Ireland is famous for delicious soda bread made with simple ingredients. It gets its name from the bicarbonate of soda or baking soda used as the leavening agent.
My grandmother baked soda bread every weekday. Sunday alone was her day of rest. By the time I came to watch her mid-morning bread-making ritual as a little girl, her fingers were arthritic and gout-ridden. Yet as I observed the rhythm of her toil, her hands never failed her. She lovingly formed perfect dough, her fingers never forgetting the swirling, kneading motions she learned as a child.
We all loved Granny’s bread, especially when she made a “sweet cake.” Traditional Irish soda bread is made with flour, salt, baking soda and buttermilk, with no hint of sugary sweetness. When we visited the farm from Dublin, Granny made her special bread by adding raisins or currants, butter, sugar and an egg to her basic soda bread ingredients.
We children loved this special treat, and my uncle savored it too. When my mom made tea she would ask my uncle if he would like a biscuit (cookie in America) with it.
“I’ll have a cut of sweet cake with the tay,” he would reply.
My kids would laugh at the idea of using the term cake to describe bread containing only two or three tablespoons of sugar in the whole loaf. My poor uncle if he was alive today, would look in horror at the luscious, frosting laden, sugary mess my kids call a treat.
He loved “sweet cake” dotted with raisins. My family still love it too. Here is my American version, which produces a loaf most like my granny’s bread of days gone by.
- 5 cups all-purpose flour (plus extra for dusting kneading surface)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 4 oz butter (1 stick)
- 3 tablespoons white sugar
- 1 cup raisins
- 1 egg
- 1 and 1/2 cups buttermilk
- 1/2 cup plain yogurt
My granny never used plain yogurt in her version, but I find it helps keep the crust soft. Irish flour is a little softer than American flour, so I have adapted my ingredient list to create the best bread I can in America.
Turn the oven on to 400 degrees F to preheat while you are making your bread.
Sift the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda into a large mixing bowl. I know many of you don’t bother sifting flour, but I like to do it. I think it helps distribute the baking soda evenly. My granny sifted her flour, so I cannot break with tradition.
Cut the stick of butter into 1/4 inch slices and add to the flour mixture. Make sure to take the butter out of the fridge about 30 minutes before making the bread.
Rub the butter into the flour mixture using your clean fingers or a pastry cutter. I always use my fingers, probably because it is how my mom and both my grandmothers did it. I must admit, I don’t even own a pastry cutter.
The mixture should resemble coarse meal when finished rubbing in the butter.
Next add the sugar.
Toss in the raisins. Feel free to add more if you like more fruit. Guests of honor always got bread with extra raisins in my Granny’s house.
Mix it all together. Take some time to inspect the mixture for any raisin clumps. Pull them apart, if you find any stuck together.
In a separate bowl or pitcher whisk the buttermilk, egg and yogurt together.
Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in most of the liquid. Hold back about a 1/4 cup of buttermilk until you start to mix. Sometimes I use the whole amount, and sometimes a little less. I think this may have something to do with humidity, or the weather on the day of baking. Who knows?
My granny never measured the wet ingredients. She just poured and mixed, her fingers knowing the exact amount by the texture of the dough she created.
Mix the ingredients together with a wooden spoon or use your hands if you don’t mind getting messy. Pull the dough into a round, and away from the sides of the bowl.
Lightly dust a clean, flat kneading surface with flour. Lift the dough ball from the bowl onto the prepared surface. Knead the dough lightly to form a round. Don’t overly knead it. The bread will be tough if it is overworked.
Transfer the uncooked bread dough into a 9-inch round greased baking pan. If the top of the loaf is very floury, brush it with a little buttermilk. Score the top with a cross. This helps create four quarters, or farls as they are called in northern Irish counties.
Granny would tell us this was to let the fairies out of the loaf. Other days she would tell us she was marking it with a Sign of the Cross.
Bake the bread in a 400 degree F oven for 20 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 degrees F and bake for an additional 30 to 45 minutes. The bread is cooked when the bottom of the loaf is tapped and it makes a hollow sound.
This is a wide range for cooking time, but every oven seems to be different. When I used an electric oven in Dallas, my bread took longer to cook than when using my gas oven here in Kentucky. You can also test your bread by sticking a tooth pick in it or a clean knife. They should come out clean when the bread is cooked.
If the bread starts to turn overly dark early in the cooking process, cover it with a tent of aluminum foil.
To cool the bread, wrap it in a clean dish towel and place it on a wire rack. This swaddling helps to keep the crust soft by limiting the amount of steam evaporating as the bread cools.
When cooled cut the loaf into quarters and slice. Serve slathered in butter and with a nice cup of tea.
Soda bread gets dry pretty quickly. It is best served warm, fresh from the oven. It only stays fresh for a day or two, but as it gets a little drier with time, I like to toast it. To tell you the truth, my kids love this bread so much, a loaf seldom lasts long enough to grow stale in our house.
Wishing you all happy soda bread baking days!
Slan agus beannacht leat!
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom