Thursday, March 21, 2013

Irish Soda Bread

Like many holidays with a religious origin, St. Patrick’s Day has become a secular observance in much of the United States.  The day celebrates one of the most recognized patron saints of Ireland who brought Christianity to the island in the 5th century.  He is also credited with banishing snakes from the country, though scientific evidence suggests there were no snakes in post-glacial Ireland.

While it has not taken on the commercialism associated with Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Halloween, this holiday is often associated with bacchanalian revelry.  On this night, Irish pubs and other watering holes teem with some of the 36 million Americans that claim Irish ancestry (and many others who make no such claims!) decked out in green shamrocks, clothing, accessories, and face paint.  While I tend to avoid the crowds on this night, I decided to observe the occasion by baking soda bread—a treat commonly made by North Americans on St. Patrick’s Day.

Traditionalists complain that modern versions hardly resemble the original recipe, which was limited to flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk.  My formula includes a few enhancements—caraway seeds, currants, egg, and a touch of sugar—but is restrained in comparison to some cake-like creations.  An online search revealed soda bread recipes with chocolate, butter, orange zest, pastry flour, and loads of sugar; these decadent items sound more like components of French pastries than the baked goods of the formerly poverty-stricken Irish.  One disparaging online testimonial scoffed at the notion of orange zest in soda bread, reminding the audience that oranges were a rare treat only given to children at Christmas.

Thankfully, we live in less austere times and so we can enjoy soda bread (and oranges) more than once a year.

Serves 8-12

4 cups unbleached all-purpose
4 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
1 cup dried currants or raisins
2 cups buttermilk
1 extra-large egg, lightly beaten


1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
2. In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, caraway seeds, and currants/raisins.
3. In a small bowl, beat the buttermilk and egg together.
4. Using a wooden spoon, add the wet ingredients to the dry ones.  Knead the dough to incorporate all the ingredients and add additional buttermilk (in one tablespoon increments) if needed.  Do not knead the dough too much.  The dough should be rough and craggy; it will not be smooth like dough that contains butter and more eggs.
5. Shape loaf into a ball and flatten slightly.  Place it on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
6. Score the loaf with an X that comes almost to the edge of the loaf.  The cut should be about 1/4 inch deep.
7. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean. When it is done, tapping the loaf will produce a hollow sound.
8. Cool on a baking rack for 5-10 minutes.  Serve warm or toasted with butter, jam, or honey.
9. To freeze, cover with saran wrap and place in an airtight container for up to 2 months.