So much rancor out there over the concept of what constitutes real soda bread; it’s making me a little dyspeptic, and in need of a bicarb. Heh. Anyway, you’d think it was a political debate, and maybe it is; Andrew thinks the white-flour-with-raisins version may be more typical of Northern Ireland than the brown kind. But come on, people. Soda bread is just bread that’s leavened with soda (baking soda) mixed with an acid, like buttermilk. And from my research and personal interviews, there are lots of soda bread variations even within Ireland, so I’m tossing the idea of an “authentic” Irish bread out the window, and spelling it lower case.
I’ve made the following recipe ever since 1981, when I clipped it from a King Arthur Flour ad in the Boston Globe. But a couple of years ago, when the page went missing in a sea of unfiled paper, I started surfing for a substitute, and discovered very strong voices declaring that true soda bread is Brown and Not Sweet with No Raisins. What? My beloved King Arthur was not real soda bread? I tried a few of the recipes I’d found and none were as good. This year, amazingly given the chaos of the move, I found it again, and Andrew’s mum Angela chimed in. She was born in raised in the north of Ireland, and I was delighted to find out that she makes hers with white flour and raisins; she also gave me some very sensible advice about not overworking the dough.
King Arthur’s Irish Soda Bread, ca. 1981 and updated with real Irish granny input
4 cups unbleached white flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons caraway seed (optional)
1 cup raisins
1 egg (at room temperature)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups (about) buttermilk (at room temperature)
Preheat oven to 375°F. Put first six ingredients in mixing bowl and stir well. Add raisins and stir. Add egg and shortening and stir. Add 1 1/4 cup buttermilk all at once, or a bit more if it seems too dry. Incorporate all the liquid and dry ingredients into a firm dough and then stop stirring. Do not knead the dough, but shape and pat it into a flattened ball on a lightly floured sheet of baking paper, dusting the top with a bit more flour. Make a cross in the top with a sharp, floured knife, forming four quarters, like the four provinces: Ulster, Connaught, Leinster, and Munster (get it? I made that up). Move the dough and baking paper to an ungreased baking tin.
Bake for about 40 minutes. Insert a cake tester in the center of the loaf and if it comes out clean, the loaf is baked.
I did like the idea of brown bread on aesthetic grounds, and vowed to keep searching for the right one. Here’s one adapted from Bernard Clayton’s New Complete Book of Breads. We served it last night for dessert (it is a touch sweet) alongside the King Arthur loaf and with several nice cheeses, and it got gobbled up. It’s dead easy and I’ll definitely be making it again.
Royal Hibernian brown loaf
2 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour, stone-ground preferred
1 cup all-purpose flour, approximately
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup (2 oz) butter, room temperature
1 1/4 cups buttermilk, room temperature
Preheat oven to 400°F. In a bowl mix together all of the dry ingredients. With your fingers work in the butter until it is absorbed by the flour, and the mixture resembles tiny, soft bread crumbs.
Make a well in the center of the mixture. In a separate bowl lightly beat the egg and stir in the milk. Gradually pour the egg-milk mixture into the well, mixing well with a wooden spoon until all ingredients are incorporated. Do not knead the dough, but shape and pat it into a flattened ball on a lightly floured sheet of baking paper, dusting the top with a bit more flour. Make a cross in the top with a sharp, floured knife, forming four quarters.
Move the paper and dough to an ungreased baking tin, and bake till it has browned and has opened dramatically along the cuts, about 40 minutes. Remove the bread from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool before cutting in thin slices.