Bread, Bread, Bread.
Friday Bites is coming to you a few days late. I guess technically it’s a “Monday Bites,” at this point, but here we are. I spent my writing days last week running wedding errands and traveling across the country to visit my parents. Since I booked a 12:30pm flight, I thought that I would have the gumption and energy to write either on the 4-hour plane ride to Vegas, or during my 4-hour layover there.
Unfortunately, all I had the energy to do was sleep, eat, read a romance novel, and ignore the uber-Christian wedding party that surrounded me on the plane. (They talked over me, handed each other jelly beans and inspirational literature in front of my face, and, at one point, a bridesmaid crawled over me (without permission or even acknowledging that she was being rude AF) so she could sit next to the bride for 5 minutes while the groom used the restroom (he, on the other hand, was very polite). What did they talk about for that 5 minutes? SCRIPTURE. Whyyyyyy.)
In the days leading up to my trip, I decided it was time to make something completely new to me: bread. While searching for Great British Bake Off cookbooks at the library, I stumbled across Paul Hollywood’s new cookbook, A Baker’s Life. Depending on your tastes, Paul Hollywood is either an attractive man or a creepy one. For some of us, he’s a little of column A and a little of column B.
Regardless of how you feel about Paul’s blue eyes or the cryptic looks he gives GBBO contestants, this is a beautiful cookbook. He writes about growing up the son of a baker, and includes lots of pictures from his childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. The book divides the recipes into sections, beginning with childhood favorites or uncomplicated bakes and then progresses into more and more involved recipes. Paul does a lot of explaining between chapters, which is always my jam. He says novice bread makers should start with soda breads and then go from there.
So, I started with his Caramelized Onion Soda Bread. Easy enough.
Have you ever caramelized onions before? Like, really caramelized them? It takes a hundred years.
Okay, maybe not that long. Maybe it takes an hour or so. I’ve always heard that actually caramelizing onions takes a long time, but when you’re actually caramelizing, you start to realize that maybe you should have started doing this much earlier in the day. Maybe you should have started this at a time when you’re not super hungry and maybe you shouldn’t have thought that you could also make a soup that needs at least 90 minutes to simmer tonight.
Did you know that, when caramelizing onions, you throw in brown sugar at some point in the process? I didn’t. It’s magic. At Paul’s suggestion, I also threw in leaves from “two bushy sprigs of thyme.” Which, who knows what that means. I’m not Barefoot Contessa enough to just pluck two fresh sprigs of thyme out of my garden. Not yet, anyway.
Cooking those onions slow and low, though, pays off. When the onions start to get soft and juicy and golden is when you start smiling and stop being upset with yourself for your errors in time management judgement. This shit is going to taste GREAT, you whisper to yourself.
After the onions are done and cooling on a plate, you start your dough. It’s simple: two kinds of flours (plain white and whole wheat), baking soda, and buttermilk. Paul advises that you mix everything with your hands. He doesn’t tell you whether you should actually knead the dough or not? And he also doesn’t tell you if it’s possible to “overwerk” soda bread? I can’t remember the details of that particular episode of GBBO.
What I do remember is that you have to make the cuts in your dough fairly deep. Why? I can’t remember that part. I just remember that Mat the firefighter in season 3 didn’t make the cuts in his soda bread deep enough and he got schooled on it by Paul during the judging. I wasn’t about to make that same mistake.
Paul says the soda bread should be ready in about 35 minutes. You should be able to tap the bottom of the loaf, and it should sound hollow. I made my cuts too deep maybe, and the loaf began to break in half when I tried to pick it up. When it did, I could see that it wasn’t baked through yet. Also, the bread was really hot, and I don’t have what Nigella Lawson calls “asbestos hands” yet.
I finally took the bread out after 50 minutes or so. I did what Mary and Paul do on GBBO, which is cut a slice out of the middle of the loaf and press a finger into it to feel the texture and see if it springs back.
So I did it, too. It didn’t spring back. The outline of my finger stayed molded into the bread.
I’m not quite sure what went wrong — did I put too much oil in with the caramelized onions? Was there just too much moisture from the onions in the bread? Did I not mix the onions into the dough well enough? Was my conversion of Paul’s Celsius oven temps to my shitty American Fahrenheit oven off? Did I overwork the dough?
I don’t have any answers. I don’t know what happened to my soda bread. I do know, however, that despite it all, that bread was delish AF, and I ate at least two and a half slices while I was cooking soup and then ate another slice with my soup.
The caramelized onions have a deep, complex, savory sweetness that is unlike anything I’ve eaten before. Honestly, caramelize onions the right way whenever you get the chance — it’s worth it. You don’t have to put them in bread. You can put them on a burger, or eat them on their own if that’s your thing, or whatever. They’re incredibly delicious, and I’m converted.
Though I’m home with my parents right now, stuffing myself with all kinds of good food (guess what this Friday’s bite is going to be ALL about), I miss that caramelized onion soda bread a little bit.
Okay, a lot.