Irish soda bread comes to mind as St. Patrick’s Day approaches. I enjoy it during that last little bit of cool weather we get prior to the fires of Hades just around the corner. It’s one of the easiest breads to make, especially if you have a stand mixer, but I don’t always think about it.
When we start slapping on the green, shamrock-ing the wreath on the front door and thawing out the brisket for the corned beef, I get to pining for soda bread. So, what is it?
Basically, Irish soda bread gets its name from its lack of yeast. There is no waiting to rise. The baking soda does the trick, with a little help from the acidic buttermilk. It’s associated with a crunchy, crispy crust and tender insides. If it comes out dry, you’ve made a mistake. We credit the Irish with the bread’s humble beginnings, sometime near or during the great potato famine, but most scholars will tell you the Irish got the idea from Native Americans.
At any rate, I’ve not had a lot of experience in Native American restaurants, but have been to a few Irish-American restaurants and pubs. No matter which culture started it, I admit my appreciation.
It’s best at breakfast with eggs and a roasted tomato, bangers on the side. The fat from Irish butter is different from what you’re used to. Splurge the extra dollar and thank me later. You can use true currants or their raisin cousins for a sweeter flavor. Caraway seeds are often used, instead. Use both or none at all.
Decide if you prefer the savory or the sweet. If it’s savory you’re after, try scaling back on the sugar. Add a couple more tablespoons of sugar if your target is in the other direction. Variations on a theme could include citrus zest, nuts or perhaps cheese.
Everyone cuts a “cross” into the top. Some say this is to let the devil out. Well, let him out, then! It’s heavenly on the inside. There’s no room for Satan in there. Exorcise your baked goods with a little slice or two, but take care to not go too deep. Saint Patrick himself would not be happy with the blade.
Slice it fairly thin while a little warm. It’s more versatile than you’d think, depending upon which direction you take it. Either way, it’s really good with blue cheese. Spreadable, creamy cheeses go well with the crunchiness, as does the aforementioned Irish butter. If you use the raisins or the zest, any kind of citrus marmalade will be great over toast, or with ham and a neutral cheese.
Use soda bread for your next bread pudding recipe. Chances are it already has raisins in it, right?
It sounds a bit much, but Irish French toast is wonderful. You could even make a grilled cheese sandwich dipped in egg yolk and fried in the same manner. Try an English or Irish cheddar when available.
For the less sweet bread, the corned beef sandwich will make the Irish holiday leftovers that much easier to go down. If you’re not into sandwiches (say it ain’t so!), you can use this to sop up the juice. It’s also the perfect choice for a Guinness and cheese fondue.
4 cups all-purpose flour and then some
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons butter
1 3/4 cups buttermilk
1 cup currants (or raisins)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, or use a cast iron skillet for a crispier bottom.
This recipe is easiest when you employ the use of a stand mixer. But the Irish have been doing this since long before KitchenAid made its mark on the Food Network. You could use a hand mixer or even a pastry cutter. Start by mixing the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add in the cold butter and mix it until it disappears into the flour.
In a separate bowl, beat an egg. Add to that freshly shaken, cold buttermilk and whisk together. Add this to the dry ingredients and mix well, but slowly. Your stand mixer should be at low speed.
Dust the currants or raisins in flour and add to the mixture.
On a well-floured surface, knead the dough a few times and form a round loaf. Using a serrated knife, lightly score the top with an “x” or “cross” shape. This doesn’t have to be a very pretty endeavor. Bake for about 45 minutes. The finished product should have a hollow sound when you knock it with your knuckles.
Cool on a rack for 10 minutes or so, slice and serve. With your favorite redhead, of course.
It’s not easy being green, but your celebration can include anything as long as it suits the color scheme. Guacamole is Irish if you pound green beer with it. I have a student who was raised waking up early each March 17 to a plate of green cupcakes and cookies left by leprechauns. We didn’t have any leprechauns in Laurel, Mississippi, so that’s a new one to me. I’m hopeful our short Crichton friend makes his way to Midtown. My kids would love it, but red-headed Thunderpuss may take exception. That cat is territorial, even when you come bearing gifts.
Keep the Guinness flowing, the Bushmills and Jameson at least two fingers deep, and the soda bread nice and toasty. Have fun with this one.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
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