Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
Sift the flour, sugar, bicarbonate of soda, and salt into a large bowl, and make a well in the center. Pour in most of the buttermilk, leaving about 2 ounces in the measuring cup. Using one hand with your fingers outstretched like a claw, bring the flour and liquid together, adding more buttermilk, if necessary. Do not knead the mixture or it will become heavy. The dough should be soft, but not too wet and sticky.
When the dough comes together, turn it out onto a floured work surface, and bring it together a little more. Pat the dough into a round, about 1 1/2-inches deep, and cut a deep cross in it.
Place the round on a baking tray, and bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, then turn down the heat to 400 degrees F, and cook for 30 minutes more. When cooked, the loaf will sound slightly hollow when tapped on the base and be golden in color.
Cook's Note: I often turn it upside down for the last 5 minutes of cooking.
Allow to cool on a wire rack.
White Soda Scones: Make the dough as above but flattened into a round approximately 2 1/2 1-inch deep. Cut into scones, and cook for 15 to 20 minutes at 450 degrees F.
White Soda Bread or Scones with Herbs: Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of freshly chopped herbs, such as rosemary, sage, thyme, chives, parsley or lemon balm, to the dry ingredients, and make as above.
Spotted Dog: Add 3 1/2 ounces sultanas (golden raisins), raisins or currants, or a mixture of all three, to the dry ingredients, and make as above.
We bake this bread every day at the cookery school, and it is very quick and simple to make at home, too. This is the basic recipe but there are so many sweet and savory variations that you can try - chocolate, raisins, cinnamon, cubes of crispy bacon, cheese, herbs . . . the possibilities are endless.
The deep cross in the loaf is supposed to let out the fairies - so that the bread won't be jinxed by evil spirits! In reality, of course, it's just to allow the heat to penetrate the loaf as it's cooking.