In Ireland, soda bread is not necessarily for special occasions. It’s basic, everyday bread, usually whole wheat, baked without sugar or flavorful accoutrement, and eaten with soup, gravy, or butter. It’s easy and quick to make: There’s no strenuous kneading or time consuming yeast fueled rising involved.
Instead, this bread rises on impact when baking soda reacts to acidic buttermilk. Back in the early 19th century, when many Irish families did not have an oven, it could be baked in a large covered cast iron pot. But of course here in America we stray slightly from authentic. For the St. Patrick’s Day holiday, I see no harm in a jazzed up soda bread, with a couple tablespoons of sugar and dried currants thrown in the batter.
A few tips:
1) Handle the dough with care – the longer it’s mixed, the tougher the end product will be.
2) The dough might be very sticky. If it’s too gooey to shape, add extra flour (I had to do this). Add more buttermilk if it’s not moist.
3) Don’t forget to cut two perpendicular slices on top of the dough before baking. I always thought this was for aesthetic reasons. It looks pretty, and makes the loaf easier to slice later. But superstitious Irishmen say the cross shape keeps the devilish fairies out. Food scientists suggest it’s to help heat penetrate the dough evenly.
Irish soda bread
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons granulated white sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 currants (or raisins, if preferred)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease baking sheet with butter or oil, or line with parchment paper.
In a medium bowl, mix buttermilk, egg, and oil. Whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture, then pour in wet ingredients. Add currants. Carefully blend together all with a wooden spoon, until dough is soft and moist.
With liberally floured hands, knead dough into a round shape. Place on pan, and cut two deep cross-shaped slices across top. Bake for 25 to 35 minutes, until golden brown. Serve warm, with a bit of butter.
Nora Dunne is a Monitor contributor.