I don’t have a drop of Irish blood in my body (which the mess I made of my fingers peeling potatoes yesterday convincingly attests to, result being that I’m typing this with just nine usable fingers right now). But I’m here in Boston so the coming St. Patrick’s day holiday (yes, it’s an actual holiday here, though the pretext is some revolutionary war battle) looms large. Not only that, my older son is in preschool so shamrocks and leprechaun themed items have been showing up after school. Speaking of which, he and his brother are a quarter Irish via their father, so I suppose it’s their heritage calling.
Well, you know me, I’m always happy to find an excuse to bake. And all the moreso from Darina Allen‘s Forgotten Skills of Cooking, the magnum opus of the “Julia Child of Ireland” (and a birthday present from my mother in law, who would be the source of my son’s Irish-American ancestry).
I should as a matter of courtesy state the obvious and warn you that you don’t get very far searching for a recipe for “Irish soda bread” in an Irish cookbook. You know, it’s just soda bread there. And in fact what you will find instead are a whole set of variations on this theme complete with history. A one-time extravagant all-white flour and egg version with an unfancy name–Spotted Dog or Railway Cake. A beginner’s bread, a treacle bread, or soda bread scones. Even an “American” soda bread (with raisins and caraway seed–a tradition preserved by Irish-Americans even as it fell out of use in Ireland).
I don’t make soda bread all that often, as given my weekly (and sometimes bi-weekly) sourdough loaves, we usually have plenty. And it’s always surprising how differently a soda bread emerges compared to a yeast-risen bread. I must be so accustomed to the extra flavors that fermentation creates in “regular” bread that I find that soda bread is unabashedly basic, almost raw-tasting in its simplicity, hardscrabble and craggy.
Its “basic-ness” perhaps is why its proves such a ready backdrops for additions–from breakfasty lemon-lime blueberry bread through a mid-day bacon soda bread to a dessert-like version with chocolate and candied orange peel.
Allen’s distilled version has none of these bells and whistles–it’s a simple, essential loaf. As basic as it is, the real charm of Allen’s recipe is in her retelling: She recalls how her mother made this load every day well into her 80s, and explains how the deep cross is cut through the disk of dough not only to aid in baking but to “let the fairies out.” For me, the humble use of whole wheat flour fits in well with more modern attempts to incorporate more whole grains into baking. But perhaps the temptation of all those soda bread variations was too much and I added a healthy handful of golden raisins to Allen’s most basic loaf–not to make it a sweet pastry in disguise (there’s no added sugar), but merely to give this modest bread just enough personality to be equally welcome at dinner or with tea.
Brown Soda Bread, adapted from Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking
- 2 c whole wheat flour
- 2 c all-purpose flour
- 1t salt
- 1t baking soda
- 3/4c golden or regular raisins (optional)
- 2c buttermilk (you may need more or less)
Preheat the oven to 450F. Stir the dry ingredients together (Allen suggests fluffing with your fingers to give the bread better texture). Make a well in the center and pour in the buttermilk. Stir with a dough whisk or a spoon; it should come together quickly. (Allen suggests using one hand, claw-like, to mix). When the dough is mostly incorporated, turn onto a floured surface (you can work in any dry bits while shaping, and you don’t want to overmix in the bowl). Pat and shape into a disk about 1 1/2 inches tall. Slide onto a baking sheet.
Cut a deep cross into the dough, then use a fork to prick each of the four sections.
Bake for 15 minutes at 450F, then reduce to 400F for another 15 minutes. Turn the loaf over and bake another 5-10 minutes (really!). The bread will be done when it is hollow when you thump it. Allow to cool and enjoy.