Irish Cheddar-Stout Soup & Brown Bread
Even though I’ve not yet had the chance (or funds) to visit Ireland, and though my Irish roots — shrouded in family legend and the murky veils of time and retelling — are at least four generations before me, there’s just something about this time of year that stirs the Irishman in me.
I look out on the bare forest with clumps of snow clinging to the trees, hear the hollowness of the wind sweeping over the hills and suddenly I hear a low whistle and uilleann pipes joining the chorus to mourn the loss of daylight and the desolation of winter. It’s not long, though, before the fiddle breaks in with a swift jig reminding me that spring is just around the corner and nothing good ever came of feeling sorry for yourself.
Today’s simple meal came to me in just that kind of moment — somewhere between the hollow lament of single-digit temperatures and the sizzling rapidity of bow-against-strings that accompanies garden planning in the dead of winter. It so happened to be Wednesday night — our vegetarian night — and I chose to make it Irish: a creamy cheese soup spiked with the rich, tangy flavors of Guinness Extra Stout accompanied by slices of warm, wholesome, oaty brown bread.
Let’s Talk Ingredients
Mace — Most supermarket spice sections offer at least one or two bottles of mace (the ground, lacy outer coating of nutmeg). While nutmeg is immediately recognizable for its unmistakable scent and color, mace is not as widely used in North America even though they’re from the same plant source. Mace’s flavor is more delicate than nutmeg but I think they make an excellent pair in savory dishes. If you aren’t able to find mace, you can omit it and maybe add just a pinch more nutmeg.
Guinness Extra Stout — While I don’t prefer it as a beverage (sacrilege, I know), Ireland’s heritage brew that’s been around since 1759 is right at home when paired with sharp, Irish cheddar. It adds a sweetness, a roasted flavor, and maybe even a little “bite” that sends this creamy soup over the top. If you can’t find Extra Stout, you could substitute Guinness Draught which will be tasty with a little less hoppy kick.
Dubliner Cheese — A sharp cheddar made in Ireland by Kerrygold, Dubliner is without a doubt one of my favorite cheeses. Apparently I’m not alone in my adoration since many supermarkets now carry it in the fine cheeses case. If you can’t find Dubliner, a sharp white cheddar will substitute just fine, albeit with a lot less Irishness.
Whole Wheat Pastry Flour — When you want the nutrition boost and nutty flavor of whole wheat flour but don’t want to weigh down your soda-leavened breads, Whole Wheat Pastry Flour is a good choice. It’s whole wheat flour that’s been ground extra-fine so your bread can plump right up in the pan. If you can’t find it, you can use regular whole wheat flour or (a new item on store shelves) white whole wheat flour. King Arthur is my favorite flour brand by far.
Steel-Cut Oats — Opening up a can of McCann’s Steel-Cut oats and taking a sniff can actually transport you — a sweet, nutty smell that’s far removed from what’s typically referred to as oatmeal. Steel cut oats — rather being rolled flat for quicker cooking time — are simply the oat grain cut in half, leaving all the oaty goodness (bran, germ, etc.) intact. They’ll give your brown bread a rich nutty flavor plus a little bit of texture. If you can’t find McCann’s brand, Bob’s Red Mill is another common supermarket brand.
Irish Cheddar-Stout Soup
A Tales of Thyme & Place Original
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried tarragon
1 teaspoon dried parsley
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground mace
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt – divided
12 ounces Guinness Extra Stout
2 3/4 cup vegetable broth
2 1/4 pounds russet potatoes – peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 1/2 cups 2% milk
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
5 1/4 ounces Dubliner cheese (or sharp white cheddar)
In a small bowl or mortar and pestle, combine the thyme, tarragon, parsley, nutmeg and mace; crush with your fingers or grind until thoroughly mixed and no large flakes remain. Set aside.
Heat olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the onions and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until softened (about 3 minutes). Add the stout, broth, potatoes and half of the dried herb mixture and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce the heat to maintain a simmer; cook until the potatoes are tender (about 15 minutes). Remove from heat and mash the potatoes using a potato masher until soup is thickened and fairly smooth, but some potato lumps remain.
In a large measuring cup, whisk together the milk and flour; add to the soup. Stir and bring to a low boil; cook until soup has thickened (3-5 minutes). Remove from heat and add the shredded cheese, stirring until melted. Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with additional cheese and the remaining dried herb mixture.
A rich and creamy cheese soup to warm you on the coldest of winter nights. What could brighten your spirits more? How about a slice of honey-sweetened, oaty Brown Bread? Recipes for brown bread abound — I have several favorite recipes, myself — but this one is by far the easiest to put together. It hails from County Cavan in the north-central part of the Emerald Isle.
County Cavan Brown Bread
Adapted from The Irish Heritage Cookbook
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 cup quick oats
1/4 cup steel-cut oats
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
2 1/2 tablespoons honey
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
Preheat oven to 400-degrees. Lightly oil or butter a 9×5 loaf pan.
In a large bowl, combine the all-purpose flour, whole wheat pastry flour, quick oats, steel-cut oats, salt, baking soda, and baking powder; whisk together until uniformly combined.
In a medium bowl, add the honey and gradually stir in the buttermilk to dissolve the honey. Make a well in the middle of the flour mixture, pour the milk mixture into the flour mixture; mix just until thoroughly combined. Spoon batter into prepared loaf pan.
Bake at 400-degrees for 40-45 minutes or until loaf top is a dark golden-brown. Allow to cool in pan on wire rack for 10 minutes before turning out onto rack to cool.
After enjoying the soup and a buttered slice of brown bread, we usually have a slice or two more of this bread with some homemade apple butter or pear preserves. This bread can serve double duty: dinner and dessert! As a bonus, it also goes well with breakfast served alongside your eggs.
Winter marches on just outside the window, but gathered around the fire with a bowl of soup and a slice of homemade brown bread, you can’t help but feel that rhythmic undercurrent of the approach of spring stirring in your soul. Sláinte!