This time of year, Irish soda breads start popping up in bakeries everywhere. They are either dry and chalky or delicious and decadent, in which case they obviously contain relatively expensive ingredients, which is pretty improbable in a bread ostensibly born of frugality at the hands of Irish potato farmers. More irritating to me, however, is the fact that most of the loaves you find in bakeries are obviously yeasted, which, I mean, come on, really? It’s soda bread, as in baking soda. Harumph.
So while this recipe is clearly not authentic (why hello there, butter and sugar and eggs! Fancy meeting you here!), at least it makes no pretenses about what it is. It’s not a loaf of yeast bread that has been formed into a boule and slashed (slashed! Just try doing that to a soda bread batter!), and the recipe helpfully includes the descriptor “American,” cluing you into the fact that peasant food it’s not. Authentic it may not be, but honest it surely is.
Because of that, I like to think that this is a bread that my maternal grandmother would approve of. She was 100% Irish and took delight in her heritage. When I think of the time spent in her house when I was young, the Irish proverbs are one of the first-and-foremost elements in the settings of those memories. So when my Mom was visiting me over St Patrick’s Day in 2008, we decided to honor Muggsy and try several new recipes for the holiday. The results had highs and lows: we swore off ever again making pistachio cookies that had instant pudding in them (they had a really unpleasant mouth-feel) but this recipe became an instant favorite. I always make it along with my corned beef and cabbage and serve it for dessert. The left-overs make an excellent breakfast bread. So, from my Irish family to yours (whether you’re Irish or not), I hope you enjoy this bread and that it makes you feel a little greener this St Paddy’s Day!
(Note: I had been preparing to make this recipe in just a few days’ time when I learned that I’d have to cut out dairy for my daughter’s sake. I was a bit devastated because I’ve literally been looking forward to this bread for months, but not being one to slink away with my tail between my legs, I resolved to adapt it for my new dietary restrictions. I admit that I was skeptical going into the mixing and baking but was very pleasantly surprised when I finally tasted it. It’s a very close facsimile of the original and far exceeded my expectations. If you’re sensitive to dairy, please do give the dairy-free version at the end of the recipe a try and let me know how you like it.)
Irish-American Soda Bread
From King Arthur Flour’s Whole-Grain Baking book
6 tablespoons (3oz) unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing pan (see variations
below for dairy-free)
3/4 cup (5 1/4oz) sugar
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups (8oz) whole-wheat flour, divided (either traditional or white whole-wheat)
1 1/2 cups buttermilk, divided (see variations
below for dairy-free)
1 cup (4 1/4oz) all-purpose flour
2/3 cup dried currants, firmly packed
1/3 cup golden raisins, firmly packed
2 teaspoons caraway seeds
1 tablespoon milk, for glaze
1 tablespoon coarse sugar, for topping
Pre-heat the oven to 325F. Lightly grease an 8-inch round pan, spring-form pan, souffle dish, 1 1/2-quart round casserole dish, or panettone pan. The sides of your pan should be at least 3 inches high.
Combine the all-purpose flour with the currants and raisins. Work them into the flour, breaking up any clumps of stuck-together fruit and coating each individual piece with flour (which will prevent them from sticking together in the batter).
Beat together the butter and sugar in a large bowl until smooth. Add the eggs and beat on high speed until the mixture is thick and light-colored, about 2 minutes. Stir in the baking powder, baking soda, and salt, then 1 cup of the whole-wheat flour. Gently beat in half of the buttermilk then another cup of the flour. Add the remaining buttermilk and the flour-currant-raisin mixture, mixing until smooth. Stir in the caraway seeds.
Turn the dough into the prepared pan. Drizzle the milk over it and sprinkle with the coarse sugar.
Bake the bread until a cake-tester inserted into the center comes out clean, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. If you’re using a ceramic pan, check the bread at 1 hour. Tent a sheet of foil over the top for the final 15 minutes if it appears to be browning too quickly. Remove the bread from the oven, wait about 5 minutes, then run a dull knife around the edges to loosen them before carefully turning it out onto a rack to cool, right-side up. Allow the bread to cool for at least 1 hour before slicing. Serve with a good Irish butter (like Kerrygold).
To make this dairy-free: substitute an equal amount of lard (or veg-shortening of your choice, if you want to keep it vegetarian) for the butter. This makes for a very tender loaf. I can get good, fresh, must-be-refrigerated un-hydrogenated lard since I live in Amish country and it’s one of my cooking fats of choice. To make dairy-free buttermilk, pour 1 1/2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice into a measuring cup. Fill the cup to 1 1/2 cups with either soy-milk or almond-milk (I used unsweetened vanilla-flavored almond-milk with good results, but I think that soy might have a more buttermilk-like consistency). Let sit for a few minutes so the lemon juice can do its thing. Omit the milk glaze at the end, but do dust the dough with coarse sugar.