Pluck O’ The Irish

A dash of caraway jazzes up soda bread, sweets, veggies - even grilled cheese sandwiches.

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No St. Patrick’s Day spread would be complete without a celebratory soda bread, and no true Irish soda bread would be complete without caraway seeds. The tradition got started because “adding caraway to ordinary breads was an easy and inexpensive way to tart them up, so to speak—to make them special for parties and festivals,” explains Tim Allen, author of The Ballymaloe Bread Book and co-owner of the Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork, Ireland.

But the Emerald Isle does not stake sole claim to these small, striated “seeds” (botanically speaking, they’re actually a fruit). Throughout the United Kingdom, bakers use the spice’s complex flavor to create sweet “seedy cakes.” And across the Channel, the complex flavor of
caraway—with its hints of cumin, parsley and anise (all relatives of the caraway plant)—infuses desserts and yeast breads in the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.

Most Americans are familiar with caraway from the seeded or Jewish rye bread, a favorite for sandwiches. “Caraway has an amazing synergy with rye flour,” explains Rose Levy
Beranbaum, author of The Bread Bible. “Not only does caraway enhance yeast development, but somehow its flavor makes rye taste  more like rye.” Beranbaum is such an enthusiast of caraway’s effect on rye that she pulverizes the seeds in a coffee grinder, then adds the powder    to the bread that she makes for an elderly aunt who dislikes the seeds.

But there’s more to caraway than bread flavoring. Dutch cheese makers add the seeds to Gouda
varieties. Germans and Austrians steep caraway in grain alcohol to make the liqueur kümmel, and Scandinavian drinkers consider caraway the classic flavoring for their beloved aquavit.

Caraway seeds are a common addition to Baltic spice blends and have even made their way into
North African cooking, where they are an integral part of harissa sauce, a hot sauce used to flavor couscous.              

When it comes to home cooking, the distinctive, earthy pungency of the caraway seed really shines when it’s showcased in dishes that call for sweet vegetables such as beets, carrots, parsnips and sweet potatoes, according to Tony Hill, author of The Contemporary Encyclopedia of Herbs & Spices.

Hill suggests adding caraway “anytime you want a dose of savory to balance out the sweet in a food; it also plays well against cabbage and eggs.” This natural affinity for hearty fare makes
caraway a real boon in the late-winter kitchen when seasonal produce selections tend to focus on root vegetables and leafy greens.

For the best caraway flavor, Hill recommends lightly toasting the seeds on a baking pan for 10Â?15 minutes in a 250F oven before using them in recipes. Ground caraway can be used interchangeably with whole, though the flavor of the ground spice is subtler. But grinding it does eliminate the seedy texture, which is off-putting to some.

Whether you’re whipping up this soda bread recipe for an Irish celebration or just want to jazz up some veggies, a stash of caraway means you can make a bold flavor statement with just a sprinkling of seeds.

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