Every March when I was growing up, my mother would make several loaves of Irish Soda Bread throughout the month, and this is one of my favorite food memories from my childhood. Now that my parents spend their winters in Florida, it's up to me to carry on her tradition.
Soda bread is a quick bread and doesn't require any yeast or long-rising process because the baking soda and buttermilk combine to react as the leavening agent. I am thankful for this important detail, because you won't believe how easy it is to make a beautiful loaf of Irish soda bread. This week, I made three loaves of Irish soda bread, using my mother's recipe and another, more traditional method.
Purists argue that traditional Irish soda bread is a simple mix of flour, baking soda, salt and buttermilk, and the recipe I used from The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread doesn't waver in this belief.
The Society's recipe had me bake the bread in a covered cake pan initially, but you could use a covered Dutch oven, instead. This traditional version was the most versatile of the three loaves I made and produced a lovely loaf of white bread with a densely soft crumb and pretty, golden crust.
My mother's recipe came from the 1969 Farm Journal cookbook "Homemade Bread," and deviates from tradition with the controversial additions of egg, butter, sugar, raisins, caraway seeds and an egg. This bread is slightly sweet with a lovely, dense crumb.
In her version, my mother substituted half of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat flour, which gave the bread a lovely color and flavor. She also omitted the caraway seeds and raisins, as none of us cared for those add-ins as children. I made one loaf exactly as she did, and then I made another loaf, this time adding currants and caraway seeds as suggested in the original recipe.
While similar in style, each version has its own distinct personality. The current and caraway bread is delicious and would be excellent for breakfast with butter and jam, or as a treat with coffee, tea or milk.
My mom's version is just as good but more versatile; again, good for breakfast, but it would also be great with a hearty stew, chili or soup.
To promote even baking, the recipe suggests baking the bread in a two-quart casserole, but I used a round cake pan, instead. A baking sheet would also work, but this resulted in a darker crust on the bottom of the bread when I tried it.
Before baking, I cut an X into the top of each loaf to release the fairies, following Irish tradition, but really this just helps the bread bake better.
I'm lucky that all three versions of Irish soda bread were easy to make, stylistically different and equally well received (and that's no blarney). Erin go Bragh and Happy St. Patrick's Day!
My Mother's Irish Soda Bread
Lightly adapted from The Farm Journal Bread Cookbook
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
2 cups whole wheat flour, sifted
¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
¼ cup unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes, chilled
1 cup currants or 1 ½ cups raisins
1 ½ cups buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 egg yolk, beaten, for brushing on top of bread
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease an 8 or 9-inch cake pan; set aside.
Sift together both flours, sugar, salt and baking powder, then whisk to combine. Stir in caraway seeds. Use a fork, pastry blender, or your fingertips to cut in butter until mixture looks like coarse meal; stir in currants or raisins.
In a small bowl, combine buttermilk, 1 egg and baking soda; use a fork to stir into flour mixture, just enough to moisten dry ingredients. Do not overmix.
Turn dough onto floured surface and knead lightly until dough is smooth. Shape into a ball and place in the prepared cake pan. For two smaller loaves, divide the ball in half and form two smaller balls; place in separate pans for baking.
Use a sharp knife to cut a 4-inch cross at least a half-inch deep in the center of the dough (this makes a decorative top). Brush top and sides with egg yolk.
Bake at 375 degrees for about 50 to 60 minutes, until a wooden pick inserted in center of loaf comes out clean. The bottom of the bread will have a hollow sound when tapped to show that it is done.
Remove from oven and place pan on a wire rack; cool for 10 minutes. To serve, cut into thin slices, starting at one end. Excellent served warm from the oven, or toasted.
Wrap loaf in tin foil or plastic wrap and store at room temperature for several days. Can be frozen for at least two months, either whole or sliced.
Traditional White Soda Bread
Adapted from a recipe from The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
14 ounces buttermilk (1 ¾ cups)
Extra flour for dusting
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Lightly grease and flour an 8 or 9-inch cake pan. In a large bowl, use a sifter or mesh sieve to combine the dry ingredients (flour, soda, salt). Add the buttermilk and lightly stir with a fork or wooden spoon to form a sticky dough.
Turn dough out onto a floured surface and lightly knead (too much allows the gas to escape). Shape dough into a ball, lightly flattening the top just a bit. Generously dust the top with flour and transfer dough to the prepared cake pan.
Use a sharp knife to cut a 4-inch cross in the center of the dough, at least a half-inch deep. Cover the pan with another round cake pan and bake for 30 minutes; remove cover and bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes until the top is golden brown and a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean. The bottom of the bread will have a hollow sound when tapped to show that it is done.
Cool for 10 minutes, then remove bread from pan and slice to serve, or continue cooling on the rack.
"Home With the Lost Italian" is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owned Sarello's in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 12-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at email@example.com.