Parsnip & cheddar soda bread

Tomatoes, be gone with thee! Courgettes, au revoir! With summer’s veg glut over, roots are making a return to my kitchen and amongst them, the humble trusty parsnip. Not that they’ve come from the allotment – we do have a few tiny plants, more seedlings really, that will stay in over winter to see if they fatten up (although my hopes are not high). Nope, farm shop parsnips it is and their rich, vaguely-spicy sweetness is a welcome addition to October dinners.

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One of last year’s allotment parsnips – this year’s didn’t germinate so well and are still tiny

It’s easy to see the parsnip as merely a useful adjunct to a winter roast – and a roasted parsnip chip is truly brilliant, provided that it’s not over-cooked…burnt parsnip being surprisingly easy to make, and horrid. But I’d urge all cooks to think a little more creatively: these roots are cheap-as-you like and their sweetness can take the strong flavours of chilli, spice and cheese with ease. Their dense texture makes for a creamy, satisfying soup, or try them baked in a creamy gratin to sit next to sausages or a pork chop.

Today I whipped up this soda bread, studded with strong cheddar and grated parsnip, which is great alongside a steaming bowl of soup for a nutritious and simple supper. It’s easy, inexpensive and vegetarian – and sometimes, that is just what it needed.

First, preheat the oven to 180c and prepare some baking parchment on top of a baking tray. Slice and sweat 1 onion in a drizzle of olive oil until it’s really soft – around 15 to 20 minutes. Meanwhile, grate 1 parsnip (I don’t bother to peel mine) and 50g strong cheddar using the coarse side of the grater. In a bowl, stir together 175g self-raising flour (white or wholemeal), a pinch of thyme leaves, a pinch of salt and a good grinding of black pepper. Add the vegetables and cheese to the bowl and give it a stir to combine.

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Mix flour, parsnip, cheese, onions, salt and pepper in a large bowl

Then whisk an egg with three tablespoons of milk, pour onto the dry ingredients and stir until you have quite a loose dough. Don’t overmix – it will stay a little craggy. Shape the dough into a rough ball and place on the baking tray.

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Add beaten egg and milk to bind to a soft dough

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Shape into a bowl and place on baking parchment

Using a sharp knife or a bread scraper, cut half-way down the dough to make a cross (don’t cut all the way through). Dust with a little flour and then bake for 40 minutes or so, until risen, golden and hollow-sounding with tapped.

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Make deep crosses with a knife or metal bread scraper, then bake

You’ll open the oven door to find this crunchy-topped light savoury loaf. Leave it to cool for a few minutes but have this warm, maybe with soup, and definitely with lots of butter! It doesn’t keep brilliantly so try to eat it the loaf in one sitting.

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Parsnip and cheddar soda bread

Recipe adapted from River Cottage Every Day.

Soda bread

I like to start the new year with silence. After all the spending and eating and visiting and not-sleeping of Christmas, the first week of January is one long exhale. No-one’s doing any real work (don’t pretend that you are) and so the emails are quiet, the phone isn’t ringing. It’s a good time to be still and take stock, be it of the bank account, the state of one’s business, plans for the year ahead or perhaps more weighty spiritual matters.

Outside is quiet too. After a remarkably wet and warm December, the temperature has dipped slightly (but only slightly) and we sit under heavy grey skies. Briefly the sun makes its presence known, before sliding back under its clouded blanket. The daffodil bulbs, confused by this warmth, are poking their heads up and I wonder if they will be damaged by the wind and chill that will surely soon come.

Last weekend we popped to Packwood House in Warwickshire for a fortifying lunch and afterwards wandered around their walled kitchen garden. The crab apple espaliers give structure even in this quiet time, and the chard does its best to bring drama to the beds.

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The walled garden at Packwood House

After our manure adventures over Christmas I appreciate any well-mulched bed. This one is a beauty and puts our oh-it-will-do approach to shame.

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I can not help but admire this beautifully manured bed

Summer, autumn and winter do not always follow a fixed time-frame, preferring to run to their own rules. There are still roses in bloom now, albeit husks of their former selves, and at Packwood the pumpkins and gourds give a splash of Halloween colour – in January.

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The aricula stand gets a novel use

Given my quiet and frugal state of mind, January is a good time to indulge in a bit of bread baking. Firstly, it stops you going to the shops to buy a loaf (and when your nearest shop is M&S Food, as mine is, the only cost-effective option is to simply avoid. Really, who goes to M&S and leaves with just bread?). Secondly, baking is such a simple, wholesome task, one can’t help but feel grounded.

So today it’s soda bread, the easiest of the lot. When you need a loaf quick, either for supper or to have with soup, then soda bread is your friend. All you need is flour, salt, bicarbonate of soda and buttermilk or yoghurt, and if you want you can then add cheese, grated root veg, treacle, herbs, seeds, whatever you fancy really. It can be mixed in less than 2 minutes and on the table within the hour.

The science is this: acids in the buttermilk (or yoghurt) react with the alkaline bicarb, creating carbon dioxide, which makes the bread rise. That’s the theory. However, I’ve started using a mixture of plain and self-raising flour in my soda bread, cutting down on the bicarb. Self-raising flour has bicarb AND cream of tartar in it (this mixture is usually known as baking powder) and therefore responds to heat as well as liquid. You get a double lift effect, the first when the buttermilk hits the flour, and the second when the heat of the oven gets into the dough. I think this approach gives a fluffier result and avoids the risk of bitterness, which you can get with too much raising agent. So this recipe is not traditional…but it works for me.

Serve warm from the oven with lashings of cold salted butter.

Wholemeal soda bread

250g self-raising wholemeal flour

250g plain white flour

1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 level tsp fine salt

400ml buttermilk or plain yoghurt

A little milk, to bind

A little extra flour, for dusting

Preheat the oven to 200c and line a baking sheet with baking parchment. Tip the flours into a big bowl and add the salt and bicarb, mixing to combine. Tip in the buttermilk or yoghurt then using a scraper (or your hands) stir to combine. You might need a little extra milk – we’re looking for a dough that holds it’s shape but isn’t unmanageably sticky. Work the dough with your hands for mere moments – we’re not kneading here, just bringing it together – then shape into a loose ball and place onto the baking sheet. Dust lightly with flour. Take a sharp knife or scrape, cut a cross-shape almost down to the bottom of the loaf.

Bake for about 40 minutes, until the base sounds hollow when tapped. Cool for five to ten minutes before serving.

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Frugal wholemeal soda bread (a mouse has been at the fourth quarter)

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Crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside