Pies & Shamrocks

Another week with multiple celebrations!

Today we start out with math geeks and bakers favorite – Pi Day. Growing in popularity, this new national holiday was recognized by Congress in 2009. Pi Day – March 14th (aka 3.14) –  was first celebrated in 1988 by Larry Shaw, a physicist at the Exploratorium, an interactive science museum in San Francisco. Shaw thought the date fortuitous as it was also Albert Einstein’s birthday. The first party included circular themes, a circular parade and pie-eating festivities.

This modern holiday offers nerds the opportunity to crack math puns as well as a great excuse to bake and eat pie.

What do you get when you take a bovine and divide it by its circumference?

A cow pi.

But what does pi have to do with pie?

In mathematics, pi is the constant ratio of a circle’s circumference to the diameter. The Greek letter denoting pi is derived from the Greek word for circumference – perimetros. Pies are the perfect way to celebrate Pi Day because they are circles.

Silly as it may sound, the discovery of pi is considered one of the greatest mathematical achievements leading to the creation of modern engineering and architecture.

So, bake up a pie today for Pi Day.

If pie isn’t your thing, there’s still another cause for celebration this week – Saint Patrick’s Day.

Not Irish? Don’t worry, neither was Saint Patrick; he was a Roman Briton who was kidnapped by pirates as a teenager and sold into slavery in Ireland to tend sheep. After escaping, he returned to Wales and then traveled to France where he became a priest before returning to Ireland where he was a missionary for forty years.

Saint Patrick’s Day didn’t even originate in Ireland – it began in 1737 with the Charitable Irish Society in Boston. It was basically a big party among a group of Irish immigrants in the Massachusetts colony to celebrate their heritage and to promote unity within the community. Given the revelry with rowdy parades and drinking, the tradition caught on and has expanded globally as a way for the Irish to celebrate their ancestry and for others to wear green, get pinched for not wearing green, to bake soda bread, eat corned beef and cabbage, and of course, tipple some Irish whiskey with a shamrock floating on top for good luck.

As with most celebrations, food plays an integral part of Saint Patrick’s Day. Chances are this holiday would not have come about if it weren’t for a blight-causing mold which led to famine in the Emerald Isle after four consecutive years of crop failure beginning in 1845. By 1850, over a million poor Irish – considered refugees – relocated in the United States, overwhelming cities on the eastern seaboard.

Corned beef and cabbage are not traditional Irish foods but were what immigrants substituted in place of their traditional bacon and lamb, which were costly in late nineteenth-century America. In Ireland, cattle were valuable as draft animals and not slaughtered for food unless injured or old. Beef was considered a luxury. However, in the United States, beef was plentiful and relatively inexpensive. To feed large groups of people, Irish immigrants turned to beef brisket – the cheapest large cut of meat that cured well in coarse salt – the “corns” – and cabbage as an alternative.

Similarly, soda bread did not become an Irish staple until after 1843 when baking soda became commercially available as an alternative leavening agent. When combined with the lactic acid in soured milk, tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide formed to raise the dough. It was a creation designed to utilize poor quality wheat during the potato famine and large quantities of bicarbonate were distributed to the underprivileged as it was much less expensive than yeast. Creameries were able to sell what was essentially a waste product – old milk – to the impoverished so they could make bread using soda. Modern recipes call for buttermilk, yogurt and even stout beer to provide lactic acid.

If you want to give Irish Soda Bread a try this Saint Patrick’s Day, here’s a recipe from The Art of Irish Cooking by Monica Sheridan (1965).

Brown Bread


  • 4 cups Stone Ground Whole wheat flour
  • 2 cups White flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp Baking soda
  • 1 1/2 tsp Salt
  • 2 cups Buttermilk


Mix the whole wheat flour thoroughly with the white flour, salt, and baking soda.
Make a well in the center and gradually mix in the liquid. Stir with a wooden spoon. You may need less, or more liquid – it depends on the absorbent quality of the flour.

The dough should be soft but manageable. Knead the dough into a ball in the mixing bowl with your floured hands. Put on a lightly floured baking sheet and with the palm of your hand flatten out in a circle 1 1/2 inches thick.

With a knife dipped in flour, make a cross through the center of the bread so that it will easily break into quarters when it is baked. Bake at 425 degrees for 25 minutes, reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake a further 15 minutes. If the crust seems too hard, wrap the baked bread in a damp tea cloth. Leave the loaf standing upright until it is cool. The bread should not be cut until it has set – about 6 hours after it comes out of the oven.

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