One thing I thought I knew was how to make a traditional Irish soda bread. Growing up, March signaled soda bread season, which extended from the flipping of the calendar to the wearing of the green. I watched my mother fashion sturdy loaves from flour, baking soda, salt and buttermilk, sugar, eggs, raisins and butter. We’d cut thick still-warm slabs of it, slather on the salted butter and homemade jam, and enjoy it any time of day with mugs of black tea with cream. When I moved out of the house, my severance package included a copy of Aunt Eileen’s traditional Irish soda bread recipe.
In the spirit of St. Patrick, who gave Ireland a famous myth and metaphor — the myth being that he drove the snakes out of Ireland; the metaphor, the image of a three-leaf clover (shamrock) as an illustration of the Holy Trinity — I thought I’d give my recipe for Irish soda bread on St. Patrick’s Day. Before boasting in print that my recipe was the real deal, I did a little Internet recognizance to endorse its authenticity.
Enter the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread (http://www.sodabread.info), pre-eminent Internet domain for all things soda bread: history, recipes, pictures, FAQ — and even soda bread apparel.
Site administrator Ed O’Dwyer is a passionate advocate of distinguishing traditional Irish soda bread from impostors. The real deal has only been in existence since the mid-1840s, when sodium bicarbonate was introduced as a leavening agent for Ireland’s “soft” wheat. It contains flour, baking soda, salt and buttermilk only. No raisins (that’s “spotted dog”), no sugar and eggs (that’s a cake), and certainly no orange zest or jalapeños, which weren’t geographically available.
“If they had it, they would have used it,” said my mother.
Fair enough. Nevertheless, O’Dwyer offers a compelling argument for removing “traditional” from Aunt Eileen’s recipe title:
“Would ‘French Bread’ (15th century) still be ‘French Bread’ if whiskey, raisins or other random ingredients were added to the mix? Would Jewish matzo (unleavened bread) used to remember the passage of the Israelites out of Egypt still be matzo if we add raisins, butter, sugar, eggs and even orange zest? So why is traditional ‘Irish Soda Bread’ (19th century) turned into a dessert and labeled ‘Traditional Irish Soda Bread?’”
According to the preservation society’s standards, what I bake would be more aptly titled “Aunt Eileen’s Irish Soda Cake with Raisins” or “Aunt Eileen’s Sweetened Spotted Dog.” For that matter, Eileen’s not really my aunt; she’s my mother’s best friend from kindergarten. They became friends when Eileen stapled her finger to her Easter bonnet and my mother was recruited to take her to the bathroom to wash up.
For comparison’s sake, I made the official White Soda Bread recipe from the Society’s website: 4 cups all-purpose flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon salt and 14 oz. of buttermilk. The method differed in two notable ways. I cut a cross into the top of the unbaked dough and covered the cake pan with another pan for the first 30 minutes of baking. What resulted was a beautiful, easy-to-cut golden loaf with a subtle sour tanginess and thick crunchy crust. Without the sugar and raisins, it proved more versatile than its cakey cousin. It accommodated butter and jam as easily as it soaked up the errant barbecue sauce during a pork rib dinner. I will gladly add this recipe to my repertoire.
As for Aunt Eileen’s soda bread, it may not be in the Irish tradition, but it’s in my tradition. This week, I’ll be making a half dozen for family and friends. If you’re going to try it, I recommend fresh eggs and Kate’s Real Buttermilk (available at Hannaford), with a pat of Kate’s Homemade Sea-Salted Butter on each slice, and some Irish Breakfast Tea.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all, and “Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh!” — which I hope means “St. Patrick’s Day blessings upon you!” and not something scurrilous.++