Irish Soda Bread: Is it Actually Irish?
March brings with it the hope of spring, at least in New York (and the nagging fear that we could still have one more big snow storm), and all that comes with the new season -- crocuses peeping out of the earth, nesting robins, and overeager fashion-lovers prematurely donning sandals outdoors.
For me, March has always meant the start of Good Bread Season: Irish Soda Bread in March, followed by Easter Bread in March or April. In my family, my mom made these breads, two of my favorite foods since the start of my solid food-eating life, only for their requisite holidays, St. Patrick's Day and Easter. Irish Soda Bread never reappeared as Christmas Bread or Happy Birthday Bread, and Easter Bread was never reincarnated as Sorry Your Hamster Died Bread or Just Because Bread. I accepted that it must be this way to preserve tradition and make those holidays really special. And with Irish Soda Bread, since it's a traditional Irish food, it should be served only on the one day of the year when my family celebrated its partially Irish heritage.
A quick Google search will reveal that Irish Soda Bread is no more Irish than fortune cookies are Chinese. There's a really in-depth explanation of the bread's history over on MSNBC, but essentially, Irish Soda Bread as we know it is an American take on basic table bread eaten in Ireland; a quick bread made with inexpensive baking soda instead of the pricier yeast. The caraway seeds, raisins, currants that some recipes call for are all American variations and would not have been served in Ireland way-back-when, and the table bread would have been an everyday staple, and not just served on a special day, alongside corned beef and cabbage and green beer.
So there you go. Irish Soda Bread isn't really Irish. But there's no Santa, and that doesn't make Christmas any less awesome, does it? I'll be sticking with my beloved traditions and will make my Irish Great-Aunt Lillian's soda bread recipe on the 17th, even though it's not really Irish, and probably not even Aunt Lil's -- it's likely she tore it out of Woman's Day in the '60's or picked up the recipe from a neighbor.
Aunt Lil's Irish Soda Bread
Sift flour, measure and add sugar, raisins, baking powder and shortening. Add baking soda to the buttermilk then beat in egg. Make a well in the dry ingredients; add the wet ingredients quickly. Mix gently to form ball, using your hands or a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Do not overmix. Drop the dough onto a lightly floured surface to form loaves. Cut cross in top. Place on greased pan. Bake 360 degrees F for 50 minutes or until tester comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes before turning out.
Irish Soda Bread is super-easy to make. You don't even need to use a mixer (but I like to). A flour sifter will help, but if you don't have one, you can use a fine sieve to sift the flour.
It's important to remember no to overmix your ingredients. Irish Soda Bread is a dense bread, similar to a scone, but can easily become dry if overmixed. Quickly add the wet ingredients to a well you've made in the dry ingredients, and mix with your hands or a dough hook until it just comes together. And I know what you're thinking. Shortening. I usually avoid it, but with this recipe, I'm afraid to substitute. You can try, but I always use Crisco, just get the kind that promises no transfat.
When you're ready to form the loaf, lightly flour your work surface so the dough doesn't stick, but don't use too much flour so that a bunch works into the bread. You don't want to knead the bread, just gently form a loaf. This recipe makes one round loaf, but you can make two smaller loaves if you prefer. The cross in the top of the bread is both scientific and superstitious -- it serves to allow the bread to cook evenly at its thickest part, and also serves to let the devil out of the bread. So don't skip this step if you're worried about that.
To serve: In my opinion, corned beef and cabbage is optional (I loathe boiled meat of any kind, sorry) but butter is not. Slather a big slice with a schmear of softened butter, and serve, often, maybe not just for St. Pat's .