Words and Photos By Carrie Havranek
First things first. This is a recipe for Irish soda bread, but not as Americans may know it. I’m going to tell you what most recipes you might encounter for soda bread typically contain, and from there, you may deduce why this one is better. First, it’s from the Ballymaloe Bread Book, by Tim Allen. Secondly, it’s actually called Spotted Dog; in some parts of Ireland it’s just referred to as Railway Cake, because it travels easily and is often a travel companion, i.e., given as a parting gift to visiting friends. (Sigh. What a culture.) Thirdly, it does not have copious amounts of (or in some cases, any) of the following: sugar, vegetable oil, vegetable shortening, or butter. Do you think people were using shortening in Ireland 100 years ago? Probably not. There’s no butter, because these ain’t scones. Furthermore, this is not a sweet, cloying bread, so why are people putting so much sugar in these recipes? Its only sweetness should come from the raisins (currants are a bit more traditional), and a tablespoon or so of sugar. It should also not be wet, as some soda breads I’ve tasted unfortunately are (thanks to the oil). And the caraway seeds may have been traditional in some parts of Ireland, but chances are that’s something immigrants here added to the bread. All you really need is some good buttermilk and a gorgeous local or organic egg, and you probably have everything else in the cabinet. And because the leavening is chemical and not from yeast, you can have this bread in and out of the oven in about an hour or less.
Irish Soda Bread
- 1 lb. all-purpose unbleached flour (about 3 3/4 cups but if you have a scale, please weigh instead)
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 Tbsp. sugar
- 12 ounces of buttermilk (Note: if you don’t have this in the house, you can make it by adding a teaspoon or so of freshly squeezed lemon juice or apple cider vinegar to whole milk and letting it curdle.)
- 3-4 ounces raisins (Another note: I like baking raisins but if you don’t have those, add a couple tablespoons of boiling water to straight-up regular raisins, enough to moisten but not waterlog them. Drain them before adding to the dough. You can also use rum to soak them in, but I don’t think the folks at Ballymaloe would. Perhaps whiskey? Or Irish Mist? Oh, that gives me an idea . . . )
- 1 large egg, room temperature
- Fully preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. You want it good and hot.
- Sift the flour and baking soda into a large bowl, and then add the salt, sugar and fruit. Mix the ingredients together with your hands by letting them fall loosely through your fingers. This adds air to your bread.
- Make a well in the center of the flour. Fill the measuring cup with buttermilk, and add the egg so that the total liquid equals about 14 ounces. Pour most of the liquid into the center of the well.
- Here’s the messy part. Using your fingers, open and stiff, mix the dough together in a full circle, dragging the dough from the sides of the bowl to incorporate it all. You must work quickly and deftly. It will be shaggy, moist, but not too wet. Add more liquid from the measuring cup if needed.
- You may need to add more flour. This is okay. Ambient humidity is totally affected by bread recipes, especially something that requires chemical leavening like soda bread. When the dough has just about come together, carefully tumble it out onto a pastry board coated with flour.
- Tidy up the loaf, forming it quickly into a round loaf that measures about two inches high. Slash a cross into the loaf, and prick each of the quarters with the tip of the knife to let the devil out of the bread (not kidding.)
- Bake for ten minutes at 425, and then drop the temperature down to 400 degrees for the remaining 30-35 minutes.
- The bread is finished when it’s golden brown all around and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. Don’t let it get too dark; this bread does not keep long and will get dry fast enough on its own, so you don’t want to help it along by overbaking it. Remove it, and please, for the love of the Irish or even just the Irish-Americans, please wait until it’s fully cooled before you slice it. You don’t want to disturb the important work that happens when bread cools.
- This will keep, covered, for a couple of days. It also freezes well and reconstitutes itself well by popping it into the toaster. Please make sure you eat at least one slice of it slathered in good butter. Irish or not.
A few notes about soda bread. The less you handle it, the better it will taste. Overmixing and overhandling results in tough bread. This bread is also much more traditionally made with whole wheat flour, and you can certainly use white whole wheat or a combination of regular AP flour and whole wheat. Just be warned that you may need to add more buttermilk, because whole wheat flour will want to absorb more liquid. It also serves as a great base for other sweet (chocolate, dried fruit) and savory (cheese, herbs, vegetables, olives) add-ins in substitution of the raisins. And you can certainly leave the raisins out if you don’t like them.
Carrie Havranek is a writer in Easton who made a lot of soda bread—brown, Irish, or otherwise—before nailing this recipe.