Ireland: Treacle Bread (March 10, 2009)
Sweet breads and tea cakes raised with baking soda have long been a mainstay of the Irish tea trolley, that countryside icon that's still rolled out for afternoon visitors in hotels and B&Bs all across Ireland. But some of the teatime classics hark back to much earlier periods, when most Irish people's experience of sweet things was limited to what was baked at the kitchen hearth.
Treacle bread is one of these -- its ingredients, and its basic preparation, cut into quarters or farls, betraying a far older history. When this bread first started to be made in Ireland, treacle would have been one of the few sweeteners (besides honey) available to everyday country people: refined sugar would have been too expensive to buy or use except for very special occasions. And the molasses-sweetened bread would have been prepared on a bakestone griddle over the fire, or else baked in a covered pot, as soda bread might be before gas or electric ovens became something every homeowner could afford.
Nowadays treacle bread is still made in fan and convection ovens all around the island. Hot out of the oven, slathered with sweet Irish butter and jam -- and maybe, for those with a sweet tooth, with just a drizzle more of molasses over the top -- treacle bread is a rich, evocative taste of an Ireland that's not quite gone.
- 2 tablespoons dark molasses
- 8 fluid ounces /1 cup milk
- 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 pound flour (approximately 3 2/3 cups)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
- Good pinch of ground ginger
Heat the molasses and milk together on the stove, or in a microwave-proof measuring cup. Stir well while heating.
Mix all the dry ingredients together: add liquid until a soft dough is achieved. (Add a little more warmed milk if necessary: if the dough is too stiff, the bread won't rise.)
With floured hands, shape the dough into a round cake about 1 1/2 inches thick. Cut into farls (quarters), put on a floured baking sheet, and bake at 400° F for 40 minutes.
When baked, wrapping the treacle farls in a dishtowel will keep them moist and help soften the crust.