Fifth Century–The Clay Pot

One loaf of clay pot sausage bread–with added Telegraph Starter

Mix and Mold: 2:30 pm

Baked 4:45 pm

Ate–most of it here at home

I’m so glad we didn’t give this bread to anyone. It was an experiment and though the bread dough itself was delicious, the inclusion of the sausage made it just plain weird… My kids were a little grossed out, which is why you find my daughter, above, taking a photo of her own. Probably to bribe me with in the future!

Often clay pots have been mentioned as baking vessels for ancient civilizations, including the world of the ancient Celts. They would bury the pots in the ashes of their fires and let the heat of the coals cook the food within. Since clay pots need to be gradually heated (otherwise they crack), I imagine that if St. Brigid were cooking with one, she would have had to tend the pot diligently for the first few minutes, nudging the pot closer and closer to the more intense heat as it warmed.

We already had a clay pot, and have baked many wonderful meals in it, as well as one attempt at bread–a chocolate honey loaf that I baked with a bunch of kids from school many years ago. Could anything be better than chocolate bread? I was a real hit with the students…

The clay pot is a lot like the ceramic pots and dutch ovens I bake in often. They retain moisture, increasing flavor, but also allow for a nice crust to develop… If you don’t have a clay pot–it’s a fun wish list item, and any clay pot you buy will come with a whole assortment of recipes to try. We love making shepherd’s pie in ours…

The sausage bread recipe I used came from The Complete Guide to Claypot Cooking by Bridget Jones. I thought that if the Celts were going to add anything savory to their bread, it might be a type of sausage or herbed meat… Who knows if I’m right? ( I do know that they didn’t have chocolate, poor Ancient Celts–the chocolate honey loaf is really the bread that I wanted to bake…) The sausage bread was fun to try–and easy to do, it’s just that the aesthetic appeal of the bread was lacking–and then, when we didn’t eat it all, I wasn’t sure how to store it. Normally I just leave my uneaten breads cut side down on the cutting board until they’re nothing but crumbs, but I wasn’t about to leave the sausage out over night. The bread went into the fridge, not a very fifth century thing to do, and then everyone was over the novelty. We ended up cutting out the sausage to eat on its own, and toasting the remaining bits of bread for breakfast.

I’ll be trying another clay pot bread soon. One of the great bonuses of baking in clay is that you don’t have to remember to pre-heat the oven–and the recipe I tried only required one rise, which cuts down on time and remembering as well. Here are some photos from my clay pot experiment…

Okay, we’ve been hanging out in the fifth century for a couple of weeks now. Today I’m baking some really bizarre roasted barley bread. It’s rising as I write. And hopefully this weekend, with the help of my family, I’ll try my hand at wheat weaving. That should be a crack up!

Only ten days until St. Brigid’s feast day. Cheers!

Fifth Century–Irish Soda Bread

Two loaves of Irish Dark Soda Bread

Mixed, molded and baked: 5 pm

(You can mix it and have it oven-ready in just minutes!)

Gave to the Harris Family–they are willing to try any bizarre breads of mine!

First off–I have to say, the title above is a misnomer to be sure. In the fifth century, the Irish had no idea of sodium bicarbonate, and Saint Brigid certainly wasn’t handing out soda bread to the hungry. Though American Indians were using this type of leavening agent long before the Europeans, it wasn’t brought to Ireland until 1840 0r so. So, I’m off by many, many centuries. But this being the month of the Irish in our home, I just couldn’t resist making soda bread at least once. It’s so easy, and tasty, and… well, we were having Irish stew, and it was raining heavily, and there was a fire in the hearth, and we just happened to have a bottle of Guinness on hand. It couldn’t be helped.

I’ve made this recipe before and knew it would be completely edible and yummy. It has a muffiny taste, a nice crust and would be a great bread to have a youngster make with some supervision. All they need to do is measure out the ingredients, stir a little, shape a little, and then get some help with the scoring and the oven entry. I use a recipe by Jeff Smith from his cookbook: The Frugal Gourmet–On Our Immigrant Ancestors (but he accidentally forgot the salt in his dark version, so don’t forget to add a teaspoon back in..). There’s also an amazingly simple but delicious potato leek soup recipe in this cookbook that I make time and again during periods of fasting.

