Happiness is a Warm Loaf | Herb, Brown Butter, & Black Pepper Soda Bread
I chatted with an old friend recently who told me he’s been reading my blog and noted how happy I seem. Man, there’s nothing like someone telling you that you seem happy to make you consider whether you actually feel that way or not. Happiness has always been a struggle for me, and I can’t recall many times in my life when I’d classify myself as such. After all, my favorite songwriter is Leonard Cohen, and I listen to Sounds of Silence when I’m in a good mood. But that’s not to say my life has been all brooding and misery. I think it’s just in my nature to struggle against wherever it is that I am, to expect more out of whatever it is that I’m doing. Anything else feels like settling.
Perhaps I also have a problem with the word happy. It feels vacant, shallow, like something only mindlessness could allow to exist in a world where this, this, and this occur. It’s a greeting card word. It’s right up there with nice. I don’t want to live a nice, happy life. I’d rather experience fleeting moments of joy, bliss, and ecstasy than a constant state of unevaluated happiness.
Then again, the older I get, the more there is comfort in contentment. With all the challenges that adult responsibilities bring, those existential ups and downs may add a little too much turmoil. My struggle now, it seems, is finding the right balance between settling down and struggling against.
Cooking definitely falls on the side of settling down. Although the kitchen can be a harried place, there is nothing more calming and satisfying to me these days than hearing the click-click-click of gas setting flame under skillet and the brittle scraping off of an onion skin. Autumn, too, is a time for comfort. Sweaters and tea. Boots and red-hued leaves. Soup and bread.
I’ve been making a lot of soups lately, and I always want fresh bread to accompany them. This recipe is easily accomplished, even on a weeknight. Unlike many doughs, there is no struggle here. This is a happy bread, one that doesn’t ask to brood under a kitchen towel or have its mettle tested against a dough hook. It’s as delightful dunked into broth as it is the next morning smeared with jam. I could learn a lot from this bread.
Herb, Brown Butter, & Black Pepper Soda Bread
Adapted from Bon Appétit
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 3/4 cup AP flour
1/4 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1 1/2 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
scant 1/2 tsp. black pepper, plus more for sprinkling
2 tsp. fresh sage or rosemary, chopped, plus a few leaves or sprigs
7 ounces buttermilk
1 egg white
Heat oven to 375˚F.
To brown the butter, heat it in a saucepan over a medium-low flame. The butter will go from melted to bubbly and foamy, then from brown to burnt very quickly. After the butter foams, stir often until golden-brown bits begin to form. Remove from the burner, and let the pan’s heat alone take the brown from golden to deep.
Stir together the flour, oats, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, pepper, and chopped herb. Add the browned butter and buttermilk, and stir to combine. Knead briefly to bring the last of the dry ingredients into the dough.
Form the dough into a six-inch flattened ball. Place on an ungreased baking sheet. Score an X in the dough about 1/4 inch deep. Brush with egg white, sprinkle with black pepper, and garnish with the leaves or sprigs of the herb.
Bake in the center of the oven for 40 minutes.