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Making Irish Soda Bread in the New World

Irish Soda Bread is denser than Americans expect bread to be; not (usually) a yeast bread so it has more of a biscuit texture; not really sweet although it can be; sometimes the vehicle for what seems to be incongruous optional ingredients; real food for dreamers on a cold day.

Margaret came in with more tea and left me a plate of store bought bread, of the sponge variety, while Peter and Mick were both given a couple of slices each of a homebaked soda bread, butter melting into its warm uneveness. I was too bold and foolish to let that pass. "Margaret, do you have any more of that homebaked bread you can spare?" She looked a bit surprised and I wondered whether having shared a few dances and a couple of songs with her allowed I could be so bold. She replied quietly, "Whenever my sister and her family come to visit they will take nothing else but the packaged bread. They won't touch my own bread." She smiled. "I have more." -- Sounding the Hearthstone by Danny Hathaway.

So... the night is cold, the moon almost full, you are a bit downhearted about this or that? Time for some soda bread. The ingredients are in the table at the page bottom, one column per type based on complexity. The footnotes are here at the beginning, go figure.

For all:

  1. Make a decision about your souring liquid. You need it to make the baking soda work properly. You can use buttermilk OR buttermilk powder with the requisite amount of water or milk. I have also on occasion used sour cream or yogurt diluted with water 2:1, but at that point we're into the scone end of the spectrum.
  2. Sift all dry ingredients together.
  3. Cut in shortening (if called for) until the flour mixture is the texture of cornmeal. You do not not want big lumps of butter and you do not want melted butter. My approach to getting the butter into the bread: I slice cool butter very very thin and drop it into the flour mixture one a a time. Then I quickly crumble with hands. If the day is hot, cool the flour in the refrigerator a bit first.
  4. Wet ingredients: for a 2-cup-flour recipe, an egg in the bottom of a one-cup measure and topped with the other wet ingredients will usually work out well. Then beat all wet ingredients together.
  5. Make a well in the dry ingredients and stir in the wet ingredients lightly.
  6. Turn out on a floured board and knead very very quickly and lightly to make sure the dough is more smooth than rough. You want a soft, almost sticky dough, so easy on the flour.

Irish, Minimal: flour, amplified. I put this in here for reference; I made it once. Just because. Gives you an idea of what is not strictly neccessary. Can be a bit tricky to cook through: make sure you make a deep X cut.

American, Minimal: This recipe can be doubled.

Treacle Farl: can be doubled.

Treacle seems to have two meanings in the UK: golden syrup (light) or dark treacle (similar to our molasses). You could use either but molasses or dark treacle will set off the ginger taste better. Due to the very light amount of flavoring, this bread works well with butter or syrup or preserves on top; it adds just the right amount of background flavor. By itself, it is not notable.

Yeasted Irish Soda Bread: uses both soda and yeast, as well as some whole wheat flour. This is why 5 minutes of kneading and an hour of rising is called for.

  Irish, Minimal American, Minimal Treacle Farl Yeasted Soda Bread
White all purpose flour 4 c 2 c 2 c 3 c
Whole wheat flour       1 c
Baking powder   1/2 T    
Baking soda 1 t 1/2 t 1/2 t 1.5 t
salt 1 t 1/2 t 1/8 t 1 t
Sugar 1 t 1 to 4 T 2 T 1/2 c
Sour liquid 2 c buttermilk 2/3 c buttermilk 7/8 c 1.5 c
Water, warm       1 c
Dry yeast       2 t
egg   1   2
butter   1/4 c 2 T 2 T
Caraway seeds
or Anise seeds
  1 T   3 T
Currants   1/2 c   1 c
or Coriander
  1/8 t    
Ginger     1/4 t  
Dark molasses     1 T
Maura Enright, Proprietor
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