Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home
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Living in a Strange Time

When I was a child, I used to imagine the years of life as a ladder. Each rung represented a year, and in my imagination, the rungs had different colors. Now I am at the top end of the ladder, and I can look down, and look back, and I have some advice.

1. This too, will pass. These odd times of social distancing and world-wide economic slowdown will be over eventually. I do not mean to minimize the pain of people who are ill and those who have lost loved ones, or the worry of those who’ve lost jobs. I’m just trying to put it in perspective.

2. Response to the pandemic may seem chaotic and spotty. But in fact, the world has never seen such swift, severe action in the face of a common enemy. That’s because, in other eras, communication was slower. The world has seen pandemics before, and they come to an end. We’ve become so used to healthy populations because of vaccinations and antibiotics we’ve forgotten the dread of disease. We’ve been so lucky.

3. Some of the things we have been forced to do in these weeks have benefits. We catch glimpses of these despite all the negative newscasts. Air pollution is down because people are driving and flying less. Doesn’t the air smell beautiful, these spring days?

4. Nesting at home, we have no commutes. We can still communicate through technology, and yet we have time, now, for family and stay-at-home hobbies. Crafts are coming back. Sewers are stitching, knitters are clicking their needles, painters are sorting through their watercolors, writers are pushing out words, and gardeners are putting in their seeds.

5. We’re advised to go shopping less, and to buy two weeks supply of food at a time. If there are temporary shortages of eggs and flour, that’s because people are cooking. And baking. I’ve been experimenting with bread recipes and coffee cake. There’s always a pot of soup on the stove and I’m contemplating making jam.

6. Meal-planning is back. When my kids were small and we didn’t have much money, I’d plan each week’s menus and shop accordingly. When you do that, leftovers don’t go to waste, nor do they repeat themselves. Instead, new combinations of the same or leftover ingredients form delicious meals. Remember, chicken bones, and all those little bits of carrot and celery and onion you might ordinarily throw away when chopping vegetables can be frozen in plastic bags and later turned into a nutritious stock. It costs you absolutely nothing but your time. Which now we have.

7. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who bravely tend the sick and do other essential jobs. Your grocery clerk deserves a smile and a thank you. And a smile and a thank you is not out of place for everyone we meet. Thanks for doing your bit!

Irish Soda Bread for St. Patrick’s Day

For the love of the Irish! Even though I never met my three long-gone Irish great-great-grandmothers, I like to imagine them making soda bread.

This year I am really into making bread. For this St Patrick’s Day, I made Irish soda bread.

Instead of the traditional method which uses only baking soda and buttermilk as leavening, I added yeast. Buttermilk adds acid which reacts with the soda to rise the bread. Some bakers add an egg also, to give it additional rise. This recipe adds a little sugar because the bread is studded with raisins, which makes it more of a tea-time rather than a breakfast loaf.

This recipe makes two loaves.

½ cup warm water (105-110 o F)
1 package instant yeast
6 cups of bread flour or half bread flour, half all-purpose flour
3 tbs plus 1 tsp sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 ½ tsp kosher salt
4 oz cold butter cut into cubes
1 ½ cups warm buttermilk
1 ½ cup raisins

Heat the water to the required temperature, testing with a thermometer, or put a finger in and if it is a little warmer than your body temperature, it’s probably fine. Too low and the bread won’t rise, too hot and you kill the yeast. Put the yeast in the warm water and stir, then add 1 tsp sugar and stir again. Leave till it blooms, (spreads across the surface of the cup and begins to bubble) about 10 minutes.

Whisk the dry ingredients, then add the butter and mix with your fingers or a pastry cutter till it looks like cornmeal. Then throw in the water/yeast mix and the buttermilk warmed just so you can feel it. Stir. Then mix in the raisins. You will have now a shaggy dough.

On a floured surface, form the dough into a rough round shape, and knead for 4 minutes. Turn and roll it, flatten it out and poke holes in it with your fingers. This creates air in the dough. Fold the dough like an envelope, then roll into a ball. Repeat and repeat for 4 to 6 minutes.

When you can achieve a smooth ball shape, put the dough into an oiled steel bowl, and cover with a cloth for an hour. If the temperature is at least 70 degrees F, it should rise to double its size.

Punch it down, roll into a ball again, and let rise for another hour.

Preheat the oven to 400 F, and flour two cookie pans.

When it has risen well, prepare another floured surface. Take out your ball of dough and cut it
into two equal pieces. Roll each into a ball.

With a serrated knife, score each ball of dough in the shape of an X. This allows heat to enter
deep into the dough while cooking, which allows for further stretching and expansion of the
dough.

Sprinkle a little flour on top of each loaf, or if you fancy, brush on some beaten egg white or
milk to give a glaze.

Put a large shallow pan full of water on the bottom rack of the oven, and spritz the oven’s sides
with water to create steam.

Bake for 30-40 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. The bottom should sound hollow
when tapped.

I recommend eating this bread when it is still warm. When I made this the other day and served it
to friends, it was demolished before it had a chance to get cold.