Vegetarian food to warm the soul

The thing about this time of year is that the chill in the air sends me searching for hearty fare.

Now, in my meat-eating heyday, that would be Boeuf Bourguignonne or lasagna or some such heavy fare. But these days, these days I turn to something hot and comforting right out of the oven. Something with no meat whatsoever. Something easy. And something bound to warm the soul.

Irish soda bread
I love yeast breads, but who has the time to make them from scratch? In fact, it has been months and months since I even thought of making bread from scratch.

Which is where the soda bread comes in.

See, Irish soda bread is not a yeast bread. Meaning you don't need hours and hours to let it rise and rise again. Which makes it perfect for those of us that don't think about dinner until after the workday ends.

Now, Irish soda bread is incredibly easiest to make.
You'll see in just a minute, because I have a nice recipe below. But it also helps to have the right equipment. Let me explain.

Thank you John Thorne
I've talked about food writer John Thorne before, so it should come as no surprise that I was reading his Outlaw Cook (it's out of print, but the link takes you to his site where you can read snippets of his work). It was he, in his book, that introduced me to the way to make the best Irish soda bread:

Superstone La Cloche
The next best thing to a brick oven, the heavy, round Superstone La Cloche is a bread baker (it is also supposed to be great for meat, but, of course, I only use it for bread). Made from stoneware which was fired at insanely high temperatures, it is a two-piece unit with a round base and a dome lid. The advantage of the stoneware is that it produces even heat distribution which, in turn, will give your Irish soda bread a wonderfully crusty exterior.

Now, the Superstone line also has a Garlic Baker and a Chestnut Roaster, but if you are a baker, the other option that will have you salivating is the Covered Baker which can give you a traditional rectangular Italian loaf, also with the wonderfully crispy crust.

And here is my best tip for using your Superstone baker: Heat the baker before you put your raw dough in it. And put a light sprinkling of cornmeal on the bottom to prevent sticking.

Recipe: Irish soda bread
This recipe is based on a recipe from Saveur. One thing they do that I do not is add a cup of raisins (I'm just not all that fond of raisins). And I plan to try what looks like wonderful variations from Thorne's book.

4 cups flour
2 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
4 tbsp. butter
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 cups buttermilk

Preheat oven to 425°. Sift together the flour, sugar, salt, and baking soda into a large mixing bowl.

Using a pastry cutter or two knives, work butter into flour mixture until it resembles coarse meal.

Make a well in the center of the flour mixture. Add beaten egg and buttermilk to well and mix in with a wooden spoon until dough is too stiff to stir. Dust hands with a little flour, then gently knead dough in the bowl just long enough to form a rough ball. Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and shape into a round loaf.

Transfer dough to your Superstone. Using a serrated knife, score top of dough about 1/2'' deep in an "X" shape. Transfer to oven and bake until bread is golden and bottom sounds hollow when tapped with a knife, about 40 minutes. Transfer bread to a rack to let cool briefly. Serve bread warm, at room temperature, or sliced and toasted.

But what if you don't like Irish Soda Bread?
Personally, I love Irish Soda Bread. But the husband doesn't. So, tomorrow night, I am going to make the wonderful Pumpkin, Coconut and Rum Soup from Traveler's Lunchbox and some popovers.

Now, here's a link to a recipe for some wonderful Thyme Popovers from Ina Garten (she does all the Barefoot Contessa books). It does have eggs and milk, so it is more almost than vegetarian, but they are fast and easy and perfect with the soup.

And as with the Soda Bread, I do have an equipment suggestion that should make your life easier.

Popover pan
One of the tricks with popovers is getting them out of the pan quickly and in one piece. Quickly because the damn things inflate almost as fast as a souffle. And in one piece because half of the charm of these things is the way they look (like a golden chefs' hat). A mushed popover, or one where half of the popover was left in the pan, loses something.

Which means, if you like popovers, it is worthwhile investing in a popover pan.

Here's a popover pan that is quite good. And, even better than giving you wonderfully high and light popovers (it's the heat, working its way around those individual cups, that does it), it looks great. So if you're the sort that tends to hang your cookware (and I am, I am), then this is the pan for you.

Because you can never have enough bakeware. Ever.