Shane Smith has made his culinary contributions in the kitchens of famed Irish restaurants, revealing pastry creations that expand and elevate traditional Irish recipes. Shane currently is perfecting his pastry prowess at Airfield Estate, an urban farm in Dublin, Ireland, that has the celebrated restaurant Overends Kitchen. During our trip to Ireland, we were fortunate enough to be invited into Shane’s kitchen for a master class in baking and Irish cultural identity.
Take us inside your home kitchen.
Shane Smith: I live in a small red brick cottage based in the heart of Dublin City. It was built in the 1880s, so it’s a little higgledy-piggledy in layout. I wouldn’t say disjointed—I like to think it has a lot of character. But the kitchen is the most favorite and important room in any house. My open kitchen is on the base level, a very bright space with a gorgeous skylight bringing in a beam of sunshine. I’ve kept much of the old charm of the cottage, with the original fireplace and 100-year-old dresser in the corner, but I have flashes of modern touches throughout. The kitchen is quite small but well-equipped, with my stand mixer, blowtorch, and Silpat baking mat never far from reach. I’ve even got a mini herb garden growing on my stove top. One crucial piece is my American-style fridge, much larger than the traditional European fridge, which allows me to really stock up on my dairy and produce.
What, to you, makes Irish cuisine—and the baking in particular—so unique?
SS: We’re a tiny island, yet our golden ticket is our terrain, giving us unrivaled produce and dairy. I put my hand on my heart and can swear we have the best dairy in the world. I’ve traveled so much, but there’s just something about our cream and butter. Whether it’s Jersey milk in my scones or grass-fed butter in my pastry, if you start off with amazing ingredients, you’ll bake something incredible.
To you, what is the quintessential Irish baked good?
SS: For me, it’s not any one thing; it’s the way we make it our own. Our approach has changed dramatically over the last 10 to 15 years. The classics have set the foundation, like our hearty apple pies and soda breads. But now, we’re more refined and merging with so many more global ideas. We’ve become a melting pot of recipes. We take a beautiful French brioche but bake it with Irish eggs, butter, and milk, and it becomes quintessentially Irish.
How important is family to your Irish baking heritage?
SS: One of my earliest memories is of my grandma baking these individual jam tarts. They’d be filled with beautiful marmalade or berry jam, and she’d leave them on the ledge to cool down. Baking has just always been there in my life. Any time there was an occasion for celebration, it was built around the kitchen and good food. In Ireland, we really celebrate through food.
Describe your approach to Irish pâtisserie.
SS: It’s all about mastering your mother recipes and then learning to play with them once you’ve learned the basics. I love tweaking and incorporating my many travels into my baking. I’ll go to America and Turkey and bring these new flavors and spices to my Irish baking. Ireland has grabbed recipes from here and there and everywhere, and I’m continuing that with my pastry. I’ll take a classic French opera cake and then layer with it Irish cream or a local coffee and give it that Irish twist.
Where do you hope Irish baking is headed?
SS: These days, you can’t walk down the street without smelling freshly baked bread or a finding a pop-up bakery offering laminated Danish or gâteaux. The country is inundated with amazingly talented pastry chefs. Ireland is going from strength to strength in regard to baking and pastry. Different chefs, all over the country, are refining their work and transforming pastry into works of art. It’s all about refinement, and it’s only going to get better.
When people come to visit Ireland, what do you hope they take away from the Irish baking culture?
SS: Every county in Ireland is renowned for something. County Wexford is famous for strawberries. County Kerry has its celebrated dairy. West Ireland is respected for its lamb. That’s the lovely thing about Ireland: every county has something special. When you travel to these places, ask the bakers about their bread or desserts. We’re a country of storytellers, and we want to tell our story of our love of food. There’s a story behind every dish. There’s a person behind each element. It’s not about me or the chef; it’s about us, the producers, the country, and the people: the unsung heroes of Ireland.
You can find the recipe for Shane’s Custard Brioche Tarts in our Authentic Ireland July/August 2020 issue. You can also visit Shane’s website for more delicious and authentic Irish recipes, and make sure to follow him on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter!