Thursday, November 18, 2010

Bastible bread

The bastible is an iron cooking pot with legs that was an essential part of the traditional Irish kitchen in the days before electric ovens took over the world. I've been wanting to get outside and play with fire before the snow sets in, and cooking something up in a bastible sounded like just the ticket.

I don't have an official bastible, mind you, but they sound a lot like the camp ovens I do have, so ... here we go!

This is a soda bread recipe from Darina Allen's Forgotten skills of cooking (one of the cookbooks I'll be sure to grab on the way out of the house if this place ever burns down). Soda bread has four ingredients and takes about 10 seconds to put together. There is a whole Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread out there, and you should support them because it's a worthy cause -- seriously, could they have an awesomer idea? So bake some soda bread today! The basic recipe is pretty plain, and you can consider adding some currants to it -- only then you'll have to call it spotted dog or railway cake (depending on if you put eggs in there too). Complicated, eh? Who knew?

The first job is to cut a piece of parchment paper to fit in the bottom of your camp oven. This will help get the bread into the pot and out of it later. Keep the parchment in the kitchen while you get your oven heating.

You could use coals from a fire if you want to be super authentic about all this, but I didn't happen to have a fire going, so I used briquettes for this job. They have a pretty steady burn rate and reliable dimensions, so they take some of the guess work out of figuring out how hot your bastible is. There are charts available that tell you exactly how many coals you'll need to reach a certain oven temperature, but the variables of wind, outdoor temperature, humidity, etc. make them a general guideline at best. Basically, you need a number of briquettes equal to about two times the size of your pot in inches to get 350 degrees, and three times the pot size to hit 450. This recipe calls for the bread to bake at about 450, but looking back at my pictures I see that I only used the 350 quantity of coals and it all worked just fine. So my advice is just wing it and see what happens!

One thing that is important when baking is to put about 2/3 of your coals on top of the oven, and 1/3 underneath. This is because it is easier for heat to rise than it is for it to reach down into the pot. So pick a number of coals that you can divide by three (like 21 for a 10 inch pot). It's a good idea to start a few extra in the chimney too, since you'll want to leave a few behind so you can keep a reserve burning -- just add a few extra briquettes every now and then so you have replacements available when the ones on the bastible burn down.

 Ok, enough of all that. Fire up your chimney starter with however many coals you've come up with.

When the coals are ready (ashing over) put 1/3 on the ground under your oven and 2/3 on top. Make sure the ones under the bastible don't touch it or you'll get burn spots on the bread. Keep them all at the outside edge of the pot too. If it's cold and windy,  find a sheltered spot for the oven to help it stay at a steady temp. While the bastible is heating, go make your dough.

To make the dough, you'll need 3 1/2 cups of flour (half white, half whole wheat), 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of baking soda, and 2 cups of buttermilk.

Mix the dry ingredients, then make a well in the centre of the flour mix and pour in the buttermilk. Stretch out your fingers and stir your way from the middle to the edge of the mixing bowl. By the time you get to the edge, you should have a nice ball o' dough.

Turn it out onto a floured surface and work it into a little round disk about 2 inches thick. (You can see I snuck some caraway seeds in there.)

Cut a cross in the loaf, and prick the centre of each section to let the fairies out. Put the loaf on your parchment paper, and head outside to put it in the oven (did I forget to mention that you should do all that charcoal stuff outside?).

You'll need a lid lifter to get the lid open without getting ashes all over your bread. An iron spider is also nice since it gives you a spot to put the lid when you remove it.

Pop the loaf in the oven,

get the lid back on, and let it bake away for about 40 minutes -- or until you smell burning, whichever comes first. Every 10-15 minutes, give the pot a 1/4 turn and the lid a 1/4 turn to ensure that any hot spots get rotated. Replace any coals that have gone out (being less dilligent with the bottom ones towards the end to prevent burning your bottom :D) and keep the chimney reserve alive by adding a few extra briquettes every now and then. (You could, of course, do all this in the oven at 450 and skip the whole charcoal extravaganza if you like, but where's the fun in that?!)

When the time's up, pull out your marvel (two wooden spoons helped me out here). Then slice it up and enjoy with lots of butter, some marmalade maybe, or a beer, or whatever else strikes your fancy. Eat it all up if you can, since two days from now it will be a block of cement.

Bain taitneamh as do bhéil!


  1. That is cool that you cook it outside!!!

  2. This is great. I remember eating bastible bread at innishannon steam and vintage rally about 20 years ago and my dad nearly losing his life with excitement. Thanks!

  3. Great post - thanks - I ahve been wanting to get my oven out.