Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Ireland: Tea Brack and an Abrupt Change of Continent

I had never considered that one might powder a green mango, until I started cooking from Survir Saran's Indian Home Cooking. A typical recipe from it might call for a dozen exotic ingredients: ground, heated, and tempered to turn old potatoes into something startling.

Enchanted with these new spices, I have been cooking from this book for the past several months: paging through the possibilities, singling out the most promising with Post-Its, and venturing off to my local Indian grocery with lists of spices to try. The recipes are vibrant and (for me) complicated, setting me spinning through the kitchen, mincing, heating, mixing, and dicing faster than I ever did before – a sizzling cooking experience followed by eyeball-popping food.

So, today, when I opened for the first time Theodora Fitzgibbon's 1969 cookbook A Taste of Ireland, I was charmed by its simplicity. Except for the meats, I already have every ingredient on my shelf. The buttermilk scones are just buttermilk, flour, and baking soda. Every other page is a black-and-white photo of rural or urban Ireland in the late 1800s. It is a gray, rainy day in Boston, and I felt calm just reading it.

The potato is well-represented, of course. The recipe for "Chocolate Sandwich Cake" (based on mashed potatoes) got marked with a large Post-It note. But since it is so cold and rainy today, I had to bake some bread.

This is a wonderful, dense, sweet quick-bread, an unyeasted variation of the traditional Irish barm brack. It had quite a thick crumb, possibly because I used whole wheat flour, but that was fine with me. It felt like it should be a heavy bread: sturdy, sweet, and solid.

Makes 1 loaf, 8" x 4" x 3"

1 cup sultanas
1 cup raisins
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup tea or 1/2 cup tea and 1/2 cup Irish whiskey
1 1/3 cups flour
1 beaten egg
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg

Let the sultanas, raisins, brown sugar, and tea soak overnight.

The next day, preheat the oven to 300 degrees, and add the flour and eggs to the raisin mixture. Mix, then add the baking powder and spices. Pour into a greased pan (8" x 4" x 3") and bake about 90 minutes. Once it's cooled, brush the top with honey.

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