Basic Facts on Soda Bread

  • In order to activate baking soda, known as sodium bicarbonate, you need acid. Lemon juice, cream of tartar, yogurt, buttermilk, cocoa, and vinegar all work. Buttermilk is the traditional ingredient the Irish use to activate the soda in soda bread.
  • When the soda and acid is mixed, carbon dioxide is released, this is what makes the dough rise. The activity begins immediately, so you don’t want to overmix your dough, or let it sit around a long time before sliding it into your hot oven. I definitely overmixed mine. I’ve been too caught up in yeast bread–in kneading, and kneading… Next time I’ll behave.
  • One of the primary mining spots for sodium bicarbonate is in Colorado. The natural mineral is nahcolite. I used to drive by one of the large mining communities on my way to Glenwood Springs when I was working for my father’s baking company and living in Colorado. They are proud of their baking soda! You can find this soda dissolved in mineral springs all around the world…
  • The first commercial factory to develop baking soda was founded in New York in 1846.
  • When you make soda bread, cut a deep cross into the top of the dough. This allows you one more way to offer the bread both to Christ, and to those you’re feeding, plus it allows heat to penetrate into the thickest part of the dough.
  • The traditional ingredients for soda bread are: wheat flour (preferable spring wheat, which contains little gluten), buttermilk, salt and baking soda.
  • I have always kept a ceramic sheep in my spice cupboard, right on top of a small jar of baking soda. I think everyone should have sheep here and there, some lost and some found, and even some in the spice cabinet…

There are many soda bread recipes on the web that you could try. I would find a simple recipe first, that doesn’t have too many additional ingredients, just so you can taste the bread the way the Irish really like it.

Soda bread is such fun to make. And it takes just a pinch of the time that a yeast bread requires. Let me know your results!

Fifth Century–The Brewer and the Baker

Three loaves of Jim’s Irish Brown Bread–from Jim Lahey’s My Bread

Mixed Tuesday and Wednesday eves

Molded–Baked–All that…

Gave one loaf to neighbors on the next block that we sort of, kind of know. Ate one loaf. Gave the third loaf to Brian at Telegraph Brewing. Here he is by his shiny tanks…

These past two days have been all about brown, Irish-style bread. Who would think that bread made with a small scoop of bran, a lot of wheat, both white and whole, plus buttermilk and brown ale would be so very good! The loaf that we saved for ourselves was gobbled up in no time. It’s already being requested as a favorite by the kids. We slathered the slices with a hazelnut chocolate spread. Oh, my…

Most of what went into these loaves makes them quite authentic to Saint Brigid’s time. There would have been both whole wheat and “fine” (white–what they preferred, if they could afford it) flour available. There would have been buttermilk, especially as Brigid and her mom tended cows, including one white cow with red ears… And there would have been brown ale. Brewers and bakers back then were important folks to have around. Have you ever seen this poem attributed to Saint Brigid, where she wishes lakes of beer for everyone? There are a variety of translations from the original; this is one that I like:

I would like the angels of Heaven to be among us.
I would like an abundance of peace.
I would like full vessels of charity.
I would like rich treasures of mercy.
I would like cheerfulness to preside over all.
I would like Jesus to be present.
I would like the three Marys of illustrious renown to be with us.
I would like the friends of Heaven to be gathered around us from all parts.
I would like myself to be a rent payer to the Lord; that I should suffer distress, that he would bestow a good blessing upon me.
I would like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.
I would like to be watching Heaven’s family drinking it through all eternity.


So, there I was hanging out with my husband and my four year-old at Telegraph Brewing Company here in Santa Barbara.

Brian, the proprietor and Master Beer Guy, was kind enough to give us a quick tour and talk to us about “spent barley” and “yeast trub” and the whole world of brewer’s yeasties. Though I have some very potent sourdough starter at my disposal, and I do think the sour starter is a very valid method of rising dough that was used in the fifth century–a method that pre-dated those cute little packets of instant yeast :)–brewer’s yeast is mentioned so often in my research that I just had to try and see what all the fuss was about.

Brian first let me taste some of the spent barley–it was sweet and warm and delicious, reminding me of a satisfying, hot morning cereal–and then bagged some up for me to bring home and bake with. Here it is, still warm in its copper tank…

This barley is the grain that is going to eventually make a batch of experimental brown ale that Brian is trying out. Normally he sends his spent barley off to a farmer in Carpinteria, who uses it in his compost mix, but today that farmer got one baggy less, thanks to me! I’m anxious to fiddle with barley. It seems to be the poorest of the grains used in the fifth century–the one that monastics seem to have used frequently in their bread baking. I’ve never eaten bread made with barley, have you? I have a batch of slow-rise bread working right now, that has some of that barley mixed into it.

