Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Irish Soda Bread

It's that time of year - when almost everything you see is about to "magically" turn green. From beer to highway lanes to cupcakes. It is, of course, St Patrick's Day. I don't have anything green for you, but I do have a fabulous Irish Soda Bread recipe.

I was curious as to the history of Irish Soda Bread so I did a little research, and just in case you were also curious here's the story. One entry I found, said that Irish Soda Bread wasn't invented by the Irish at all...this didn't sound right to me (and this wasn't even from Wikipedia) so I dug a little deeper. I found a reference from English Bread and Yeast Cookery by Elizabeth David (this book is considered to be THE source for information on all types of breads, yeast breads included): "Soda Breads. Quickly made breads, griddle cakes and scones with bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar or tartaric acid became popular in Ireland, Scotland and England well over a hundred years ago. The properties of chemical raising agents had been appreciated early in the nineteenth century, and experiments with commercially practical formulas had been successful during the 1850s, and earlier...At first, chemical mixes seem to have been used mainly to lighten home-made biscuits, girdle scones, oatcakes, and other bakestone products which had previously been made without any benefit of any aerating agen. It was only later, after they had been much advertised as yeast powder, dried yeast, yeast substitute, that housewives began to think that chemical mixtures could...replace fresh yeast in their tea cake, spice cake and bread recipes...At that period, German or compressed yeast, much like the bakers yeast we know today, was increasingly replacing the old ale yeasts and barms, as was very generally known, although incorrectly, as dried yeast...It is try that well-made Irish soda bread, baked over a peat fire and with meal ground from soft Irish wheat unblended with imported high gluten grain, is unsurpassed for flavour. The draweback with these breads, even when made in ideal conditions, is that they quickly become dry, so are only at their best when freshly baked..."

But this page from Land of Milk and Honey: The Story of Traditional Irish Food and Drink by Brid Mahon is much more interesting: "One of the oldest of all leavens is the sourdough method, and like many great discoveries it probably came about by accident. An old fable describes what happened. Long ago in the "stone age" when a woman made bread by the simple expedient of mixing ground corn and water together and baking the dough on hot stones or in the fire, a gound girl had just put down a loaf to bake when her lover invited her to go on a hunting trip. Off she sped, leaving the mixing bowl unwashed. When next she went to mix a cake in the bowl, a lump of sour fermented dough from the last baking was mixed in with the new dough. The result, of course, was delicious spongy bread which gained her the reputation of being the best bread-maker in Ireland, to her immense satisfaction. Even her lover had to admit that she was a better cook than his mother. Barm beer or liquid yeast obtained from beer-brewing was used from early times. Sowans (fermented juice of oat husks) was another traditional leaven, as was potato juice (potatoes grated and the juice allowed to turn sour). Bread soda, which would act not only as a leavening agent, but create the traditional soda bread, did not come into use until the first half of the 19th century. Cream of tartar and commercial baking powders continue to be used down to the present time." I like this version better, don't you? Luckily, today we don't have to bake over hot stones or an open fire - I don't think I would have done so well back then.

So then, on to our modern-day recipe. This was given to me by a friend I worked with many years ago. It is my favorite Irish Soda Bread recipe. But for you traditionalists out there, be forewarned: there are no caraway seeds in this version. This bread is wonderful slightly warm out of the oven, but keeps well for several days wrapped in foil. It is heavenly toasted with a wee bit (sorry, I had to get some Irish colloquialism in here) of butter and a cup of tea. And when you need just a little nosh to get you through the morning, say at 10am? This is it. All right - I'll just come out with it: this Irish Soda Bread is good any time!

I'll leave you with a very appropriate Irish proverb that says one should serve only "the newest of food and the oldest of drink." May the luck of the Irish be with you this St Paddy's Day!

Barbara's Irish Soda Bread

4 C flour
1 t. baking soda
1 C sugar
3/4 C melted butter
1 C raisins (pre-soaked in water)
1-1/3 C buttermilk
1 egg

Make a cinnamon-sugar mixture for top of bread.

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. Foil-line a 10" oven-proof frying pan and butter the foil.

Sift together the flour, baking soda, and sugar. Then combine the remaining ingredients into the dry ingredients. Mix all together until just combined. Scrape batter into foil-lined pan.

Make a cross in the top of the dough with a knife (FYI: a reference I found said this was not for religious reasons; it was a very practical way to divvy up the bread into four portions - pretty smart, huh?). Sprinkle the top of dough with cinnamon-sugar mixture. Bake for 1 hour.

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