I know I’m not the only person who reads cookbooks like novels. (Especially since they are more and more often one-part memoir and two-parts recipes.) I always have. My mother had some real oldies I liked to read sitting at the kitchen table while she cooked. I adored the Better Homes & Gardens gingham book for its ring binding. I spent many childhood hours moving the pages around, sorting favorites or putting together “menus.” To this day, the BHG Baked Custard recipe is my go-to for almost instant homey gratification. (And, ps, if you use ½ milk, ½ heavy cream, it sets up with a moussey texture on the bottom and shiny custard on the top. Complete happiness.)
All that childhood reading has contributed to a sense for flavors and which will be complementary (on both the savory and sweet side). While I don’t have the most adventurous palate (“delicacies” are not my thing), I do think it’s fairly sophisticated. I can tell by the way a recipe is written whether it’s great or just serviceable, and I know when it will work and when it won’t.
On the weekend I made a chocolate cake using a recipe from a respectable source. I had reservations – it called for cocoa and buttermilk which don’t harmonize for me – but since it was only one stick of butter, I gave it a go. Oy, friends. Bad. The overly sweet batter tasted “chocolaty” and the cake was…. Well, it was pretty: Dark. Good crumb. Good texture. It just tasted terrible. Thinking it might be my palate, I offered it around. No one cared for it. Well, one of my neighbor’s said, “It’s good. But I don’t want any more of it.” I let it sit for a day, loosely wrapped in plastic, to see if anything would meld or bloom. No. Bad. I trashed it (along with, apparently, all photos of it).
Lesson: Trust yourself. In the kitchen and in life.
So then I had the rest of a quart of buttermilk. And it is autumn, which calls for cozy, which calls for bread. Specifically Dark Chocolate Orange Soda Bread. Super easy, super fun, and super delicious. You can never go wrong with chocolate and orange, and it’s bread! Who cares if I have to run the AC in order to turn on the oven?
This is a recipe from Epicurious. I don’t make any changes to it. The dough is sticky sticky sticky. Scarily so. Be brave, dear reader, and don’t add a ton more flour to make it easier to handle! Just roll it around on your lightly floured work surface until you can take your hand off it without taking half of it with you. It can be done. I have a “vintage” kitchen that has tiled countertops (the horror!), so I work on a marble slab. And use a bench scraper to nudge my mound of dough off the marble and onto the prepared baking sheet.
I first made this last December for a holiday event. The dough was so crazy sticky that I just mounded it onto the sheet and said a prayer. Holy patron saint of bakers, is this stuff delicious! I mean seriously. For its ease and nothing fancy ingredients, it comes together like a trip to heaven. I’d never made soda bread before. I think I’d had it once at a St. Patrick’s dinner 30 years ago and that version was too rusk-like for me. The chocolate and orange drew me in like a moth to a flame. And, turns out, that 30 year old memory? That was just a bad loaf.
As to ingredients, I use Valhrona Manjari 64% coarsely chopped and candied orange peel from local cooks’ store (oft mentioned here), Surfa’s. I’ve made this bread many times since, using orange peel from the Berkeley Bowl (similar to Surfa’s) and from the supermarket. The supermarket tubs (usually available only around the holidays) are a sweeter, stickier product. The orange bits tend to clump together in the bread, but it still tastes wonderful.
Important: Mind the time! Because the dough is so difficult to manage, my loaves have turned out differently every time. Sometimes wider and flatter, sometimes taller and more compact. The recipe calls for 70 minutes baking. I have never needed that much time, neither when using a fancy calibrated Wolf range nor when using the Home Depot special oven in my current place. The loaf needs to be brown, firm, with a tester coming out clean. Check it at 40 minutes. I’ll be surprised if you need more than 60 total. It tastes as wonderful regardless of how the loaves appear.
It’s best to let this bread fully cool before cutting. Then you can slather it with butter, toast it, do whatever you like to do with bread. Baked up with a little vanilla custard, it also makes a nice bread pudding.
This baby will take you straight from Halloween through Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s brunch.
It’s that good.
Dark Chocolate Orange Soda Bread
3 c unbleached all purpose flour
½ c plus 2 Tbs sugar
2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
6 Tbs (3/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
6 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened), cut into 1/3-inch pieces
6 ounces candied orange peel, diced
1 ¼ c buttermilk
1 large egg
Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper; butter parchment. Whisk first 5 ingredients in large bowl to blend. Add butter; rub in with fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in chocolate and orange peel. Whisk buttermilk and egg in medium bowl to blend; add to dry ingredients. Stir just until incorporated.
Turn dough out onto floured work surface and knead gently just until dough comes together, about 5 turns. Form dough into 6 1/2-inch-diameter round, about 2 to 2 1/2 inches high. Transfer to prepared baking sheet. Using sharp knife, cut 1-inch-deep, 3-inch-long slits in top of bread, forming sunburst pattern.
Bake bread until well browned and very firm when pressed and tester inserted into center comes out clean, turning baking sheet halfway through baking, about 1 hour 10 minutes total. Transfer bread to rack and cool completely, at least 3 hours. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Wrap in foil and store at room temperature.)