by Margaret Mendel
This article was originally published in March of 2012 here in KRL.
Don’t miss some Irish recipes at the end of this article to help you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, along with a coupon for the Reedley Sandwich Shop!
On my trip to Ireland several years ago we landed at the Dublin airport in weather that the Irish refer to as a soft day. By this they mean a rainy day. It was an early morning arrival and the dining hall in the hotel was closed. So, we fell onto our bed in the small but efficient room and took a nap.
Several hours later we had our first Irish breakfast; a large helping of sweet baked beans, roasted tomatoes, hearty thick sliced Irish bacon, white sausages, potato hash, fried eggs and slices of black pudding. But instead of soda bead we had, much to my disappointment, white bread toast. Later that day I had a slice of authentic Irish Soda Bread and it was as delicious as I thought it would be.
I have ancestral roots in Ireland, though most of my family came to America so long ago that there are only whispers of steerage; a grandfather coming over as a teenager looking for work, and a couple of other relatives with mysterious reasons for why they were quickly exiting the Emerald Isle and heading for the American shores.
Although there has always been talk in the family about our ‘Irishness’ I don’t have a sense of traditional Irish cooking. I have a few authentic German recipes inherited from my German grandmother, but nothing from the Irish side of the family. So over the years I’ve made up my own collection of what I thought were traditional Irish recipes for stews, corned beef and cabbage, and Irish soda bread.
But I’ve recently learned that my soda bread recipe is not traditional and in a strict sense is considered cake. Traditional soda bread contains flour, baking soda, buttermilk (or sour milk), salt and nothing else. If raisins, eggs, baking powder, sugar, shortening or butter are included in a soda bread recipe, it is not bread but cake.
My recipe calls for raisins, sugar and some butter, therefore is considered to be a cake that is called “Spotted Dog” or “Railway Cake.”
HISTORY OF IRISH SODA BREAD
Recipes for Soda Bread appeared in writing as early as 1824 in the United States. In the 1860s recipe books published in the United Kingdom give a standard recipe for soda bead with the note that “it is much eaten in the United States.” Though baking soda was widely used in Europe I was surprised to learn that Irish Soda Bread only came about when bicarbonate of soda was introduced to Ireland in the early 1840s. Because the bread needed only simple ingredients it quickly became a daily bread for this poor country.
When the Potato Famine (The Great Hunger) struck Ireland around 1845, soda bread became an increasingly important food item to try to stave off starvation. Unfortunately bicarbonate of soda became a scarce commodity due to the increased demand; the price also became prohibitive for the poor. Crooked dealers and merchants taking advantage of these desperate times sold substitute chemicals causing many to die.
SODA BREAD CHEMISTRY AND TRIVIA
Bicarbonate of soda when combined with an acidic agent releases carbon dioxide gas, and this is what causes the bread to rise. The acidic agent can be either sour milk or buttermilk. It is interesting to note here that long before bicarbonate soda came onto the scene Native Americans were using wood ash as a leavening for their bread.
There is ‘hard’ wheat flour and ‘soft’ wheat flour. Hard wheat flour is preferred in making yeast breads; soft wheat flour works best for quick breads. Instead of adapting to yeast bread baking and hard wheat, the Irish stuck with the soft wheat and the Soda Bread.
Irish Soda Bread comes in a variety of shapes but mostly it is a hearty flattened round loaf with a cross that is slashed on the top. This cross is not a religious symbol but was a practical way of dividing the bread into equal portions that could be easily broken off.
Irish Soda Bread was traditionally baked in a large three legged cast iron kettle that was hung over an open fire pit or placed directly in a bed of coals. With the advent of modern stoves cast iron Dutch ovens are used in baking this bread.
I have included a recipe for what would be considered Traditional Irish Soda Bread and a recipe for scones. I hope that you have fun with the baking and that your bread comes out with a beautiful tender crumb texture.
There is a grand reward waiting for you when the baking is finished. Cut yourself a thick slice of your warm, fresh-baked bread, slather it with a lashing of butter and pour yourself a cuppa tea; then sit back and enjoy a tasty bit of Irish Tradition.
TRADITIONAL IRISH SODA BREAD
4 cups of flour
1 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1 Teaspoon salt
14 Oz. of Buttermilk (Or use milk that has been soured by adding a teaspoon of white vinegar.)
• Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
• Lightly grease and flour a round cake pan.
• Sieve dry ingredients together in a large bowl.
• Add the buttermilk (or soured milk), mixing until you have a sticky dough.
• Place on a floured surface and lightly knead. (NOTE: Do not knead too long or all the gas from the baking soda will escape and the bread will not rise sufficiently.)
• Shape into a round flat shape, and if you do not have a Dutch oven use a deep round cake pan.
• Cut a cross on top of the dough.
• Cover the pan with another pan or aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove cover and bake for an additional 15 minutes. The bottom of the bread should have a slightly hollow sound when the bottom is tapped lightly with a spoon.
• Cover the loaf of bread with a tea towel to keep in the moisture and to let the bread cool slowly.
Let bread cool for up to an hour before removing the towel and slicing off a yummy piece.
EASY TEA TIME SCONES
2 cups self-rising flour (Baking soda is all ready included in the flour.)
½ stick butter
¼ cup sugar
¾ cup buttermilk (Or use ¾ cup milk that has been soured by adding a teaspoon of vinegar.)
1 teaspoon salt
• Blend together flour and butter until well incorporated.
• Dissolve salt and sugar in buttermilk (or sour milk) and then add to the flour/butter and mix lightly together.
• Roll out to a ¾ inch thickness and cut with a round cookie cutter of use a tea cup as a cutter.
• Brush with milk and place on a floured pan.
• Bake at 475 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes.
Check out another past St. Patrick’s Day article from Margaret: Guiness Recipes.
Why not head out to the Reedley Sandwich Shop for lunch, then back home for some of your Irish Bread for dessert. Use the coupon below and get a special KRL discount.