Co Tyrone cookery school takes Irish home baking back to tasty basics
Have you ever yearned for a taste of home baking, just like Granny used to make? Jenny Lee tries her hand at making soda farls in a traditional Irish cookery class in Co Tyrone
LIKE many who grew up in Ireland, I have fond memories of my grandmother's homemade soda farls, wheaten side and buttermilk scones. Yes, our supermarkets and coffee shops are coming down with all kinds of flavoured scones and pastries, but you just can't beat Irish home cooking.
One Tyrone lady sharing her love and knowledge of traditional baking is Mary Anne Mackle, who uses recipes passed down generations of her own family. And considering her mother once attended a cookery class in the home of the doyenne of baking, Mary Berry, I felt in safe hands as I attended her traditional Irish bakery class, in the purpose-built kitchen at her home, just outside Dungannon.
Having sold her cakes and bakes in St George's Market for a number of years, Mary Anne set up Wee Buns cookery school three years ago and now holds classes on Saturdays, as during the week she has her hands full looking after her two-year-old twin boys.
Mary Anne has an impressive CV. After a degree in business, she decided to pursue a long-held passion for cooking and attended the renowned Ballymaloe Cookery School in Co Cork, under the guidance of Darina Allen.
She then worked at Roscoff, the north's first Michelin-starred restaurant, after "stalking" owner Paul Rankin and phoning his Belfast restaurant every day asking for a job.
"Eventually what happened was a girl in Rankin's cafe in Arthur Street broke her arm and Paul rang me up and asked me if I wanted her job.
"I said: 'Yes, I'll go and work there if you let me go and work in the restaurant afterwards.' He kept his word and almost a year later I moved to the restaurant. It was classic cooking – French – and I learnt so much, as well as seeing at first hand the rewards of full-on hard work," she recalls.
From there Mary Anne moved to London, working in a Terence Conrad Italian restaurant in Saville Row and later securing a position at the world-famous River Café where she worked for the next two years, realising a lifelong ambition and following in the footsteps of Jamie Oliver, who had just left before she started.
"I still think it's the best restaurant in London. It's based on home cooking with their menu changing every day, depending on whatever ingredients are fresh, seasonal and available."
Today, her workplace overlooks the rolling countryside not far from Moy where she was brought up and where she first acquired her love of cooking. Influenced by River Café philosophies, Mary Anne always uses seasonal ingredients, sourced locally and often grown in her parents' garden.
Because of the diversity of her experience she offers a wide range of classes including vegetarian cooking, cake decorating and popular kids' cooking classes.
The class I am attending is the aforementioned traditional Irish baking – soda farls, wheaten bread, scones, potato apple bread (a Co Armagh speciality using Bramley apples) and Irish tea cake – all of which were made by women on a daily basis when buttermilk and flour were the staples in every kitchen.
"My mum Veronica was always baking and cooking. She would have made apple potato bread and given it to us for dinner," says Mary Anne, whose classes are a combination of demonstration and hands-on experience.
Our whole group were amazed at how quick and easy the traditional baking recipes were. There was no yeast or overnight proving involved – just gentle kneading.
Other tips I discovered during my class were that eggs should be stored at room temperature for baking, you shouldn't open the oven door when cooking scones until they go brown, to prevent them collapsing, and wrap your freshly cooked bread in a clean tea towel to keep it soft and and easier to cut.
Of course proof was in the tasting and I was amazed how good they were – just like I remembered as a child.
:: Further traditional Irish baking classes are planned for February 20 and March 9. Anyone interested in finding out more about classes at the Wee Buns Cookery School or to buy gift vouchers should visit Weebuns.com or telephone 0773 9556 408.
MARY ANNE'S SODA FARLS
10 oz plain flour
1 level teaspoon baking soda (too much turns bread yellow)
Pinch of salt
Approx ½-¾ pint buttermilk
Sieve the flour and baking soda into a large bowl. Add salt and aerate well with your hands. Make a well in the centre and add most of the buttermilk; mix in with a wooden spoon or your hand. Add enough milk to make a soft dough (almost wet). Knead very lightly (without applying pressure) into a round shape. Press down to flatten a little and then cut into four .
Meanwhile, heat a heavy-bottomed pan on a gentle heat and dust with flour – when the flour starts to colour the pan is hot enough. Place the farls on the pan and cook on a gentle heat until nicely coloured on one side, then turn over and cook until coloured on the other side. It will take about 15 minutes on each side.
Prop the farls on their sides to cook the sides a little. Then remove from the pan and wrap in a clean tea towel.
POTATO APPLE BREAD
(Makes 2 – Serves 6- )
5 oz self-raising flour
16oz mashed potato ( about 5 potatoes Maris Piper )
2 tablespoons melted butter ( approx 1 oz )
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
3 - 4 Bramley apples
3 heaped teaspoons sugar
Preheat oven to 180C. Peel and boil the potatoes until tender. Drain well and mash until smooth. Weigh out and place in a wide bowl. Add the melted butter. Sieve in the flour – keep a little back as you may not need all of it. Add the ginger and salt. Bring together into a smooth dough, adding more flour if required. Cut in two.
Peel the apples. Heat your pan or griddle. Dust with flour. When the flour starts to brown the pan is ready. Puts lots of flour on the surface. Take one piece of the dough, shape into a round and gently roll out to about 3mm thick. Fold it over to mark the half way line.
Unfold and then finely slice the apples directly on top. Use a little water to dampen the edge and fold the dough over and seal it by pressing the edges together.
Then using a large spatula, gently transfer to the dry pan and cook on the heat until it has a nice colour, turn over ( adding a little more flour to the pan ) and colour the other side. Meanwhile put a baking tray in the oven to heat and then transfer to the warm tray and cook in the oven for about 15 minutes until the apples are cooked. It will puff up when the apples are cooked.
Cut the sealed edge and open up the dough , sprinkle over the sugar and enough soft butter to make it moist. Mash in the butter. Fold over again and spread a little butter on top, place on a warm plate , place an inverted plate on top and keep warm in the oven until ready to serve. Will reheat well the next day.