Saturday, March 3, 2012

Irish Soda Bread, American-Style

With a name like ‘Boyle’, you’d think I’d know a thing or two about Irish Soda Bread. Sad to say, my exposure to it was limited to once a year, right around St. Patrick’s Day, when my (Welsh) mother whipped up a loaf for the family. She used Eugene Sweeney’s recipe. Dr. Sweeney, the family dermatologist, was a colleague of my Dad’s, and a connoisseur of Irish Soda Bread. I thought his recipe 

was pretty good, but little did I know then that it broke a lot of rules concerning authentic Irish Soda Bread. According to a website called the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread (, traditional Irish Soda Bread (which the Irish obviously refer to as simply ‘soda bread’) is made with flour, baking soda, salt, and soured milk (or buttermilk), and must never

contain the following ingredients:
            *zest, orange or any other kind
            *Irish Whiskey 
            *Honey (substitute for sugar)
            *Double Cream 
            *Sour Cream

In other words, one man’s tradition is another man’s sacrilege. Most soda-bread-eating Americans (who didn’t emigrate from Ireland, that is), probably have enjoyed this seasonal treat made with sugar and raisins. But according to our friends at the SPISB, if you stick raisins in your bread, it’s called Spotted Dog, not Soda Bread. As for the sugar, if you add that, it’s called cake, not bread. Who knew

they had so many rules about bread over there in Ireland? Actually, it’s more about honoring the history of the bread than about hardfast rules. Back in the early 1800’s, when it was introduced, soda bread was a working man’s treat, so it wouldn’t have been made with relatively luxurious ingredients such as raisins or citrus zest, or even butter, which makes perfect sense. You also may be curious about the cross mark on top of this specialty bread. This serves two purposes: first, it’s a symbol of the cross, which resonates in a predominantly Catholic country and is a way of giving thanks. The second reason is to allow the heat to permeate the thickest part of the loaf, allowing for more even baking. All this being said, what I present to you here is not Irish Soda Bread at all, I freely admit. And it’s not Eugene Sweeney’s recipe, which contained eggs, shortening and sugar, not to mention raisins and caraway seeds. My version’s got the sugar, a bit of butter, some raisins and caraway seeds. Not the real deal, but still quite delicious. It’s Irish Soda Bread, American Style, a tradition of its very own. And don’t forget to serve it with lashings of Irish butter and some excellent jam. Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all!

Irish Soda Bread, American-Style

Makes 1 loaf

2 1/3 cups (323 g) all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups (185 g) cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2/3 cup granulated sugar (yes, I know, not traditional)
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup dark raisins
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 1/3 cups buttermilk

1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Prepare a baking sheet by spraying it lightly with cooking spray or lining it with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper.
2. Sift the flours, baking soda, sugar, and salt together into a large bowl. Add the raisins and caraway seeds and make a well in the center. Add the melted butter and buttermilk to the well and gently stir the dry ingredients into the wet ones until a dough forms. Gently knead the dough with your hands a few times and shape it into a large ball with a taut top (don’t handle the dough too much – the more you handle it, the tougher it gets). Place the dough on the baking sheet and flatten it slightly. To make the cross on top, use the lightly floured handle of a wooden spoon and, holding it parallel to the loaf, press it down into the dough until it almost reaches the bottom of the loaf. Repeat to make the other part of the cross. Sprinkle the top of the loaf with some flour and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until it is lightly browned and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. Wrap the bread in a tea towel when it comes out of the oven. Cool in the tea towel set on a wire rack. Serve with Irish butter and jam. This bread is best eaten the day it’s made.