Coming from a family environment where my main grandparental influence came from my maternal grandparents, I’m pretty well versed in all things Irish (and German- but that’s another post). My grandmother Agnes was full-blooded Irish, second generation born in New York, and my grandpa was 1/4 Irish, 3/4 German. My grandpa passed away when I was very small, about 6 years old. But my grandmother was with me my whole childhood and young adult life. She passed away when I was 30, so I’d say that from her I got a full course in Irish-American tradition. Tea was a big part of this. My grandma drank tea all day. ALL DAY. She never drank coffee, not unless it was a fancy coffee once in a while after dinner, or an Irish coffee at one of her favorite Irish pub/restaurants that me & Jay used to take her to. My whole life, tea was a major player in everything. If you were sick- have a hot cup of tea with honey or lemon (or both). Sad? Have a hot cup of tea with milk & sugar. And in the summer, as expected, there was always iced tea.
The same can be said for Irish soda bread. I’ve made all different kinds, ate all different kinds, both homemade & store-bought. My favorite still remains; the Irish soda cake. I could eat it morning, noon & night. But I still come up with new ones to try, despite my allegiance. And this one is a recipe I tore out of Gourmet or Bon Appétit ages ago and never made. It’s from Downey’s in Philadelphia, and the addition of dark brown sugar intrigued me.
Soda bread (Serbian: česnica/чесница, Irish: arán sóide, Scots: fardel) is a variety of quick bread traditionally made in a variety of cuisines in which sodium bicarbonate (otherwise known as baking soda) is used as a leavening agent instead of the more common yeast. The ingredients of traditional soda bread areflour, bread soda, salt, and buttermilk. The buttermilk in the dough contains lactic acid, which reacts with the baking soda to form tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide. Other ingredients can be added such as butter, egg, raisins or nuts.
In Ireland, the flour is typically made from soft wheat; so soda bread is best made with a cake or pastry flour (made from soft wheat), which has lower levels of gluten than a bread flour. In some recipes, the buttermilk is replaced by live yoghurt or even stout. Bakers recommend the minimum amount of mixing of the ingredients before baking; the dough should not be kneaded.
Various forms of soda bread are popular throughout Ireland. Soda breads are made using either wholemeal or white flour. In Ulster, the wholemeal variety is usually known as wheaten bread and normally sweetened, while the term “soda bread” is restricted to the white savoury form. In more southern parts of Ireland, the wholemeal variety is usually known as brown soda and is almost identical to the Ulster wheaten.
The Soda farl or “Griddle cakes”, “Griddle bread” (or “Soda farls” in Ulster) take a more rounded shape and have a cross cut in the top to allow the bread to expand. The griddle cake or farl is a more flattened type of bread. It is cooked on a griddle allowing it to take a more flat shape and split into four sections. The Soda Farl is one of the distinguishing elements of the Ulster Fry, where it is served alongside potato bread, also in farl form.
MY VERSION OF DOWNEY’S IRISH SODA BREAD
- 2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
- 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour plus 2 tablespoons, plus additional for dusting
- 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons packed dark brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 sticks unsalted butter, softened and cut into pieces
- 4 tablespoons well-shaken buttermilk at room temperature
- 1 large eggs at room temperature, lightly beaten
- Preheat oven to 425° F with rack in the middle.
- Blend flours, brown sugar, baking soda, salt and butter in a large bowl with a pastry blender or your fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal.
- Stir in buttermilk and eggs until smooth dough forms. Transfer to a lightly floured surface and divide into small round individual loaves (I got four). Space them evenly on a lightly floured baking sheet. Sprinkle with flour, and cut an X in the top of each loaf with a sharp knife.
- Bake 20 minutes, then reduce oven to 375° F and continue to bake until a wooden pick or skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, about 15 minutes.
- Transfer loaves to a rack to cool. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature with butter, creme fraiche, marmalade or jam.
- Bread is best the day it’s made, but can be frozen. Just wrap it tightly in 2 layers of foil and freeze no longer than one month. Refresh, wrapped in foil in a 325° oven until heated through, about 20 minutes.
This recipe can be made into one large, round loaf or doubled and made into either three long “baguette” style loaves or two large round loaves.
You can feel free to add raisins (or Jameson soaked raisins) or caraway seeds, if you wish. I come from a family that happens to prefer it plain, as do I, so I rarely if ever add anything to it. It’s best, like stated above, the same day. But I wrapped it in foil and reheated it slightly the next day & it was perfect. Also, it’s just personal preference as to what to serve with it. If you’re having it with a meal, then butter is the norm. If you’re serving it with tea or coffee or as a snack, then jam, orange marmalade, clotted cream or creme fraiche is good. But it’s great plain too.
And I must say, as much as my old standby recipe is my favorite, this one was really, really good too. If you never found a soda bread you like.. I suggest you try making some of your own, that way you can tweak it and add or subtract the elements you want to. You just might end up a fan.