Every year around this time, I can’t help myself from bringing home a corned beef from the store, to transform into the quintessential Irish American way of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. Admittedly, I am not even one bit Irish, but that hasn’t stopped me from learning to play the bagpipes (a story for another time) or make a traditional meal.
Technically speaking, corned beef and cabbage is not an authentic Irish meal, but something that developed in the melting pot as Irish immigrants rubbed elbows with other ethnic groups. In fact, some believe that the Irish first discovered corned beef from eating in Jewish delis and from food carts in the early years after emigrating from Ireland. At any rate, to me, what really makes the meal special is serving it with a loaf of Irish Soda Bread, which is truly authentic!
Irish Soda Bread is a quick bread, not requiring the time-consuming process of waiting for a yeast-based dough to rise; the Irish traditionally baked it fresh every day. For purists, there are only four basic ingredients in Irish Soda Bread: 1) flour; 2) baking soda; 3) buttermilk and 4) salt.
Scientifically speaking, the importance of the combination of baking soda and buttermilk is that the lactic acid present in the buttermilk combines with the baking soda to form carbon dioxide that acts as a leavening agent for the bread.
I stumbled on a website that dedicates itself to the preservation of Irish Soda Bread! Called, The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread, it contains a bit of history and several different recipes, including a gluten-free version. There are probably dozens of ways to make Irish Soda Bread, but I like to make it with raisins and caraway seeds.
I have been using the same recipe over the years from my very first cookbook I bought when I was in high school, The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker. Admittedly, this recipe is not strictly traditional, as it includes baking powder in addition to baking soda, as well as an egg in the dough, but it comes out very moist and the crust is quite crumbly and crisp, making an interesting combination of textures.
Irish Soda Bread
2 cups flour, sifted
1 ½ teaspoons double-acting baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon sugar
¼ cup chilled butter
½ – 1 cup raisins or currants
2 teaspoons caraway seeds
1 egg, beaten
⅔ cup buttermilk
Preheat oven to 375° Fahrenheit. Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar in a large bowl. Cut butter into dry ingredient mixture with a pastry blender until crumbly, like the consistency of corn meal. Stir in raisins and caraway seeds. I used a generous ½ cup of raisins in my loaf.
Mix together buttermilk and egg and add to dry ingredients, stirring until mostly well blended. Try not to over mix or dough can become tough. Turn out onto lightly floured surface and knead briefly until a bit more consistent.
Form loaf into a ball and place into a greased 8” round baking pan. Flatten the loaf slightly to fill in the pan with the dough.
Take a large knife and cut a big “X” or cross, across the top of the dough. This is to prevent the loaf from splitting during baking. Some tradition believes that this was also to ward off the devil! Take a brush and a bit of buttermilk and brush the top of the loaf lightly before baking. Bake 35 – 40 minutes or until crust is a light golden brown. Enjoy!
For a step-by-step video on how to make Irish Soda Bread, check out The Chopping Block’s Owner/Chef Shelley Young demonstrating how easy it is to make a loaf at home!
Éirinn go Brách! Ireland Forever!