After what sometimes feels just like a breeze or a twinkle, sometimes an eternity, I now intend to take up where I left off. I admit I feel pretty enthusiastic but somewhat rather at ease too. So I start by accessing the blog admin page —password? well, yes, I remember! do I? —, hoping everything remains the way I left it. Great, everything’s in place —sometimes, despite one’s faith in technology, one doesn’t have all one’s wits about it. And while everything starts to come back to life again, during those never ending milliseconds, I cannot but go over and over all those summer memories in my mind that are already starting to become a thing of the past.
As some of you who follow me on Instagram may have noticed, all my senses have been enraptured, among other fascinating experiences, by Ireland. And it is precisely there that the present recipe comes from: this traditional Irish soda bread, whose coarse and humble look is already telling us part of its story while concealing a plethora of goodnesses which will only be revealed to those fortunate souls that achieve to get hold to a fine loaf of this soda bread.
Yes, you heard right, I said soda, bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) to be precise. In fact, this amazing bread is simply made of flour (traditionally wholemeal flour), buttermilk (or sour milk), bicarbonate of soda and salt in its original version. That’s it! No trace of any yeast, a single second of any proofing process or need for kneading the dough. In less than an hour, you can enjoy a freshly baked loaf of bread right at your table. It is indeed a fail-safe kind of bread for all those who still don’t venture to bake their own bread at home or for those curious about this particular traditional recipe. You must agree that this is a truly good start…
And obviously now it is time for a little history class. It seems that the earlier recipe found to date in Ireland dates back to 1836. Because of the state of poverty that devastated the Irish population during the second half of the 19th century, soda bread made it the easiest and least expensive bread to put on the table.
Curiously enough, during the infamous potato crop, a large quantity of bicarbonate of soda was employed by the poorer classes in the preparation of bread; the article consequently became scarce, owing to the increased demand, and the price rose accordingly. Just as today, crooked dealers sold substitute chemicals resulting in death to many.
This extremely precarious situation that the Irish people had to face during one of the darkest ages in their history forced hundreds of thousands of families and citizens to migrate to the States. And as might be expected, the Irish soda bread recipe was part of their luggage. Over the years, the generations and, above all, the good times, the original recipe underwent a few changes or, according to some, it was naturally “enhanced”. Nowadays, it is still very popular across the pond, but it quite differs from the original; generally speaking, it is a sweetened type of bread, made mostly with all-purpose or plain flour, eggs, butter, raisins and/or seeds (especially, caraway seeds).
As hard wheat flour, the main kind used in the US today, requires yeast for a proper rise (“soft” wheat flour does poorly with yeast), bicarbonate of soda is great for “quick breads” of which soda bread is one. Did I tell you that soda bread dough does not require any kneading? You just mix it to get the ingredients to come together with the minimum amount of handling. It’s entirely simple to make but should be handled with great gentleness and care. The more you handle it, the tougher it gets. And that’s a bit frustrating really, because it feels nice.
The cross that is traditionally cut on top of the bread is another of its distinguishing features. But why a cross? It’s scientific, primarily, because it allows the heat to penetrate into the thickest part of the bread, so it assists cooking. And obviously the cross is a cruciform shape, so in a Catholic country that had a resonance—it had the symbolic note of crossing the breads and giving thanks. There was also the expression “to let the devil out of the bread,” so it was slightly superstitious.
All in all, soda bread is still eaten in Ireland today; you can buy brown soda bread in most shops—it’s a fairly standard bread item made by commercial bakers right down to artisan bakers. Some of it is good and some of it is awful. White soda bread is less usual. It’s not that it’s not there, but it’s less usual than in the US. Even so, I can only conclude that I’m totally fascinated by the outcome; not only does it taste really good, its sturdy yet tender texture can equal that of other usual types of bread.
And I leave you with the recipe now, which, as you may have guessed, can’t be easier to make. However, I cannot pass up the opportunity to thank you all for your infinite patience during my absence and for being still there; your invaluable company and endless love over this period of inactivity have been a real stimulus for me and I couldn’t feel any happier and prouder. You are gorgeous!
- 2 cups (280 g) wholemeal flour
- 1½ cups (195 g) plain or all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1½ cups (360 ml) buttermilk
- Place the oven rack in the middle position and preheat the oven (electric) to 425 degrees F (220ºC).
- Lightly oil a baking sheet or large cake pan and set aside.
- In a large mixing bowl sieve all the dry ingredients together (flours, bicarbonate of soda, and salt) and gently mix with a whisk until totally combined.
- Using a rubber spatula or a wooden spoon, make a well in the centre. Then add the buttermilk (pour in a bit at a time until the dough is moist) and mix to form a sticky dough until it leaves the sides of the bowl (this is not a soft, elastic dough).
- Then transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and, using your floured hands, lightly shape into a ball as smooth as possible.
- Gently pat the dough to flatten slightly, cut a cross on top of the dough with a sharp pairing knife and sprinkle with a little extra flour.
- Place your bread on the prepared baking sheet or pan and bake for about 35 minutes. The bottom of the bread will have a hollow sound when tapped to show it is done.
- Remove from the oven and let it cool on a cooling rack away from air drafts (I must admit I just die for warm freshly baked bread).
Eat that day or keep wrapped in a clean cotton kitchen cloth for 2-3 days.
- Be sure to try any variations you can think of, such as seeds, raisins, different flour ratios, combination of different types of flours... Don't forget to tell me all about it!
- National (USA) bicarbonate of soda day: December 30th.
Sources: The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread, Epicurious et al.