``I was many years married before I first triumphantly put a really good brown soda loaf on the tea table,'' Myrtle Allen writes in ``Myrtle Allen's Cooking at Ballymaloe House'' (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $24.95). ``This brought me no praise, only a few disillusioned grunts about the pity it was that I had taken so long to learn the art!'' Mrs. Allen stresses two things in making soda bread: Get the soda right - enough to raise the dough, but not so much to affect the flavor; and make a heavy, slack dough that need not and should not be kneaded much.
3 1/4 cups whole-wheat flour, preferably stone-ground
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 cup less 1 tablespoon quick-cooking or regular oats (not instant)
About 2 1/2 cups buttermilk or sour milk
Sift flours, salt, and baking soda together in a large bowl. Stir in oats. Make a well in center, pour in buttermilk or sour milk. Stir with wooden spoon until mixture forms a soft, moist dough. If batter seems too dry, add a few more tablespoons of milk.
Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface and form it into a large, rounded disk, about 8 inches in diameter. With a sharp knife, cut a deep cross through the dough, cutting the disk almost into quarters.
On a buttered baking sheet, bake the bread in the middle of a preheated 425 degrees F. oven 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 degrees F. and bake 20 to 25 minutes more, or until bread is crusty and richly browned. Cool on a rack. Yield: one large loaf.
Variation: For a Spotted Dog loaf, add 1/2 cup sultanas (raisins) and use all-white flour.
(Note: To sour milk, add 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice or vinegar to milk and let stand 10 to 15 minutes, or until thickened or curdled.)