November 30, 2011

Simpler than Suspected: Irish Soda Bread

At my church, I direct a small choir of first and second graders. I love it. It's one of the joys and highlights of my whole week and I look more forward to talking about quarter notes, hoot-owl voices and "a" vowels than editing the next chapter in my dissertation. We sing from memory with story board aids, and we play games like musical hangman and pictionary. We talk about words and what they mean, and we are quickly learning about dynamics, diction, and vowel modification. Did I mention that I love this? Sometimes these precious children have the most thought-provoking questions, both about music and about the words they are singing. Today, while learning "The Friendly Beasts" for our Christmas pageant, we talked about "Emmanuel," what the name meant, why it was important for God to be on earth with us and why we celebrated it. Oh-so-curious questions followed: "why did the wise men bring those spices?" "what does Hallelujah mean?" and the kicker, "so who died first, Jesus or God?" Oh man. I am so on my toes.

But my REAL coup-d'etat for this group is coming on the third Sunday of Advent. I've gotten the green light to teach my children to sing in German - and not just everyday German; crunchy, Baroque, Ludwig Krebs-style German. I'm so excited I can barely wait. Like so many German Baroque composers, Krebs set Philip Nicolai's hymn tune Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme to a chorale prelude, which was probably conceived for an instrument (trumpet, and the like) in the cantus firmus. Anyway though, it was later set for a chorus - of sweet Episcopal children's voices, nonetheless - all singing in perfect unison and perfect German diction. Let me say, it has been quite the experience trying to figure out techniques to impart this beautiful language on my smarter-than-average Chapel Hill-area young'uns. I made all sorts of colorful story boards with phonetic spellings and illustrations: "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" becomes "Va-cut owf roof toons die Shh-tim-muh" (complete with pictures of scissors for "cut," house roof for "roof," Bugs Bunny for "toons" and so on and so forth).'s working. And some of these sweet, unsuspecting chickadees are downright good at the stuff. I could not be more proud. German language paired with someone as crunchy-Baroque as Ludwig Krebs? And the iconic hymn tune Wachet auf to boot? I'm in music education heaven. 

Sometimes challenges are simpler than they seem. Several weeks ago I never thought I could get my young singers to pronounce "müßen" correctly and now they're practically experts. Irish soda bread was something that I originally thought was a challenge but as it turns out, it's easy as pie. No, it's easier than pie. All it involves is maybe a trip to the grocery to pick up some rye flour (unless you're a flour nerd like me and have some in your freezer) and about 45 minutes of your time. Serve this hearty and heartening bread with soup, salad, any kind of main dish, or even for breakfast with your coffee. Irish soda bread is a must for bread-lovers who don't have the time to mix, knead, wait, knead, wait, wait, and wait some more. It's essentially a dense scone that mixes up quicker than a quick bread and won't leave you feeling weighed down by all the extra sugar and fat. Next time you try to teach your six-, seven-, and eight-year-olds to sing in German, whip up some Irish soda bread. It'll make you feel all rustic-Baroque and inspired.

Irish Soda Bread
Adapted from Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie by Bill Neal

1 cup oatmeal
1/3 cup rye flour
2 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk
Preheat oven to 450 F. Grind oatmeal in a food processor or blender until about the consistency of cornmeal. Sift with the flours, soda, and salt into a large bowl. Some of the ground oats will be left in the sifter - I simply poured this roughage back into the flours for a little more complex texture. Stir in the 1 1/2 cups buttermilk and mix quickly. If mixture seems dry, splash a little more buttermilk until it forms a dough. (Don't be afraid to use your hands - the dough should be slightly sticky but all the flour should be incorporated.) Shape dough into 2 rounds, about 6 inches each in diameter. Place on greased baking sheet. If you like, roll the doughs in more flour, cornmeal, or oats. (I used about a tablespoon more oats for this part.) With a knife, cut a large "X" across the tops of each round and pour about 1 tablespoon buttermilk into the center of each. Bake for 5 minutes at 450 - this forms the bread's delicious brown crust. Then lower oven temperature to 375 F and bake for another 30 minutes, until tops are lightly browned and bottoms well-browned. Some of the buttermilk may spill onto the pan and blacken. (This happened to me because I was sloppy and should have greased my sheets more. But don't be alarmed.) Cool on wire rack and serve warm.

Not that I am an authority or anything, but this bread tastes fantastic with Luray Caverns apple butter. Now go listen to something in German! 

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