Every year I make Irish soda bread for St. Patrick’s Day –slathered with butter and served, of course, with corned beef and cabbage—and I think, “Geez, this stuff is so easy to make. And super tasty. I should make it more often!” Then, I drink too many Irish Coffees, run out of buttermilk*, and forget all about this stroke of brilliance until I start seeing corned beef in the cases at Costco in late February.
As many of y’all know, I really only bake under duress (excepting the “3-Bs”: brownies, biscuits, and birthday cakes). All that measuring, weighing on scales, perfect ratios. Accounting for altitude. Ugh. There’s a wonderful bakery down the street from my house to which my very responsible children Sprite and Tim Collins can go as my representatives and pick up a few loaves for our family (and probably clear out half of their bread board sample offerings. Sorry). However, I’m not a fan of any of the “Irish” soda breads for sale in our fair city come March: the ones I’ve tasted thus far are more sweet than savory. Ick. Cakey textured and loaded with sugar and raisins. Double-ick. And completely unlike anything I ate during my foray to Ireland, brief though that was (click here for a fantastic rant on what does and doesn’t qualify as traditional Irish soda bread.)
Soda breads—meaning breads leavened with bicarbonate of soda reacting to an acid, such as that found in buttermilk, rather than bread using yeast—are called “quick” breads for a reason. They usually require little or no kneading, just the very basic incorporation of all ingredients, are not as sensitive about the higher ambient temperature needed to encourage adequate rising. In fact, they generally don’t have a rising period, at all. Foolproof even for the most inattentive baker (yes, that would be me). SCORE. There are lots of theories about why an “X” is cut in the top of the loaf before baking: to let out the faerie spirits or as a symbol of Christianity, for instance. Most bakers agree that the distinctive cut allows for more even baking of the dense bread. I think its faerie exodus, FTW.
You can bake your soda bread in a cast-iron Dutch oven with great results –this is, after all, the traditional method—but a cookie sheet works perfectly well, too. Personally, I enjoy any recipe that requires a good “thwacking” to determine doneness rather than guesswork or toothpicking. And soda bread delivers on that count. This bread dries out quickly, so eat it all within two days, as if that’s any hardship.
Mmmmm, where’s the butter?
Irish Soda Bread
1) In a large bowl, measure out 3 cups of flour (I usually use 1 cup whole and 2 cups white cake or pastry flour, but you can increase your wheat flour up to 2 cups making this a very dense bread).
2) To flour, add:
2 Tbs. brown sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. caraway seeds
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
Stir well to combine.
3) To flour mixture cut in 2 Tbs. chilled butter with a pastry blender or 2 knives until the mixture resembles coarse meal.
4) Make a well in the center of the flour mix; add 1 ½ cups buttermilk.
Stir until just moist (don’t overbeat!)
5) Turn out the dough on a lightly floured surface; knead gently 5 or 6 times (just until the dough comes together). Pat dough into a ball, and then flatten gently to make an 8″ round.
6) Lightly butter a cast iron Dutch oven or on a baking sheet. Place dough in center of baking vessel and cut a shallow “X” into the top with a sharp knife.
7) Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 40 minutes, or until lightly browned on top. You know it’s done if you firmly tap the bottom of the loaf with a knuckle and it makes a sharp “thwack” sound.
8) Cool on a wire rack. Serve in wedges with lots of butter. Yum.
*Yes, I’ve heard you can make your own buttermilk.
Have I ever done this? No.