On a trip to Dublin last summer, my husband and older daughter spent an afternoon studying the Book of Kells, my younger daughter browsed the racks at Topshop, and I spent a couple of hours at the charming Avoca Café, sipping tea and devouring an entire loaf of the place's signature seeded brown bread. The combination of obvious healthfulness and luxurious richness was unforgettable, and I've had it in the back of my mind ever since to re-create this perfect quick bread in my own kitchen. Finally, I gave it a try.
Figuring out the flour
I began with the recipe in the Avoca Café Cookbook, but learned quickly that it would require some tweaking. First of all, there was the issue of flour. Avoca's brown bread is made with two parts white flour and 31/2 parts coarsely ground whole meal flour, which can be mail-ordered from specialty baking websites such as The Baker's Catalog, but is difficult to find in local supermarkets and health-food stores outside Ireland and England. This flour is relatively low in protein and flecked with wheat germ. Quick breads baked with whole meal flour have a soft, crumbly texture and nutty flavor. Substituting regular American whole-wheat flour resulted in a tough bread with a tight crumb. To get a more authentic and pleasing result, I used two parts white flour to 11/2 parts whole wheat, and some extra wheat bran and wheat germ for texture.
Then there was the issue of seeds. The Avoca recipe contained a combination of sunflower, sesame, flax, poppy and pumpkin seeds. I happened to have the first three in my pantry, so I used those. I didn't feel bad, because this combination lent plenty of nutritional value, as well as flavor and crunch. Sunflower seeds are rich in folate, vitamin E and minerals. Sesame seeds add calcium and a cholesterol-lowering fiber called lignan. Flaxseeds have become famous for their heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. And the oils in all of these seeds gave the bread the rich flavor I craved. Any combination of seeds will work, as long as you add about 7 tablespoons total. Avoid roasted seeds, which lose much of their heart-healthy oils when processed.
The technique couldn't be easier. Mix together the dry ingredients, add the milk and a few tablespoons of molasses, and stir. The dough came together in five minutes flat. As with all quick breads, minimal handling is important. Stir just until the dough comes together. Overmixing will toughen it up. At Avoca, the bread is baked in a loaf pan, but I wanted my bread to look -- as well as taste -- Irish, so I shaped it into a round and then cut an X into the top with a sharp knife to give it a traditional soda bread shape. I cranked the oven temperature up to 400, so the bread would rise quickly and develop a thick, crunchy crust. A sprinkling of wheat germ on top added to the craggy, rustic look of the baked bread.
Perhaps the most difficult thing about making this bread is the final step: Allowing it to cool at least one hour before eating it up.
SEEDED BROWN BREAD
Slathered with butter (try Irish Kerrygold for maximum authenticity) and marmalade, this bread is perfect for breakfast or afternoon tea. But it could just as easily be served alongside a stew for a hearty winter dinner. Or save it for next month and serve with corned beef and cabbage on March 17, St. Patrick's Day.
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups stone-ground whole-wheat flour
1/4 cup wheat bran
1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons wheat germ, divided
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon sesame seeds
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon sunflower seeds
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon flaxseeds
2 cups whole milk
3 tablespoons dark (not blackstrap) molasses
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Whisk together flours, wheat bran, 1/4 cup wheat germ, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl. Stir in sesame, sunflower, and flaxseeds. Add milk and molasses to bowl and mix with a spatula until just moistened.
3. With floured hands, shape dough into a ball and transfer to baking sheet. Pat gently into a 7-inch round and sprinkle the top evenly with remaining 2 teaspoons wheat germ. Using a very sharp knife, cut a shallow "X" in the top of the loaf. Bake until well-browned and when tapped on underside it sounds hollow, 45 to 50 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for at least 1 hour before slicing and serving.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.