With St. Patrick's Day approaching, I decided to finally try my hand at Irish Soda Bread. I tweaked a recipe in my Farm Journal cookbook to make it sweeter and to substitute raisins for currants. It was a hit! It's great fresh out of the oven or as toast.
I was curious about the origins of Irish Soda Bread and found out it's actually a pretty recent (1800's) recipe. Baking soda, in its pot ash form, had been used by Native Americans for centuries as a leavening agent in baked goods. During the 19th-century, baking soda was made commercially available in Ireland and became especially popular among the peasants and poorer classes. Irish wheat tended to be "soft", which did not work well in yeast breads. They found that combining baking soda with buttermilk could be used to leaven bread in place of yeast and actually cooked better on their open hearths.
Originally, soda bread contained only flour (whole wheat flour for daily use and white flour for special occasions), buttermilk, baking soda, and salt. A cross was cut in the top of the dough to help it cook more evenly, although some believe the cross design helped to ward off evil. The dough was placed in a covered cast iron pot, called a bastible, and placed on the hot embers to cook. Today, Irish Soda Bread is usually made with eggs, sugar, and butter in addition to the traditional ingredients. Adding raisins or currants is a variation called "Spotted Dog".
Recipe: Irish Soda Bread
4 cups flour
2/3 cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 1/3 cups buttermilk (* or see directions below for making buttermilk substitute)
1 cup raisins or currants
2 tblsp. caraway seeds (optional)
1 tblsp. sugar
1 tblsp. warm water
In a large bowl, mix together first 5 ingredients and caraway seeds. With pastry blender, cut in butter until coarse crumbs form. Stir in currants or raisins.
In a small bowl, mix buttermilk and egg. Add to currant mixture and stir until moistened. Knead 12 times. Shape into a ball and place in greased 2-quart casserole dish or pie plate. With a sharp knife, cut a 4'' across, 1/2" deep cross on top.
Bake at 375 degrees F for 55 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from dish and place on cooling rack. Mix together glaze and brush over hot bread.
Makes 1 large loaf.
* Buttermilk or sour milk is necessary to react with the baking soda. To make buttermilk substitute: Add 1 1/3 tblsp. lemon juice or white vinegar to a bowl. Add slightly less than 1 1/3 cup milk and stir. Allow to rest for at least 15 minutes.
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