If you’re bored with Irish stew, corned beef and cabbage smells up the house and Guinness makes you sleepy, could I suggest a different culinary treat to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this year? How about cooking up a simple, homey, beautifully aromatic, crusty loaf of Irish soda bread?
Irish soda bread is a basic staple in Ireland, a type of bread that was traditionally made from only four very simple ingredients — flour, baking soda, buttermilk and salt. The origins of the bread are humble. It has been made in Ireland since the 1800’s when it was introduced as a means of producing a loaf of bread in farmhouses that did not have an oven. Soda bread originally was cooked in a container called a bastible, a large, flat-bottomed cast-iron pot with a lid on it which would have been put directly on coals or a turf fire. You don’t, of course, need to have a bastible to make soda bread nowadays (and I would wager that few of us have turf fires readily available.) It can be cooked in the oven on a baking sheet.
Soda bread is a type of quick bread — the leavening is done with sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) instead of yeast. The down side to this is that you don’t have that ball of dough sitting there on your kitchen counter filling the house with a swooningly delicious yeasty aroma. The wonderful thing is that it only takes about an hour to make soda bread and you don’t have to wear out your arms and fingers, beating up the dough and kneading it every few hours. The soda reacts with the lactic acid in the buttermilk producing tiny bubbles and this is what causes the dough to rise making the bread light and crumbly — there is a minimum of kneading required so be as gentle as possible. The dough is very sticky so you will need to work on a well-floured surface or use a pastry cloth.
Of course nothing in the world of cooking ever remains completely simple. For instance, there are not a lot of ingredients to worry about in soda bread, but purists engage in intense debates on the Internet about the type of flour that is most suitable for a nubbly yet even-textured result. Irish flour is typically made from soft wheat, so I would say that likely you are best off to use cake or pastry flour which has lower levels of gluten, in your recipe. I have found recipes using all white but also white and brown and wholemeal flour. And there are also many variations and additions — some add raisins, others spices such as nutmeg, some put in an egg or eggs, butter will add richness and a sprinkling of caraway seeds seems to be favored by many. The Barefoot Contessa slips orange zest into her much vaunted recipe. But currants were all that my Irish grandmother used as an embellishment and that’s good enough for me.
The finished bread should have a homespun, rustic appearance. The dough would be shaped into a rounded, domed loaf and scored heavily on top with a cross shape using a very sharp knife. The scoring actually helps the heat to penetrate to the thickest part of the bread while it is baking and to circulate evenly throughout the dough. But there are lots of little stories and mythologies about the symbolism of the cruciform shape that is left on the top of the loaf. Much of the lore is religious in nature but my favorite fancy is that the scoring is done to open up the loaf and “let the fairies out.”
And just a word about something called a “farl”, another Irish specialty. Farls are made from the same type of dough flattened out into a circular shape, cut into four triangular slices (like a pizza) and cooked on a griddle. These are the quickest way to cook the dough and the finished pieces are best eaten warm, like the bread, slathered with butter and homemade jam.
So here’s the basic recipe. If you want to get fancy, there are many, many recipes on the Internet.
Basic Irish Soda Bread
adapted from my Grandmother’s recipe and a recipe on Epicurious
3 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking-soda
3/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 cup currants (optional)
1) Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Lightly flour baking sheet.
2) Mix flour, baking soda and salt and currants in large bowl.
3) Mix in enough buttermilk to form moist clumps. Gather dough into a ball. Turn out onto lightly floured surface and knead gently just until dough hold together, about 1 minute.
4) Shape dough into about a 6 inch diameter round. Place on baking sheet. Cut 1 inch deep X across top of bread, extending almost to the edges.
5) Bake until bread is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped on bottom, about 35 minutes. Transfer to rack and try not to eat the whole thing until it cools a bit.