On days that I get to work at home, I often bake a loaf of bread. Yeast breads are particularly handy for workdays because the yeast does its work slowly and steadily while I sit at the computer. Rising yeast is an ancient form multitasking, far more clever than anything my computer and I can accomplish.
Lately, however, my favorite baking project has been Irish soda bread. It uses a basic, slapped-together recipe that doesn't take much time or mental energy, but yields a comforting loaf to have with tea for an afternoon break.
Soda bread is a simple bread, meant to be made at home, not by a professional baker. It's perfect for folks without fancy kitchens. A mixing bowl, a spoon, and a hearth for baking are all that are actually necessary, although I indulge in an electric oven. Precise measurement is unnecessary; the exact ratio of ingredients is adjusted in the mixing and kneading, no matter how they are measured at the start.
There is something particularly comforting about soda bread late in a day full of work anxieties. The slightly sour and alkaline taste has the same soothing quality of a good, simple cracker – that kind of unappreciated product that used to go by the name "soda cracker." The alkaline taste of soda bread can be tempered with a handful of raisins, currants, dates, or dried fruit, but the additions are purely optional.
Then there is the comfort that comes from the Irishness of soda bread. It represents a connection to a place.
For me, however, Ireland is three generations distant. It is not a place to which I have any connection from life experience.
So when I eat soda bread to connect to the place of my heritage, I'm making a different connection than that of the Southerner who makes chess pie in Minnesota or the displaced New Englander who tries to assemble the makings of a fish chowder in Colorado. My connection is an imaginary one – what I dream it might have been like to bake bread in a whitewashed cottage in Donegal. I'm using food to connect to a landscape in the same way that chess pie and fish chowder connect other folks to specific places. It's just that my place may never have existed outside my imagination.
This soda bread crosses time as well as miles. It connects my kitchen in Kansas to a hearth in Donegal. And it connects the era of computers to a time when leavening flour with soda was an exciting new technology.
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 cups buttermilk (or substitute 2 cups of regular milk soured with 2 tablespoons of vinegar, then allowed to sit for a few minutes)
1 cup raisins, currants, chopped dates, or other dried fruit (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
With wooden spoon, quickly mix flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder together in a large bowl. Add buttermilk and fruit, if using, and mix until a uniform dough forms.
Turn batter onto counter and knead briefly, adding only enough flour to keep the dough from sticking. Form two round loaves, slash tops with an X, and place on a greased baking sheet. Bake 50 minutes or until bread has browned and top sounds hollow when tapped with a knuckle. Cool on a rack before slicing. Makes 2 loaves.