Posted by Tania Kindersley.
I have absolutely no talent for making risen breads. It is rather lovely to get to the age when you may admit frankly to your limitations. I am never going to get the trick of anything involving yeast, or kneading; for years all efforts have come out flat, and sad, and just plain wrong. It is clearly not a genetic thing: one of my most vivid childish memories is of my mother's glorious bread. There is a theory that it is to do with the temperature of your hands: hot for bread, cool for pastry. I can do pastry, so perhaps that is the answer. But whatever the reason, the lack of homemade bread in my house always made me a little melancholy. And then, one banner day, I discovered that what I do have the knack for is soda bread.
Soda bread is often seen, quite inexplicably, as the sad, mousy cousin of breads. It does not have the panache of the ciabatta, or the sophistication of the sourdough, or the international va va voom of the baguette. The commercial sort is always rather dry and disgusting. But made in your own kitchen, with a little love and care, it is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. It is also fabulously easy.
I have guests arriving today, and it has become tradition that a new loaf of soda bread is presented to visitors like an amulet. It is perfect with cheese, delightful with soup, and ambrosial toasted for breakfast with Marmite. And it is the ideal thing for a harried hostess, because it takes literally five minutes to make, half an hour to bake, and comes out perfect every time.
I have experimented for months to find the perfect version, and I think I have finally cracked it; the secret is slightly more white flour than you might think, and the addition of oatmeal, which came about by pure serendipity when I saw a new flour I liked the look of in my local shop.
My very own soda bread:
I do the amounts by sight. Just imagine the size of loaf you want, and use the corresponding amount of flour. I can't be bothered with weighing and measuring, and there is something satisfying about extemporising. So - into a large white mixing bowl put two thirds Doves Farm strong white bread flour, and one third fine oatmeal. I have discovered the most delicious oatmeal from a little place called Golspie Mill in the highlands of Scotland. You can get it in most good food shops, but if you have trouble just use a good strong wholemeal flour instead. Scatter over a large pinch of sea salt, a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda, and mix everything up. Add a tablespoon of natural yoghurt. This is important as it activates the raising ingredient. Then pour in enough water to make a lovely loose dough - not too sticky, but slightly on the wet side of firm, otherwise the bread will be too dry. I do this again by sight, just adding the water until I get the consistency I want. Flour your hands and then take the dough and shape it into a flat round loaf. Put it in a baking tin, dust with a little flour on top, make a deep cross in it with a knife, and bake at 180 degrees for half an hour. To see if it is ready, tap it on the bottom; a good hollow sound should greet you. It may need another five minutes. This is for a small or medium loaf; if you are making a very big one, it will take forty minutes to cook properly.
It is best hot from the oven. To keep it, wrap it in foil or clingfilm. Because there are absolutely no preservatives, it will not keep its freshness into a second day, but it will make delicious toast. The most fun, when you have visitors, is to get up early and make it before breakfast, so they come downstairs to the smell of baking bread. I know I am straying into dangerous domestic goddess territory here, but it really does make everyone very happy, most especially me.