A big, informal pie, one with an unfussy crust and a richly flavoured filling, is always a crowd pleaser. The crunch of a spoon breaking through pastry, a veil of steam briefly shrouding the pie before revealing a creamy centre is not only satisfying to watch, but also to hear. A spoonful of chicken and leeks topped with a jaunty piece of crust is a welcome addition to any buffet plate. Which the 14 people who snuggled into my kitchen on a crisp Autumn afternoon to share an Easter feast will attest to.
Baking soda, or bread soda as the Irish call it, came into kitchens in Ireland in the 1800s. It was relatively cheap and quite a magical ingredient for it meant that people without ovens, and that was most people, could bake their own bread. They combined wheat from their fields and buttermilk from their cows with baking soda in a cast-iron pot and nestled it into hot coals to make bread. The baking soda replaced yeast and kneading to leven the bread, which meant it wasn’t only more accessible, but much faster than baking normal bread. Which is why I like it.
Recently a friend reminded me of a dish I used to serve up very regularly. If you came to my house for dinner circa 2006, it is highly likely you ate this dish. It had all the elements required for a casual dinner party; simple ingredients, no real recipe required, easily expandable to feed a few extra, quick to prepare, and impressive enough to serve to guests. My friend liked it so much that after only a brief explanation of how to cook it, it went into heavy rotation in her house and is still going strong. And now it’s made a comeback in my kitchen.
Placing a hot, steaming baking dish in the middle of a table with a big serving spoon is my idea of a good time. I like starting a communal meal with the shared experience of passing plates around the table, arms reaching over to scoop large servings of something delicious, wine glasses clinking as they’re shuffled around making room for the salad bowl to do a lap of the table. An atmosphere is created; an open, casual one of giving and receiving, setting the tone for the conversation to follow.
Since humans worked out how to use grains around 10,000 years ago we’ve been making unleavened bread. It’s been a staple in many cultures, harking back to the birth of modern civilisation in the Fertile Crescent. You could say we’ve collectively had a decent amount of practice making flatbread, so I’m not sure why I thought it would be difficult. Turns out, all that practice was worthwhile. It’s really quite easy to make very tasty bread with ingredients you probably already have in your pantry (especially if your garden boasts a rosemary bush as my new garden does).
I aspire to country-style hospitality, where there’s always a cake cooling on the table and a pot of tea on the boil for visitors who “pop in”.
But modern, city life doesn’t seem conducive to the well-catered pop-in. It’s more likely that I’ll have rubbery carrots lingering in the crisper and a half-eaten bag of corn chips on-hand for visitors instead of a freshly-baked cake. And who’s stopping by unexpectedly anyway? Life is so busy in this city I have to schedule time with friends two weeks in advance. So even if I did make a cake, I’d be waiting hopefully for the door to buzz as I picked at the edges of the crust, finally giving in to a generous slice, or three, because no friends “happened to be in the neighbourhood”.
In an effort to hold on to my romantic notion of warm cakes and fresh tea, I baked for an unexpected afternoon treat. Last weekend I had family in town and they spent their days crossing the sights of NYC off their to-see list, which can be exhausting work. I thought a little afternoon tea would soothe their weary tourist bodies.