Irish Soda Bread

There are many traditional baked goods in Ireland that have evolved over the centuries. From the earliest times, bread-making was an integral part of daily life in almost every home. Families lived in isolated farmhouses where most kitchens had only open hearths, not ovens, so the breads that developed were baked on griddles or in large three-legged black iron pots over fragrant turf fires. The aroma and taste of traditional soda bread is unique to Ireland, and it's become the established favorite with tourists and locals alike.

Leavening

Buttermilk and soda were the main raising agents used in the past, and the use of these prime ingredients has never lapsed. Buttermilk is a great preservative, but more importantly it gives soda bread and scones that beautiful tender crumb for which they are famous.

Traditions

Even though there is an abundance of readily available, good-quality breads in supermarkets today, quite a few Irish families still bake their own daily from specially treasured recipes passed down through the generations.

In most parts of Ireland, soda bread is shaped and baked as a round loaf with a cross marked on top.

You may be surprised to learn that it isn't a religious symbol at all, nor was it to let the fairies out. In the old days, it was simply a practical method of dividing the baked bread into four quarters.

In the North of the country, soda bread is cooked on a flat griddle pan and comes in triangular shapes called farls. The name originates from the Gaelic word fardel, meaning "fourth part." The dough is flattened into a round disc and divided into four equal triangular shapes. The bread cooks quickly on a hot dry griddle or frying pan. Each farl is then split in half and eaten warm.

Farls are also very popular fried in bacon fat and served as part of the infamous Irish breakfast. It's believed that soda-bread farls evolved this way because it is the fastest method of cooking bread when unexpected guests arrive for a bit of banter.

Since soda bread is a simple bread to make and can be rustled up in minutes, an astonishing number of variations exist: wheaten, with raisins and caraway seeds, the treacle variety, or simply plain--all equally irresistible.

There's no doubting, however, that soda bread tastes best still warm from the oven, spread with lashings of butter and homemade rhubarb jam and washed down with that essential cuppa tea.

 

Saint Patrick's Day Irish Soda Bread:

3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1-1/2 cups raisins
1 egg
1/2 cup honey (use heater honey if you can find it)
1 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350F.
Butter a heavy skillet or casserole, 10" to 11" and 2" or 3" deep.
Sift the flour, baking powder, soda and salt together.
Cut in the butter until the mixture resembles peas.
Add the raisins and toss to distribute evenly.
Beat the egg in another bowl until very frothy.
Beat in the honey.
Beat in the buttermilk.
Gradually stir into the flour.
Pour into prepared pan.
Bake about an hour or until the middle is set.
Cut into wedges and serve warm from the pan.

Irish Barmbrack

4-5 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
pinch of salt
1/2 cup butter
2-1/2 teaspoons dry active yeast
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 eggs
1/2 ounces golden raisins
1/2 pound currants
1/2 cup chopped candied orange and/or lemon peel
1/2 cup lukewarm milk

Combine yeast, a pinch of the sugar, and milk; let sit 5 minutes.
Sift the flour, nutmeg, salt, and remaining sugar together.
Rub butter into flour mixture.
Beat the eggs with the yeast/milk mixture.
Add liquid to the dry ingredients and beat well until batter is stiff.
Fold in currants, raisins, and peel.
Pour into a greased 8" cake pans so that the mixture fills half way up the pan.
Cover with a cloth and leave to rise in a warm place until mixture has doubled in size (about 1 hour). Brush top of the dough with a little beaten egg to give a glaze and bake at 400F for 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.