Brown sugar (Recipe: Irish soda bread)
We have an elementary school science teacher in the family, so there is no excuse for the ignorance I am about to confess to you.
A few months ago, Ted and I found a jar of hard-as-a-rock brown sugar on the shelves of The Perfect Pantry. (This is not the embarrassing part. Well, okay, it is embarrassing, but not from a science point of view.)
How could we get that solid sugar out of the jar? Chip away at it with a knife? Dangerous. Melt it in the microwave? Hot sugar — very dangerous.
And then I remembered that there was something which, when placed in a jar of hardened sugar, would restore the sugar's moisture and fluffiness.
Eureka! I put a slice of whole wheat bread into the jar, sealed the top, and left it overnight. In the morning, the bread was hard as a rock, but the brown sugar was light and fluffy, completely restored to health. To me, this was a miracle. How did the moisture pass from the bread to the sugar? Would something else (an apple? a damp paper towel?) do just as well? I can't explain how or why, but I can tell you that the bread trick really works. (Science teachers and other readers, please help!)
Brown sugar — the type we buy in the supermarket — is nothing more than granulated, usually refined, white sugar with molasses added (or containing residual molasses from the refining process). Light brown sugar contains 3.5 percent molasses; dark brown has up to 6.5 percent. The darker the color, the stronger the taste. You can substitute one cup of firmly packed brown sugar for one cup of granulated sugar in most recipes.
In my pantry I keep three types of brown sugar: light and dark (Domino or no-name store brand), from my local market, and turbinado, a chunkier raw sugar which has been partially processed, where only the surface molasses has been washed off. It has a blond color and mild brown sugar flavor, and is often used in tea and other beverages, and as a crunchy topping for cookies. In England we've been served demerara sugar, a light brown crystal, with tea and on oatmeal.
Use the light brown for s'mores cupcakes and flourless banana cake; dark brown for balsamic fudge drops and fruitcake; and whatever you've got for glazed fish, barbecue sauce, and muffins. And do keep a slice of bread handy, just in case your carefully stored leftover brown sugar decides to turn to stone.
Irish soda bread
My cooking friend Pauline, a faithful Pantry reader, came to visit last week and brought The Book Club Cook Book, by Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp. Each suggested book group reading is matched with a recipe. This one accompanied Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, a powerful book about growing up poor in Ireland. Add half a cup of currants, if you wish. Makes 2 loaves.
3 cups all-purpose unbleached flour (we like King Arthur flour)
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
2 tsp baking soda
4 tsp light brown sugar, mixed with 1 Tbsp water
2-1/4 cups buttermilk
Adjust oven rack to center position and preheat to 325°F. Place flours, baking powder, baking soda and sugar in a large bowl and mix well. Add the buttermilk and stir until a soft dough is formed. Knead the dough in the bowl, then empty onto a countertop and knead a bit longer. If the dough seems wet, use extra whole-wheat flour. Knead until dough comes together.
Divide the dough into two portions and shape each into a round loaf. Press down just to flatten a bit. Place the loaves on an ungreased baking sheet. Sprinkle some additional flour on top of each loaf. Using a sharp knife, make an "x" on the top of each. Allow to rest for 10 minutes, covered with a cloth, then bake for 40 minutes or until the loaves are golden brown and done to taste. Allow to cool, then serve with butter and jam.