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A Taste of Ireland...Soda Bread
by Bridget Haggerty
There's an ancient Irish proverb that says one should serve only "the newest of food and the oldest of drink." This illustrates exceedingly well the Irish attitude toward baking and distilling or brewing.
In old Ireland, the woman of the house made a variety of breads and cakes which she baked every day in a bastible or pot oven beside the open fire. Whatever she created - from griddle cakes to barm brack, it was seen as a sign of great respect to offer her guests bread that was still warm and uncut.
Soda bread first appeared in the 19th century, when baking soda was introduced as a leavening agent. Combined with flour and buttermilk, as well as salt, it's very easy to make. Served, still warm from the oven with, as the Irish say, "lashings of butter", the aroma and taste are unique to Ireland and it's become the established favorite with tourists and locals alike. As for the cross that usually appears on the top, you may be surprised to learn that it isn't a religious symbol at all. In the old days, it was simply a practical method of dividing the baked bread into four quarters; for large appetites, one quarter might be served as a single portion.
I've seen and tasted dozens of variations for soda bread, including one in which raisins are added to a white flour mixture. The end result is sometimes called "spotted dog" (not the same as the suet pudding I remember as a child). By far and away, my favorite is the following, which my friend, Jane FitzGerald, graciously allowed me to share with you. It's so good that it has won first place and other awards in several of the baking contests held during Cincinnati Irish Dancing competitions.
Jane FitzGerald's Blue Ribbon Feis Soda Bread
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons caraway seeds - optional. A friend who lives in Cork tells me that caraway seeds are strictly personal taste and are not normally used in traditional soda bread recipes.
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups buttermilk.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Lightly grease, then flour baking sheet. In large bowl, mix flour, baking soda, salt and optional caraway seeds. Mix in buttermilk to form dough into ball. You may need to add a little more buttermilk. Turn out onto lightly floured surface and knead until dough holds together, about 1 minute. Shape dough into a 6-inch round. Place on prepared baking sheet. Cut 1-inch deep X across top of bread, reaching almost to edges. Bake until bread is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped on bottom, about 40 minutes.Transfer bread to rack and cool. If not serving right away, wrap loaf in tea towel to prevent it from drying out too much. If not eaten in entirety, wrap well in foil or plastic wrap to keep as moist as possible.
Recently, Bridget was one of the judges in a Soda Bread competition; the guidelines for baking a loaf worthy of a blue-ribbon are a valuable reminder that it's always best to stick with tradition - which also reminds us of the old Irish proverb - "neither make nor break a custom." So, here's an adaptation of the guidelines created by the award-winning baker herself, Jane FitzGerald:
Guidelines for Soda Bread Competitions
1. Appearance/visual appeal
Entries are scored on just the bread itself, meaning no extra points for fancy accessories used in the presentation. The loaf should also be left whole to ensure that it will stay as fresh and moist as possible.
NOTE: Of nearly twenty entries that we judged, many did not have the deep cross cut on the top; perhaps the competitors were hesitant to cut too deeply? Fear not! Imagine that you are dividing your bread so that it will break apart easily - which was the original intention.
Traditional soda bread does not have a "cake-like" texture. It should be moist and chew like bread and have a slight hint of soda. It should also be baked long enough so that the center is done. The best way to check is to tap it on the bottom - it will have a hollow sound when baked completely.
No wild interpretations! Breads deviating from the customary round shape with the deep cross on top score zero points. This is also true of breads made with additional ingredients such as citrus peel, nuts, or seeds (other than caraway - which, while not strictly traditional, have become popular in some areas of Ireland.)
Overall, the judges are looking for an authentic bread - one that is fresh, well-shaped, flavored with soda, and has a bread-like texture. Since it is always best eaten straight from the oven, if you are entering a competition, bake your bread as close to the hour of the contest as possible and bring it wrapped tightly in foil. And don't worry about accessories. Unless the bread is for your own table, an entry wrapped in an Irish tea-towel and accompanied by little plates of Irish butter and/or whiskey marmalade won't earn extra points.
Any purchase made helps to support our site (since we don't live on bread alone). Thank you.
Wed, Mar 30, 2016
"...the freshest of food and
the oldest of drink"
- Irish Proverb
The New Irish Table
by Margaret Johnson
Margaret Johnsons love of Ireland permeates page after glorious page of mouthwatering Irish dishes, from Smoked Salmon Chowder to Raspberry Buttermilk Tarts. Lavish color photographs of the food, the landscapes, and the people are woven through the text, making The New Irish Table the next best thing to sitting down to dinner in Ireland itself.
Click here for New Irish Table.