Soda Bread for St. Patrick's Day

Soda bread
Soda bread

Most versions of soda bread seen in the United States are fancy ones with lots of butter, sugar, raisins, and sometimes caraway seeds added for flavor and richness.  Really, traditional Irish soda bread is similar to a slightly dry version of a scone – it is very simple and needs a little butter and marmalade to make it more interesting.  These versions of soda bread that follow are adapted from one of my favorite cookbooks, Darina Allen’s Traditional Irish Cooking (Kyle Books, 1995).  Darina runs a very highly regarded cooking school and country inn at Ballymaloe in Ireland and is rightly regarded as the top food authority of that country.

Makes one 9- to 10-inch round loaf

4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour (spoon flour into dry-measure cup and level off)

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 cups buttermilk (plus a couple of tablespoons more if necessary)

One cookie sheet or jelly roll pan covered with parchment or foil

  1. Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 425 degrees.
  2. Stir together the flour, salt, and baking soda in a bowl.  Make a well in the center and add the buttermilk.
  3. Use a rubber spatula to gently stir the buttermilk into the flour mixture, scraping up from the bottom of the bowl and using a movement similar to that for folding in egg whites.  The flour should be evenly moistened and form a soft dough.  If there are dry spots of unmoistened flour after you have mixed in the buttermilk for about 15 seconds, add a tablespoon or two more buttermilk and gently mix again.
  4. Scrape the dough out onto a floured work surface and fold it over on itself two or three times.  Form the dough into a ball and transfer it to the prepared pan.  Press the dough into a disk and cut a cross in the top of the dough that extend over the sides of the loaf, too.  Darina says that this is to let the fairies out!
  5. Bake the soda bread for about 15 minutes, or until it is beginning to color.   Open the oven to check the bread and lower the heat to 400 degrees.  Continue baking 20 to 30 minutes longer, or until the loaf is dark golden and baked through – you can test the center for dryness with a toothpick.
  6. Slide the soda bread to a rack to cool slightly before serving.  If you want a crisp crust, leave the bread uncovered.  If you prefer a tender crust, cover the bread with a towel as it is cooling.

Serving:  Cut the soda bread into 1/2-inch slices and serve with butter and orange marmalade.  Strong tea is the traditional beverage.

Storage:  Keep the soda bread covered at room temperature.  Leftovers may be sliced and toasted.

VARIATIONS

SEEDY BREAD:  Add a tablespoon of sugar and 2 teaspoons caraway seeds to the flour mixture.  Rub in 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter with your hands or a pastry blender.  Moisten with 1 1/4 to 1 1/3 cups buttermilk (the sugar and butter will make the dough stickier).  Shape and bake as above.

SPOTTED DOG:  To the SEEDY BREAD, above, add a cup of raisins or currants or a mixture.  Omit the caraway seeds.  Beat one egg with 1 cup buttermilk and use that to moisten the dough, adding a couple of more tablespoons buttermilk if necessary.  Shape and bake as above.