For a few weeks in the late winter or early spring, I inevitably begin cooking more simply, or more simply than I usually do, and turn my meat and potatoes-snubbing nose towards the flavors of home, or of home in the old country. It’s been nearly nine years now since I lived in Ireland, a place that some deep ancestral vein in me recognized as home from the first moment I stepped out for an exceptionally early morning run there, in the late summer of 2008. I rarely talk so much about my time in Ireland any longer, but on rare days I find myself especially longing for that feeling I recognized there immediately, that of truly having an origin and belonging to a place in a way that goes beyond this lifetime.
Rather than dwell on the past, I instead tend to celebrate the memories I have. And just when I especially long for spring, it comes, and I invite it in all the more because the earliest spring vegetables here are the exact same as from the Irish countryside and farms, what with nettles, watercress, overwintered cabbage, sprouting kale, parsnips, potatoes, and the like. And then of course, I bake brown bread.
I read recently that Myrtle Allen of the esteemed Ballymaloe House in County Cork once said, I was many years married before I first triumphantly put a really good brown soda loaf on the tea table. I smiled when I read it because Myrtle’s Brown Soda Bread recipe was the one I baked on repeat before making major dietary changes. And it just so happens that six years after I first began experimenting with a gluten and dairy-free version, and incidentally nearly six years married, I baked a really, really good loaf.
Gluten-Free + Vegan Brown Soda Bread
Brown bread is dense, craggy, and in the traditional recipes, contains no more than wholemeal flour, salt, baking soda, and buttermilk. It’s the best bread for afternoon tea, with thick vegetable-heavy chowders, or simply to provide some extra nourishment to your Irish-themed march meal(s). When I lived in Ireland, it’s the item I’d always order when out for a midday meal, along with whatever pureed vegetable soup was on for the day. If you choose to make this, know that I’ve begun baking almost exclusively by weight these days, which makes the flours a little more interchangeable, if you’ve a kitchen scale. Amaranth and/or teff provide a good dose of nutrition and hearty flavor while the millet and brown rice flours lighten it up a little. I milled my own millet flour from fresh, as it’s a grain that tends to go rancid fairly quickly, but feel free to substitute with store bought millet flour.
1 cup amaranth or teff flour (120 g)
1 cup millet (140 g), milled into a course flour
2/3 cup brown rice flour (110 g)
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp. xanthan gum
1 Tbs. ground flax seed + 3 Tbs. warm water
1 1/2 cups (350 ml) plain non-dairy milk
A splash of apple cider vinegar
- Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F and prepare a baking pan with a piece of parchment paper on top; set aside.
- Combine the ground flax with water to form a slurry, and then measure out the milk and add a splash of cider vinegar in a separate dish and allow it to thicken a little. Set aside.
- In a bowl, combine the dry ingredients.
- Pour the flax slurry and milk into the bowl with the flours, and then mix, stirring gently until the ingredients come together and form a ball (sticky but not too wet). Work quickly and do not overwork the dough as it will make the end result more dense.
- Flour your hands and work the dough gently to shape it into a round. Using a sharp knife or a pair of scissors, make a cross on top of the bread. (This as you may know, lets the fairies out). Transfer the round to the baking pan and bake for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees F and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the top of the bread is golden in color and a thermometer comes out at 190-200 degrees F.
- Let cool on a rack. Like all true soda breads, this bread is dense, and it’s best eaten within a day or so.