- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Anyone who has traveled to Ireland will undoubtedly admit that one of the best reasons for getting out of bed in the morning is knowing that an Irish breakfast is waiting — an irresistible, throw-caution-to-the-wind plate of eggs, rashers (bacon), bangers (sausages), black and white puddings, grilled mushrooms, and tomatoes.

Sure, you can kid yourself by starting with fresh fruit and granola, but when the waiter arrives with the inevitable question, “Will you be having a cooked breakfast this morning?” you know the answer: “Well, why not? I’m on holiday.”

I actually judge the quality of my time in Ireland as much by the breakfasts and breads I enjoy as by the places I visit. So when March 17 rolls around, I try to recapture some of the flavor of an Irish morning and celebrate with a traditional Irish breakfast — or “fry,” as it was originally called — complete with authentic Irish pork products and homemade Irish breads.

Soda bread, either white or brown, is probably the best-known of all the types of Irish bread, although Irish cooks even use potatoes and Guinness in some recipes. Soda bread is made with buttermilk, and the acid in it reacts with the baking soda to make the bread rise. Originally, this bread was baked in a pot, which gave it a firm, moist texture.

Today there are as many variations and methods for baking it as there are counties in Ireland, but duplicating a brown soda bread recipe in the United States is often difficult because of the texture of our flour. A suitable remedy, I’ve found, is to add wheat bran to roughen the consistency of American whole-wheat flour, which is more finely milled than Irish.

You can also order coarse wholemeal Irish flour such as Odlums brand online (see below). If you add sultanas and a little sugar to white soda bread, it’s sometimes called “Spotted Dick”; and when you add caraway seeds, some cooks call it “Irish bread” or “Old Country cake.”

If you like the idea of wishing friends and family a “top o’ the morning” on Paddy’s Day, you can order authentic pork products and coarse whole-wheat flour from www.tommymoloneys.com, www.foodireland.com, or www.thejamestradinggroup.com. A do-ahead strata made with ham, asparagus and Kerrygold Irish cheeses is also a great addition, as is a frittata made with frozen potatoes O’Brien. Serve breakfast with a Black Velvet (equal parts of Guinness and Champagne) or another Irish libation, and you’ll be well-fortified to enjoy the balance of the day.

Brown soda bread

3 cups Irish whole wheat flour, or

1½ cups whole wheat flour and 1½ cups wheat bran

1 cup white flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 cups buttermilk or more

Softened butter for serving

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flours, salt and baking soda. Make a well in the center and add the buttermilk. Mix to make a soft dough. Add more buttermilk if the mixture seems too thick. Turn the mixture out onto a floured surface, and with floured hands, knead lightly.

Flatten the dough and shape it into a round. With a knife that has been dipped into flour, cut a cross on the top. Transfer the round to the prepared pan and bake for about 40 minutes, or until the bread sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Mary Degnan’s Irish bread

3 cups white flour

2/3 cup sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1½ cups golden raisins

3 teaspoons caraway seeds

2 large eggs, beaten

13/4 cups buttermilk

2 tablespoons melted butter

Softened butter for serving

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-inch round pan.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Stir in the raisins and caraway seeds. Make a well in the center and add the eggs, buttermilk and butter. Mix well.

Transfer the mixture to the prepared pan and bake for about 1 hour, or until the top is golden and a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Ham and cheese strata

This is adapted from an American Egg Board recipe.

2 tablespoons butter

1 small leek, washed and sliced

Salt and freshly ground pepper

14 to 16 slices French or Italian bread

½ cup (2 ounces) shredded Kerrygold Swiss cheese

½ cup (2 ounces) shredded Blarney cheese

8 ounces fresh asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 cup chopped cooked ham

6 large eggs

1 cup half-and-half

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

Lightly butter an 8-inch square casserole dish.

In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the leek and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until soft but not browned. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and set aside.

Layer half the bread into the prepared dish. Top with half the cheese, asparagus, ham, and leeks. Repeat the layers, seasoning in between with salt and pepper.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs until light and fluffy. Whisk in the half-and-half, mustard and parsley. Pour over the bread mixture, cover with plastic wrap and press down to let the bread absorb the liquid. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes, or refrigerate overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the plastic wrap.

Bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until the top is golden and the center is set. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Margaret M. Johnson, the author of five Irish cookbooks, is writing “Tea and Crumpets” for Chronicle Books.

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