Simple soda bread

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

"Eaten bread is forgotten," says an old Irish proverb. Figuratively speaking, there's probably something to that observation, but if you've ever eaten good Irish soda bread, you know that literally it's not true.

Irish soda bread, says award-winning cookbook author Jeanne Lemlin, is Ireland's greatest culinary legacy, one of the three things she remembers most from her visits to the country.

The other two are the friendliness of the people and the scenery.

Soda bread has been a specialty of Ireland since the late 19th century, a traditional accompaniment to the so-called "immutable trio" of meat, vegetables and potatoes that until recently constituted the typical Irish dinner. Even today in fashionable restaurants in Ireland, where food is as sophisticated as anywhere else in the world, they still make Irish soda bread. Nobody in Ireland would think of eating smoked salmon or Galway oysters without a few slices of brown soda bread on the side.

Soda bread, of course, gets its name from the fact that it employs bicarbonate of soda rather than yeast as the leavening agent, an idea which was born of necessity in Ireland. The Emerald Isle's climate is characterized by a small range of temperature changes -- one reason why it's always so green there. Without extreme heat and cold, hard winter wheat, the kind required if yeast is to do its work, does not thrive there. Instead, soft wheat prevails, and it produces soft flour that simply does not work well with yeast. Consequently Ireland did not develop a yeast bread tradition.

Contributing to the evolution of a soda bread culture was the fact that years ago Irish families typically cooked over glowing coals in their hearths, not in ovens. They used a device called a bastible, a three-legged iron pot with a flat lid, which was nestled in the coals. Hot coals were placed on top of the pot to ensure even baking. Alternatively, especially in the northern part of the country, they employed a flat iron griddle placed on a trivet at the side of an open fire with glowing coals underneath. Both utensils are ideally suited to the preparation of baked goods leavened by baking soda. Indeed, purists claim they are unsurpassed, even by modern gadgets, when it comes to making the most flavorful soda bread.

Traditionally Irish soda bread contained nothing more than flour, salt, soda and buttermilk (the acid which when combined with bicarbonate of soda produces carbon dioxide that makes the dough rise), but over the years, especially as immigrants brought the bread to these shores, all kinds of variations emerged. Today recipes might call for raisins, caraway seeds, dried figs, olives, sugar or honey, herbs like basil or rosemary and even chocolate chips.

Whether traditional or trendy, nothing could be easier to make than Irish soda bread. All you do is sift together the dry ingredients, add buttermilk, mix, plop onto a baking sheet, cut a cross into the top (to frighten away the devil or to let the fairies out), and bake. It's almost easier than running out to the store to buy a loaf. And it's almost as quick. So even if you follow the Gaelic admonition, "Ná mól an t-arán go mbruithtear é" (don't praise the bread until it is baked), you can be applauding your efforts in no time.

Golden-Raisin Irish Soda Bread

Of all the recipes for Irish soda bread I've run across, this one, which appeared in Gourmet Magazine 10 years ago, may very well be the best. It comes from County Cork.

Ingredients:

2 cups unbleached flour

1/4 cup toasted wheat germ

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 stick cold butter

1 cup golden raisins

1 cup buttermilk

Directions:

Whisk together flour, wheat germ, soda and salt. Cut butter into bits, add to flour, and toss to coat. Using fingertips, rub butter into flour until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add raisins and toss to coat. Add buttermilk and stir until dough is evenly moistened. Knead dough for 1 minute on floured surface, sprinkling with additional flour as needed to prevent sticking. Dough should remain soft. Shape dough into ball and pat out into a 6-inch round on lightly floured baking sheet. Sprinkle with flour and spread lightly over top. Cut shallow X in top and bake at 400 degrees for 35 to 45 minutes until golden brown. Wrap in kitchen towel and cool on rack for 1 hour. Unwrap and cool at least another hour before slicing.

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