Saint Patrick's day is just around the corner---which means green beer, corned beef and cabbage, and Irish soda bread. The green beer you can keep. I tried it once and got sick as a dog. Corned beef and cabbage I like. But it's Irish soda bread I love. I can eat a whole loaf by itself just with butter. It's particular consistency and taste is delightful. So imagine my chagrin when I found out the Irish didn't invent Irish soda bread. Baking soda, which is used as leavening agent instead of yeast, has been around for centuries. In fact, if anyone can be credited with inventing "Irish" soda bread it is Native American Indians, who used soda ash or "pearl ash" to leaven their bread. The chemical compound, bicarbonate of soda, wasn't used in Ireland before the 1840s. So how did the Irish come to claim this bread as their own? And this, like most things, comes down to economics. Hard wheat flour, the kind used today by almost everyone, requires yeast so that the bread can rise and then be baked. Back then, as in most poor countries, the Irish had access to only soft wheat flour, which doesn't do well with yeast but is great for quick breads such as Irish soda bread. Another factor was that most Irish homes did not have ovens, they had open hearths, thus the breads were baked on griddles or big iron pots over open flames. This meant the Irish remained with soft wheat flour and soda bread, while Britain and the Americas stayed with hard wheat flour and yeast.
Mush has changed since the bad old days. And today Irish soda bread is an international favorite not only in Ireland here but also here the U.S., and elsewhere. Another tidbit: why, in some parts of Ireland, do they still cut a cross on top of the bread with a knife? Ostensibly this is to ward off the devil and keep evil spirits away from the home. Whether you buy this or not is immaterial---the bread does warm the tummy.
Here is my own recipe for Irish soda bread. I got it years ago from someone, I can't remember who (most probably during a bash in some pub on St. Paddy's Day); but it's a favorite with family and friends, Irish or otherwise.
IRISH SODA BREAD
4 cups flour (and more as needed)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 stick butter
2 cups buttermilk
1 cup raisins
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
2. In a large bowl, stir together the flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and sugar. Cut in the butter. Make a well in the center and add the buttermilk. Mix lightly and quickly to make a wet dough. Fold in the raisins.
3. Turn out on a floured board, and add a little more flour as needed. Knead ten times or more.
4. Shape into a 7 or 8-inch loaf pan which has been lightly greased (with Crisco shortening). With a knife, cut a cross on top of the bread. Place in oven and bake for 45 minutes or until golden. The bread is done when a knife stuck in the middle, comes out clean. Turn the loaf out onto a cooling rack and let it cool briefly before slicing.
Yield: Makes one loaf (4 servings or more).
Labels: Bread, Crisco, Ireland, Irish, Leavening agent, Saint Patrick's Day, Soda bread, Sodium bicarbonate