves in an attempt to use up all the flour I’d been hoarding. I think I must have some subconscious fear of being without flour, I had bags and bags sat on my shelves. Does anyone else do that?
Soda bread uses bicarbonate of soda, rather than yeast, as its leavening agent. This means no proofing is needed, the bread goes from flour to loaf in only 30 minutes. Perfect for those emergency bread situations when only fresh bread will do. You stir together the flours, add in salt and bicarbonate, stir in the buttermilk and knead into a rough ball and put into a hot oven. I always substitute buttermilk for milk mixed with a teaspoon of vinegar about five minutes before I need it. It’s cheaper than buying buttermilk, far easier to find in the shops, and works just as well.
The texture is a little different to a yeasted loaf, slightly thicker and heavier, yet not at all doughy. The crust is my favourite part. It’s beautifully thick and crunchy, and absolutely perfect fresh out of the oven slathered in salted butter. The smell that will fill your house as this bakes is incredible. You’ll find it so very hard to resist ripping into the loaf as soon as its out of the oven; I never can. Its dense texture makes it wonderful dunked in soup, it holds onto all the flavour without falling apart.
My friend Finn will tell me this isn’t proper soda bread at all, that proper soda bread should be made solely with white flour, that it should be cut into thick, hearty triangles, smothered with butter and filled with bacon the morning after a few too many glasses of wine. If you’d rather have a white loaf, simply substitue the wholemeal flour for an equal amount of white flour.
(adapted from James Martin)
(Makes 1 loaf, serving 4 – 6 people)
170g strong wholemeal flour
170g plain white flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
Preheat the oven to 200C/ 180 fan / 400F.
Weigh the flours, bicarbonate and salt into a large bowl.
Make a well in the centre and stir in the buttermilk. Mix with a wooden spoon until starting together, then continue with your hands until you have a slightly sticky, but not wet, dough. If the dough won’t come together, add a little milk until it does. I used about a tablespoon.
Turn onto a floured surface and briefly knead until the dough has all come together in a smoothish ball.
Shape into a round and place onto a baking tray.
Slash across vertically and horizontally with a knife.
Bake for about 30 minutes until the crust is golden, and the bottom of the loaf sounds hollow when tapped.