~ Irish Eyes are Smilin' on Mary's Irish Soda Bread ~
My Irish soda bread recipe was given to me 20-25 years ago by my close friend Mary. Mary Teresa Howe and her husband Joe hailed from Buffalo, NY, then moved to and raised their family here in Happy Valley, PA. For almost two decades, my husband Joe and I had the pleasure of sharing many good times with them. From football tailgates to holiday cocktail parties and all sorts of family celebrations, the Howe's enjoyed entertaining and being entertained.
Mary and Joe were of proud Irish heritage and every year on St. Patrick's Day, all of us in their inner circle enjoyed being Irish too. No matter where or how we celebrated, Mary's Irish soda bread was always on the menu, even if Mary didn't make it. Why? Because every one of us had Mary's recipe, which was passed down from her mother via her grandmother. One couldn't taste this soda bread and not ask for the recipe. I asked for it the first time I tasted it -- at an elegant sit-down Sunday brunch, with my husband and parents, in Mary and Joe's dining room.
"May the road rise to meet you and the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, and, may the rain fall soft upon your fields. Until we meet again, may God hold you in the hollow of his hand." ~ An Old Irish Toast
These traditional breads "came to be" as a result of the country's limited ingredients and economic hardships. The climate supported the growth of soft wheat, which didn't work well in yeast breads, so, out of necessity, the soft wheat was mixed with buttermilk and bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) to leaven the dough. Baking soda, when mixed with buttermilk, which contains lactic acid, acts as a rising agent. The round-shaped, rustic-looking loaves were originally hearth baked, either free form on a griddle (a baking pan) or in a pot oven (a lightly-greased baking dish), at a high temperature. In essence, soda bread is indeed an easy, quick and inexpensive method of basic bread baking with an absolutely delicious end result.
White, brown and currant. White soda bread simply means the bread is prepared using white or unbleached all-purpose wheat flour. Brown soda bread means whole wheat or stone-ground wheat flour has been used exclusively, or, has been mixed with some of the white or unbleached flour. Currant soda bread, which is my personal favorite, is white soda bread that has dried fruit, and/or raisins or currants added to it. Mary always referred to currant soda bread as "spotted dog". It was traditionally served with butter and jam for breakfast on special occasions or holidays because: dried fruits, raisins and currants were special treats that were hard to come by.
A bit about the signature cross on top & soda bread tips:
Just before going into the oven, soda bread is always marked with deep cross on the top. Depending on the recipe and how sticky the dough is, after baking, some crosses are distinctly more visible than others, but, trust me, everyone marks the bread. Lore has it the cross is to ward off evil and release good fairies. Culinarily, the cross allows for better air circulation, enabling the bread to get the best rise in the oven. The key to making any type of soda bread is to work as fast as you can, doing as little as possible to the dough. Unlike yeast breads, kneading is virtually unnecessary and the dough itself should reman a wet, sticky, ragged mess right up until the moment it goes into the oven -- a hard concept for us non-Gaelic gourmets to grasp. As per Mary, "Don't linger and don't overwork the dough. Mix it and keep it a sticky mess. If the dough isn't sticking to your hand and fingertips, you've added too much flour and the loaf will be dry."
What about recipes containing eggs, baking powder, vegetable shortening or yeast? They're out there, &, they are delicious, but they are not traditional Irish soda bread.
2 tablespoons sugar
4 teaspoons firmly-packed baking soda
2 teaspoons salt
4 tablespoons salted butter, cut into small pieces and kept cold
1 quart buttermilk, whole is best, but 1%- 2% will work
1 15-ounce box golden raisins
~ Step 1. Place the raisins in a medium-sized mixing bowl and add all of the buttermilk to the bowl. Set aside for 30-60 minutes. Note: You can skip this "soaking" step, but this will indeed soften and plump the raisins a bit.
~ Step 2. In a large mixing bowl, briefly stir together the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. Add the cold butter pieces, and, using a pastry blender and a paring knife, quickly "cut" the butter pieces into the dry ingredients, until evenly dispersed throughout flour mixture. This process should take less than 1 minute.
~ Step 3. Using a large spoon or spatula, form a large well in the the center of the flour mixture. Do your best to make it large enough to hold all of the buttermilk/raisin mixture. Using the same spoon or spatula, working as quickly as you can, gradually incorporate/fold the dry ingredients in the liquid center. A wet dough that resembles a very thick oatmeal will form. Again, this entire process should take less than 1 minute.
~ Step 4. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of the additional flour over top of the dough. Using the heel of your hand, begin gathering and pushing down on the dough, giving the bowl a quarter turn each time you gather and push. Continue process of adding flour, just until you can manageably pull and split the still sticky and ragged dough into two equal parts and lift each one from bowl. Don't overwork it. This too should take less than 1 minute.
~ Step 5. Form each dough half into a rough looking round loaf. Place them well apart on a large, parchment-lined baking pan, or, in 2, 9" round, parchment-lined pie dishes. I prefer the pie dishes, but, there is no wrong decision here. Using a very sharp knife, slash a deep X, about 3/4" into the top of each loaf.
~ Step 8. Bake on center rack of preheated 400° oven, 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350° and continue to bake an additional 20-22 minutes. The bread will be quite brown, crusty, and, have a hollow sound when tapped with your knuckle. Remove the bread from the oven and allow the loaves to rest, on a rack on the pan or in the dishes, 10 minutes, prior to transferring to the rack to cool completely. Cool for at least 1 hour prior to slicing and serving warm or at room temperature.
No matter how you slice it, Mary's bread is just as it should be:
Special Equipment List: cutting board; paring knife; pastry blender; large spoon or spatula; 2, 9" round pie plates or 1, 17 1/2" x 11 1/2" baking pan; parchment paper; chef's knife
Cook's Note: Doesn't this photo look succulent? It is, and, I made it in the crockpot too! To get my recipe for ~ Another Crockpot Corned Beef & Cabbage Recipe ~, just enter "Corned Beef & Cabbage" as Search words, or, click into Categories, 2, 9, 11, 19 or 20.
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/2017)