Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Raisins, Rules and Irish Soda Bread

Raisins occupy two places in my world: the palm of my hand, from where they will be tossed into my mouth, and in bread. Raisins do not belong in cookies, cereal, cake, muffins or the like. I don’t know why I dig raisins in bread or by themselves but will summarily pick them out of a piece of carrot cake or avoid oatmeal-raisin cookies altogether.

This week’s Baking with Julia project is Irish soda bread. I love Irish soda bread with raisins, which, according to contributing baker Marion Cunningham, are not a traditional ingredient in Irish soda bread. Since the bread has only four other ingredients—flour, baking soda, salt and buttermilk, which were readily available in most Irish kitchens—I have to assume raisins were not staples in many Irish households. Okay. I’m Irish, and I’ll eat raisins only two ways, so I’ll buy that.

Prior to baking this bread, which was absolutely delicious and contained plump, juicy raisins, I hadn’t eaten Irish soda bread in probably 20 years. The last Irish soda bread I’d eaten was from a bakery in Woodlawn, a neighborhood in the Bronx.

I had been visiting a friend and passed the bakery on my way back to the subway station. The round loaves inside shouted out for me to get in there and buy one of them, which I promptly did. The girl behind the counter sliced it for me, and I watched as she swept the errant raisins into the plastic bread bag. I still had a few more blocks to get to the subway, and by the time I got on the train, I couldn’t help myself. I tore into that bread like someone who had not eaten for days. My fellow passengers looked on in mild disgust, and no one had the courage to sit beside me until we stopped at Grand Central Station. By the time the 4 train had delivered me to my Fulton Street stop in lower Manhattan, the bread was almost gone.

The BWJ loaf was consumed with a bit more restraint—and butter. This bread is so easy to make and so perfect for breakfast, I just may add this to my repertoire. Ms. Cunningham also says that because of “the wee bit of fat that’s in the buttermilk,” by day’s end the loaf will “turn as hard as the Blarney Stone.” My loaf lasted two full days. Luck of the Irish, I guess.

To see the Baking with Julia recipe for Irish soda bread, visit the blogs of Carla and Cathleen. Or, why not buy the book?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rugelach, How Do I Love Thee?

My husband, Dan, and I could not have more different culinary tastes. I think our different religious upbringings (his Jewish, mine Lutheran) have a lot to do with that.  That said, he has introduced me to some really incredible foods that, had I married a fellow Lutheran, I would never have experienced. Rugelach is among the things he brought into my life, and I can’t thank him enough for it.

Oddly, my favorite rugelach west of the Mississippi is the apple rugelach from Ralphs, the West Coast arm of the Midwestern Kroeger chain. Ralphs was featured in the opening scene of The Big Lebowski, when Jeff Bridges (as the Dude) shuffles through the supermarket clad in a ratty bathrobe and slippers in search of half-and-half, which he opens, drinks from then pays for with a check. The Ralphs rugelach is tender, flaky and sweet and pretty much anything one could want in a piece of rugelach. I sought to duplicate that with my rugelach. I came close with the taste, but not the presentation.

I substituted pears for apples. I found great chunky pear preserves at the Gelsons market in Northridge, days before it closed for good. These pear preserves are naturally sweet and contain no added sugar. Do you know how hard it is to find pear preserves, any preserves, really, without added sugar? It’s hard. I wish I could have photographed these pear rugelach, but, alas, while they were tasty, they were not pretty. I added a pinch of ground ginger to the filling, which was a pretty good idea, if I do say so myself.

The original recipe in Baking with Julia calls for either prune or apricot butter as the filling. I set up being picky in the first paragraph, so when I tell you I abide neither prune nor apricot, you cannot be surprised.

To see the recipe for rugelach, visit the blogs of Margaret and Jessica. Or, why not buy the book?