How we Americans spend St. Patricks Day and the traditions we associate with it have very little to do with the Emerald Isle. I came to this realization after spending one fine Chicago St. Patrick’s Day with an Irish friend and he was pretty much baffled yet highly entertained by the spectacle. The morning started with the beloved Chicago tradition of dying the river green, followed by a rather drunken parade dubiously honoring a Saint whose origins are unclear to just about everyone present, an afternoon full of sketchy green beer and delicious pints of Guinness (and more pints and pints) followed by a dinner of corned beef and cabbage. The typical St. Patrick’s Day stuff. At the end of a very long day, he looked at me with a big loopy grin and said “I don’t know what any of that has to do with my homeland, but it was great fun!” Precisely.
I was thinking about this last week while trying to come up with some Irish inspired ideas for the month. What we in the States usually serve as “traditional Irish food” bears little resemblance to real “traditional Irish food.” I’ve posted previously about lamb and ale stew and soda bread, pretty standard items. Last year I made Guinness Stout Floats that were surprisingly delicious but wondered about the more typical desserts. What makes an Irish dessert, well, Irish?
Google came up with link after endless link to cutesy things like shamrock cupcakes or cakes infused with whiskey or Guinness or Baileys. I quickly grew weary. Further searching dug up pages full of green tinted this or mint flavored that. What exactly does Mint Oreo Ice Cream Pie have to do with Ireland? Is it more Irish than a chocolate fudge cake from a box mix studded with green maraschino cherries? Just smacks you in the face with pure-Celtic authenticity, doesn’t it? I was looking for real recipes, not the dessert equivalent of my St. Patrick’s Day outing.
It was about this time I remembered a book I had stashed on my shelves: Irish Puddings, Tarts, Crumbles, and Fools: 80 Glorious Desserts by Margaret M. Johnson. I picked it off a bargain table long ago thinking, one day I’ll need this. That day was here. As I flipped through, I realized this was exactly what I was looking for: contemporary renditions of traditional Irish desserts and not a green maraschino cherry in the bunch. Whipped cream and fruit concoctions with the wonderful names of fools and flummerys; steamed puddings laden with spices, dried fruits and whiskey; buttery crumbles and crisps. Tea cakes, scones and clotted cream – just reading the titles transported me to another place.
Always one to give something unusual a go, I took a second and third look at a recipe for Oatmeal Pudding. Oatmeal Pudding? Nothing about this sounded good at first glance. Oatmeal for dessert? I thought about it for a bit and realized an oatmeal pudding didn’t sound that different conceptually from one made with rice or tapioca. I threw caution to the wind and tried it. I bought some more steel cut oats, Bob’s Red Mill Steel Cut Oats in fact and the little note on the bag “also known as pinhead oats or Irish oats” made me feel more confident. Cooked until soft, enriched with a simple custard of orange zest, milk and eggs then baked, the recipe was as simple and straight-forward as I’d expect. Though not everyone’s cup of tea, I rather liked the toothsome chew of the oatmeal. I liked it a lot, in fact and that texture kept it interesting.
To accompany, I made an easy spiced fruit compote which worked quite well, the tart berries offsetting the sweet pudding and adding some color to an otherwise drab looking dish. The pudding was great warm but even better cold, after the flavors had some time to meld. So far this week I’ve snacked on it, had it for dessert and a few bowls for breakfast, both warm and cold but I like it best chilled with a splash of warm cream and a dollop of that compote. It’s hearty and filling and downright practical. Nothing frou frou about this one. I’m getting the urge to go out into the bogs and harvest some peat.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: QUITE NICE. This one is rather homey and comforting. I’ll just say it … if you have texture issues, this is not the one for you. I happen to lovely chewy textural contrasts and this one really grew on me. Plus there’s a bonus booze factor! The raisins are soaked in Irish whiskey though I used bourbon here. Bourbon is a very uniquely American thing but I happen to like it so I used it. Don’t set the authenticity police after me.
IRISH OAT PUDDING WITH BOURBON RAISINS AND SPICED BERRY COMPOTE – based on a recipe in Irish Puddings, Tarts, Crumbles, and Fools by Margaret M. Johnson
1 cup steel-cut oats
½ cup golden raisins
2 Tablespoons bourbon (or Irish Whiskey)
4 cups water
1 cup whole milk
2 large eggs
½ cup light brown sugar
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
zest of 1 orange
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
spiced berry compote (recipe follows)
- Preheat oven to 300°F and grease a 1 ½ quart casserole or soufflé dish with 1 Tablespoon of softened butter. Set aside.
- Toast the oats: in a sheet pan or pie tin, bake the oats for 20 minutes, stirring frequently for even browning.
- Increase oven temperature to 350°F.
- Infuse the raisins: Place the raisins and bourbon in a small bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap.
- Place in the microwave and heat for 1 minute on high power. The plastic wrap, if sealed tightly will contract and create a bit of a vacuum, which helps infuse the whiskey into the raisins more quickly. If you don’t have a microwave, gently heat the bourbon, add the raisins and let soak for 30 minutes.
- For the pudding: In a medium saucepan over high heat, combine the oats and water.
- Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook uncovered, stirring frequently, for 20 minutes or until the liquid is absorbed and the oats are soft but with a bit of chew. Stir more toward the end as the liquid evaporated to prevent scorching.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the milk, eggs, sugar, melted butter, orange zest and nutmeg.
- Add the cooked oats, in several additions to prevent curdling the eggs, stirring in between to combine then add the bourbon infused raisins as well as any whiskey remaining in the bowl.
- Pour the mixture into the prepared dish and bake for 45-50 minutes until lightly browned and set. The edges will be set and the center will be a little jiggley.
- Serve warm or cold with a dollop of jam, a warm fruit compote and/or a bit of whipped cream or crème fraiche if desired.
SPICED BERRY COMPOTE
Makes about 2 cups
One 12-ounce bag mixed frozen berries, not defrosted
¼ cup light brown sugar
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
pinch of ground allspice
½ cup warm water
- Add all the ingredients into a medium saucepan, stirring to combine.
- Bring to a boil then reduce heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes until soft and combined. The berries will pop and the compote will thicken a bit. At that point, it’s perfect.