To you Irish out there, thank you for the rich culture you and yours have brought to the world, like Irish Soda Bread for example.
I might have a trickle of Irish blood in my veins, but I doubt it. Even so, on a trip through Ireland, years ago, I felt a kinship with the place and the people. It might have had something to do with the hitchhiking, advised by a village policeman, and short excursions with locals, including a priest, that followed. I foraged for a four-leaf clover and rambled over stone fences to the brink of enormously high and windy cliffs, while my young daughter, at the site of an ancient fortress, hunted in earnest for fairie rings and elves. We ate our share of Irish Soda Bread with marmalade on that trip.
My exposure to baking powder biscuits in my youth instead of soda bread might be another clue to my non-Irishness. My grandmother was expansively engaged in life, and at the heart of a great montage of interests and duties was COOKING. Bountiful tables of efficiently prepared delicious food, a noon dinner for family and hired hands every day, and much of it from her own land. She often made Baking Powder biscuits. I stood and watched from about table high. Like Irish grandmothers with their soda breads, the secret seemed to be held in her hands. In mere moments, and without measuring, a few deft moves with flour, melted butter, and a biscuit cutter became a dozen or two biscuits in the pan. Soft pillows of dough, delicious looking even uncooked. Twenty minutes later hot biscuits on the table. She also made yeast bread rolls that were my favorite – BP biscuits, in my mind, were second best. I kept quiet about that while I ate a couple anyway with butter and honey.
Now I get it. Quick breads are not only delicious, they’re QUICK. On St. Patrick’s Day Irish Soda Bread has its moment, a good time to remember that good bread can be put on the table in a hurry. Truly, in about the time it would take to run to the store and back it’s in the oven and halfway done, a couple of bucks, gas and packaging saved.
What we’ve come to call Irish Soda Bread is not the traditional version, which is made without currants or raisins, a plain bread for sopping up gravy or slathering with butter. The fruity version that we know best is reserved for teatime. Two versions here, an Irish Soda Bread with currants, caraway and orange zest, and then a multi-grain plain bread that’s more everyday Irish.
Honestly, I wasn’t prepared for how wonderful these breads are – texture and flavor far beyond what you’d expect from a bread that you can get into the oven in under twenty minutes flat. The Teatime Bread for breakfast or dessert is amazing – moist and with a beautiful crumb. (Don’t ask about the definition of a bread’s crumb – I can’t explain it, but I think these have it.). And I love the caraway (leave it out if you don’t). The everyday plain soda bread, without the flavoring of sugar and fruit, is versatile and, once again, has good crumb.
Sustainability. Because of moderate climate, no searing summer heat nor frigid winter cold, the wheat grown in Ireland is soft. Its gluten doesn’t develop as readily as it does in hard wheat. Irish Soda Bread is a perfect example of using what’s available and what characterizes a locale. In this case Ireland’s soft wheat adapts perfectly to the chemistry of buttermilk and soda and comes together in a bread that’s in sync with its own region.
Teatime Soda Bread Recipe
Preheat oven to 375º
Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl: 2 C white flour, 2 C whole wheat flour/ 1 1/2 t soda/ 1 t salt/ 1/4 C sugar/ 1 T orange zest/ 1 t caraway seeds/ 1 C raisins or currants.
Combine wet ingredients in another bowl: 1/4 C melted butter/ 1 1/2 C buttermilk/ 1 egg. Good to have these at room temp if you can manage it.
Add wet ingredients to center of dry ingredients and stir gently until just combined. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead only a few times to create a rounded form. Dough is sticky – that’s OK. The less this is kneaded and handled, the better. Place on a buttered baking sheet or in a cast iron skillet and lightly make a cross-shaped indentation through the center. Brush the top lightly with half & half and sprinkle with a little granulated sugar if you’re so inclined. Bake at 375º for 35 minutes or until toothpick inserted comes out clean.
I read varying accounts about how to bake and consume this bread. 425º or 375º, cast iron or baking sheet, eat it while it’s warm, let it cool for several hours, wait until the next day . . . this array of advice encouraged a renegade approach and was permission to make my own way. Clearly, there are many ways to make an Irish Soda Bread. I used cast iron and baked one large loaf at 375º. With a less heat-conductive pan, 425º might be better.
Second batch I made plain (without fruit and with less sugar), truer to what I’m told is traditional, and this one with such an assortment of healthy grains I actually wondered if it would be any good. It was.
Because the Teatime Soda Bread came together easily and turned out beautifully, I used Greg Patent’s basic recipe from A Baker’s Odyssey (celebrating time-honored recipes), but followed the same process as with the previous bread. He recommends cutting the butter, unmelted, into the white and whole wheat flour before adding other ingredients.
Plain Soda Bread Recipe
Greg Patent recommends 425º for about 40 minutes. I used cast iron again and kept oven at 400º.
Combine dry ingredients in one large bowl: 1 3/4 C unbleached all-purpose flour/ 1 C whole wheat flour/ 1/4 C wheat bran/ 1/4 C oat bran/ 1/4 C untoasted wheat germ/ 2 T flaxseed/ 1/3 C raw sunflower seeds/ 2 T granulated sugar/ 1 t salt/ 2 t baking soda. You could add a teaspoon of caraway seeds if you like, though Patent’s recipe doesn’t call for it.
Combine wet ingredients in another bowl: 1 3/4 C buttermilk/ 1 large egg/ 3 T butter, melted. Again, wet ingredients at room temp if possible.
Because it was simple, I repeated the same process as with the previous recipe. Add wet ingredients to center of dry ingredients and stir gently until just combined. The recipe calls for a for a quick kneading with a little more flour to create a viable round form. I found it impossible to knead – too wet and sticky. Yet, I thought it would be OK. I worked with a wide pastry scraper and a little more whole wheat flour. and formed a rustic blob of circular dough which I baked in a buttered cast iron skillet (parchment lined or buttered pan is fine too). Make the characteristic cross-shaped indentation across the center of the loaf before making. No cream or sugar sprinkled on the top of this one. Bake at 400º for 35 – 40 minutes or until toothpick inserted comes out clean.
I could have added another quarter cup of any of the flours; or follow Patent’s directions for cutting in the butter with the flour. Next time. In the meantime, I’m happy with this version.
I’m all about a cup of coffee with toast and jam in the morning whenever I can manage it. In my book a bread’s gotta be toastable. Both of these measure up. I used the plain soda bread for a killer open-faced melted cheese sandwich. Both are good for a couple of days, then freeze whatever’s left and eat it whenever.