After a quick tour of the brewery we got down to brewer’s yeast business. Brian opened the tap off the bottom of his Robust Ale, which he makes each spring, and after a plug of hops sludged its way out…

The nice brown, batter-like yeast mixture filled the cup. Ooh, it smelled so good, so alive and ready for adventure.

So we headed home and I immediately got to work. I’m sure Saint Brigid’s days were full of chores, too. I had laundry, and dishes, and notes to write, but I wanted to get some dough working as well. While the baby played, and the washer trudged through another cycle in the other room, I mixed up a new starter, using just the brown ale brewer’s yeast, mixing it with a cup of flour and a bit of water. My very own Telegraph Starter. I then mixed up a batch of barley/wheat bread, using brewer’s yeast instead of the typical 1/4 teaspoon of instant yeast… and also started a batch of French bread, using just the yeast trub as a leavening agent. We’ll see. So fun to experiment with all these natural grains and methods. So fun to head back several centuries and pretend to be a part of another time.

Tomorrow I’ll let you know the results of today’s play.

In the meantime, I know one thing. The people in Haiti are suffering, and I’m here baking in my cozy kitchen. One reason I love to bake, and knead by hand, is so I can pray while I work that dough, watching it change before my eyes… Please join me in praying for those people, who could use more than a loaf or two of bread. Who could use some mercy, and many hands reaching their way in love.

People who Inspire me–Jenny

One loaf sourdough; one loaf carrot, currant, walnut bread

Mixed: 9 pm Tuesday

Molded: 2:30 pm Wednesday

Baked: 4:35 pm

Gave the loaf of sourdough to Jenny and her hungry crew

This week and next are about two things. About giving bread to people who inspire me, and about researching bread baking in the fifth century. I’m preparing for Saint Brigid’s feast day on February 1st. Yay!

Jenny is an artist. I love being around her–the conversation always tips toward creative projects we may be working on, whether she’s sewing a pillow, or I’m crocheting a hat–or she’s decorating a home up on the Riviera. We’ve made succulent wreaths together, traveled to LA to the design center to look at fabric, and helped decorate the church with Carla’s crew each Pascha. Her creative ideas are endless and sometimes when I sit down to write, a shade of her whimsy comes over me and helps me find a better word or idea. She inspires me to be creative.

We all have these sorts of people in our lives–that God gives us–people who inspire us to reach out of our regular routine and try something new.  I’m wondering, who are the creative characters in your life?

(A note on the bread. Since I now have two small cooking pots that fit side by side in my oven, I can easily bake two loaves–one for our family and one to give away. Yippee! No more cutting jumbo loaves in half or simply giving the large loaf completely away–much to the dismay of my family. [I don’t really buy bread in the supermarket, so what I bake is what they get:)] From yesterday’s batch–Jenny got the safe loaf–the sourdough, which I know is just what it should be. Delicious. Our family tried the carrot, currant, walnut loaf from my new cookbook by Jim Lahey titled My Bread. Made with carrot juice instead of water, and with chopped walnuts plus chopped currants, pomegranate seeds, and dried cranberries, this bread was Wow!!! My husband and I loved it. It would be so wonderful paired with a gorgonzola cheese. But… the kids sort of stared at it, horrified. “Carrot juice? You’re kidding me, right? You baked with carrot juice?” Yeah, they weren’t too thrilled with the hunks I placed by their plates and ordered them to eat. They did munch down the bread, and loved grumbling about it, but I’m doubting any of it will end up in their lunches today unless I sneak in a piece, which I think is a wonderful idea! I’m off to do that right now. Just think of the fun they’ll have telling their friends about their very strange mother who bakes bread with carrot juice :))

Having fun with this cookbook

Bread made with carrot juice

La Source

Reviving the starter, but no baking today.

Yesterday was all about meetings. By the end of the day I decided that the French habit of going on strike, wasn’t such a bad idea. I had translated back and forth for hours and was running out of words come midnight. My brothers had brought me to France to work, and that I did!

But today the meetings had ended and it was all about reconnecting with this beautiful place. Sure, I did a bit of translating, but there’s not much interpreting when it comes to visiting the petits cochons. Pig language, I believe, is universal. Here’s a pair of particularly cute cochons that I caught roaming around their pen. These pie noirs pigs are a breed exclusive to the Basque country, and they almost went extinct in the 50’s. The breed was revived and has become a thriving industry for the village. They live in little huts when they’re young, then get to roam the mountains freely when they’re a bit older, munching on wild apples and grass and local herbs. I noticed that the largest of this litter, and the runt, are friends…

One of the great pleasures of the day was feeding our sourdough starter. We first lit a candle in church (the candles are enormous, about two feet in length and thick–they cost 1 euro–quite a bargain!), then visited the local baker, who lives and bakes on the very same property where my great grandfather used to run his business. We toured the property, marveling at the old brick oven and chatted for a while, then bought a baguette. Christophe makes mighty fine bread.

Then we headed to La Source. It’s a spot along the road where an underground stream comes gushing out of the mountain. The local villagers love this spring, and people from even an hour away will come here to fill up their empty bottles to transport them home. They say it’s filled with minerals and helps all sorts of ailments–plus it runs just as strong and clear when it’s summer and hot, as when it’s winter and freezing… We bottled some of the water that they’ve channeled through a large pipe and later fed it to our starter. Every starter needs a little dose of mountain spring water from Les Aldudes, don’t you think?

The afternoon was spent at my aunt’s house, where we visited and laughed and loved each other… And in the evening we ate the rest of the baguette, fed the starter some type 55 flour, munched a bit of cheese with a taste of tomato, and sipped a small glass of local wine. We admired the fresh air after a very warm day and transported the starter to the backyard to hang out with the ferns that grow so well here in the mountains.

And now, it’s late. The church bells will be chiming 11pm soon and tomorrow the starter’s journey will continue. It’s lambing season so we hope to visit Pantxo, our friend the shepherd across the way, and soak in our last moments here in the valley before we’re off. The starter will go where we go. We want it to see the lambs, too. Meanwhile, I’ll have one more glass of water from La Source before bed.

oop… better hurry. The church bells are chiming.

Bonne nuit, mes amis…

Back to the Beginning…

No mixing or molding or baking today. Just unveiling the sourdough starter, allowing it to breathe…

We were welcomed again with open arms. My brothers and I have arrived back in Les Aldudes, a Basque village of 360 people tucked in the Pyrenees mountains that separate France and Spain. This is the village where my great, great grandfather was born. I am writing today from the house in which he lived for those short fifteen years before he ventured to the new world. And though 100 years have passed, the people of this place always treat us as though we’ve only been gone a few years, and that we’ve finally returned to the land and air that was partially made for us.

The church bells just chimed six. I also heard them at four and at five. Who needs sleep! I am anxious for the sun. Yesterday, as we drove into the valley at dusk, we marveled at the autumn colors–the deep rust of the sleeping ferns. The yellow and oranges and some still green leaves that painted the mountains. And the three of us, my older brother, John, and my younger brother, Charlie, couldn’t stop our gushing.

I am so grateful for this home away from home…

Starting with the starter

It’s a glorious Sunday morning, and I’m trying not to be intimidated by this blog. The accessories and options are endless. I have no idea what a css or trackback or a pingback is. As much as I love learning new languages, this web-language doesn’t seem quite as romantic as, say, learning Romanian.

But where was I. It’s Sunday.  And though today I won’t be baking, I will be freshening my starter so I can bake like a mad woman tomorrow.

I’m terrible at keeping starters going, and every now and then I kill mine and have to run to my brother to get a new one. He doesn’t kill his starter–ever. That starter is the one that came across the Pyrenees mountains, carried in a rucksack, traveled by boat over the ocean, then hopped a train to California in the late 1800’s and has been present in thousands, maybe millions of loaves of sourdough bread. I ate a lot of that sourdough growing up…

Anyway, I’m not going to kill my starter today. Not right now, when I’m trying to be good, trying to launch this new blog! I’m going to feed it some flour, and water, and say nice things to it. I’m going to leave the cover off while I go to church so it can soak up some of the yeasties floating around my kitchen.

And tomorrow, I’m baking bread. I’m baking sourdough.Sourdough starter--lovely Any takers?