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updated: 3/13/2018 1:53 PM

In Ireland, making fabulous brown bread seemed foolproof; here at home, not so much

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  • Jan O'Halloran's Brown Bread in all its browned and chewy glory.

    Jan O'Halloran's Brown Bread in all its browned and chewy glory.
    Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post

 
By Luke Pyenson
Special To The Washington Post

As I settled in to my seat on a flight to Ireland last summer, I drifted into a gentle daydream. Soon my girlfriend and I would arrive in County Clare to spend a week with our friends Ruan and Sal. We'd reach Sal's parents' rural home across the bay from Galway City, and be immediately greeted with a warm loaf of freshly baked brown bread. Sal's effusive descriptions of her hometown over the years had prepped me for this moment, and I could almost smell the bread.

A couple of hours later, this scene unfolded more or less as I had dreamed it.

During our time in Clare, we ate a wonderful array of home-cooked dishes: a traditional roast dinner of lamb, a feast of local shellfish, hearty Irish breakfasts and frequent snacks. The thread holding it all together was the omnipresent brown bread. With a deeply toasted exterior and moist, pleasantly chewy interior, it was unlike any loaf I'd had. It was versatile, wholesome and, as I would come to learn, easy to make -- once I figured it out.

One morning, I joined Sal's mom, Jan, in the kitchen as she prepared the day's loaves. It couldn't have been simpler: We mixed oats, yogurt, baking soda, a little flaxseed meal, an egg and a bit of milk to form a slightly sticky dough. This went into prepared loaf tins and a 180-degree (Celsius) oven. I watched as she took the golden loaves out 50 minutes later, turned them out of their tins and put them back in the oven upside-down for 10 minutes to crisp and darken. I'm a confident cook who has always left baking to bakers. But this, I thought, I could do.

My first attempt was inedible: I'd messed up the ratios. The recipe I'd sloppily recorded on my iPhone combined exact measurements with vague oral instructions: 500 grams of oats, but a "good dollop" of milk. Jan made it look so easy that I was sure it would all just come together. Not quite.

I was more distressed with my second and third loaves. The outsides were beige, covered in raw-looking oats; the insides were bone dry. It occurred to me that Jan hadn't used Greek yogurt, as I had. And when I looked back at my photos, I realized she hadn't used regular rolled oats, either. Somehow I'd managed to mess up the two main ingredients.

By now I was even more determined, motivated as much by the desire to taste it again as the need to make Ruan and Sal proud. I'd been sending embarrassing photos of my failures to our group chat, but after my fourth loaf disappointed, too, it was time for serious troubleshooting. The texture had improved with quick-cooking oats (an Irish brand, obviously), and I'd even bought fresh baking soda. But I was still making Irish tan bread.

At this point, Ruan chimed in: "I don't want to sound like a big eejit here, but it's not a Celsius to Fahrenheit mistake is it?" If only. I had adjusted Jan's 180 degrees into the standard American 350, but something clearly had to change. I needed to leave the loaves in longer, increase the temperature, or -- this was the a-ha moment -- both.

My next two loaves were darker, but still a bit dry. And Sal's euphemistic response of "It looks pretty good!!" told me I still had work to do. So I zeroed in on the "dollop of milk." I measured out what I thought would work, and put my seventh (!) loaf in the oven with a prayer. It came out perfect: a rich, gorgeous brown on the outside and marvelously close-textured on the inside.

I sent my friends another photo. When Sal replied "Oooh mama!!!" -- maternal reference not intended but appreciated -- I knew I'd finally succeeded. Since then, my brown breads have been wonderfully consistent (and, yes, easy), and I've gotten my family hooked, too. Now Ruan and Sal can try something from my tradition, and they have a standing invitation to any Jewish holiday at my parents' house. Maybe braided challah is next. Or maybe we'll just start eating brown bread on Rosh Hashanah.

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